The Need for Systems Thinking in the Chemical Sciences
The environment in which chemistry takes place is not just the immediate walls of the test tube
or reaction flask – beyond these is the whole world. In this larger setting, the conduct of
chemistry impacts on many interconnected systems.
Consider, for example, the life cycle of a chemical product (see figure below):
- Chemical reactions, whether they are small-scale laboratory or large-scale manufacturing
processes, generate waste materials that need to be managed – including containment,
disposal and recycling – in a safe and sustainable manner.
- The raw materials used, whether they are natural resources or other manufactured
intermediates, must be sourced efficiently, cleanly, safely and sustainably.
- The products of manufacture may find very diverse uses, including household, medical,
industrial and agricultural applications in which they come into contact with people,
animals and the environment – and they must therefore be tested to ensure their
biological and environmental safety.
- After use, the products or their consequent waste must be disposed of or recycled
efficiently, cleanly, safely and sustainably.
- At every stage, the ‘chemistry system’ in which the product is manufactured,
used and disposed of is interacting with the ‘human system’. Actions involving
chemistry don't just ‘happen’: they occur because of decisions that people take,
individually or collectively. These decisions may result from diverse human motivations,
including curiosity and aspirations for success, wealth, power or pleasure; and they are
influenced by legal constraints, by societal pressures and by movements for the advance of
collective local and global goals.
- The ‘chemistry system’ therefore interlinks with a host of other overlapping
systems including the biosphere, the environment, human and animal health, economics,
politics, psychology and the law.
Implications of Systems Thinking for Chemistry
‘One-world’ chemistry embraces the view that the chemical sciences should not be taught
or practiced without an in-built consideration of the relationships between chemistry and the Earth
systems with which it interacts. The adoption of systems thinking approaches in chemistry has
implications for all aspects of research and practice in the field:
- Research and practice in chemistry must be informed by systems thinking that must encourage
policies, programmes and practices that are aware of complexity and that are prepared for
- Education in systems thinking and how to apply it in chemistry contexts must be built into
chemistry education from an early stage, to develop the fundamental bedrock of principles,
knowledge and skills required.
See the section on Systems Thinking in Chemistry Education (STICE) here
for a detailed discussion of the subject and information on
IOCD's collaboration with IUPAC in the STICE Project.