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International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development

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The Chemical Sciences

The chemical sciences provide understanding of the physical and chemical properties of atoms and molecules and practical methods for creating new molecular structures with useful applications. Chemistry is a ‘platform science’, contributing to fundamental aspects of a range of other sciences and underpinning the dramatic advances seen in recent decades in such fields as biotechnology, energy, the environment, genetics, materials and medicine.

Role of the Chemical Sciences in Development

Advances in science and technology (S&T) enabled countries in Europe and North America to industrialize rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries. For example, industrialization in Belgium drew on the Solvay process for manufacture of soda, which helped establish to Belgium as one of the world's leading countries in the chemical industry sector. Thanks to continuing, long-term development of its chemical industries, on a per capita basis in 2007 Belgium was the number one producer of chemicals in the world and the share of the chemical industry in Belgium's economy was even bigger than that in Germany.

Since the mid-20th century, the importance of S&T for development has increasingly been recognised by international agencies, development assistance partners and the governments of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). One outstanding example of success is the case of Taiwan, whose per capita Gross National Product rose from US$ 919 in the 1950s to US$ 7358 in 1990, as the agrarian economy was transformed into an export-oriented industrial one. By the early 1990s, the chemical industry was the largest industrial sector, contributing 24.2% of the total production value of US$ 165.3 billion, but only 8.5% directly to export sales of US$ 95.6 billion. This demonstrates the strategic importance of the chemical industry as a supplier of materials and chemicals in underpinning other export industries, including electrical/electronic goods and textiles.

Overall, during the last two centuries, the chemical sciences have contributed enormously both to broad improvements in human well-being (including enhancements in life expectancy, health and quality of life) and to wealth creation for individuals and nations. Landmark examples include:

But the benefits from advances in chemistry and other sciences have not been evenly distributed globally. The least industrially and technologically advanced countries have remained the poorest and people in LMICs often have much lower life expectancies than those in high-income countries. A large part of the inequalities can be traced to major differences in rates of technical progress (i.e. a combination of technological advances and their diffusion and uptake in different countries and the capacities of the countries themselves to conduct and apply research).

Efforts to tackle the large global inequities reflected in the high levels of poverty, illiteracy, ill health, gender inequality, lack of access to improved water and sanitation and poor environment seen in LMICs led to agreement by the world's governments in 2000 on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). According to the United Nations Development Programme, achieving the goals requires a collective global effort harnessing political will and available resources in all areas, including harnessing science, technology, and innovation (ST&I) for development.

The report, of the Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation of the UN Millennium Project identified the important roles that ST&I could play in achieving the MDGs and stressed the importance of ST&I policies tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of each country and the need to create international partnerships that allow mutual learning.

Prof. Calestous Juma, a co-author of the Task Force report, has argued that institutions of higher learning, especially universities, should have a direct role in helping to solve the development challenges.

A detailed account of the role of the chemical sciences in development can be found in the review by IOCD scientists Stephen Matlin and Berhanu Abegaz [1]. The chapter serves as an introduction to the book, published by Wiley-VCH to mark the 2011 International Year of Chemistry, which covers the multi-faceted contributions that chemistry makes to human wellbeing and in which prominent scientists highlight the role of chemistry in the fight against the biggest problems faced by humanity. The chapter by Matlin and Abegaz can be downloaded free as a ‘sample chapter’ from the book's website, where the whole book can be purchased.

The book is under the patronage of UNESCO — the highest form of the organization's support, granted to show its moral endorsement of an exceptional activity. In her personal letter to the editors announcing the award of patronage, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova commented that “This is an excellent initiative that will contribute to the objectives of the International Year of Chemistry by promoting a better appreciation and understanding of chemistry among the public and young people. I would like to commend you and all the scientists involved in the production of the book. Your focus on the critical areas addressed by the Millennium Development Goals makes this work even more relevant to today's society.”

The Chemical Sciences and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable development

Alterations to the entire global environment - air, land and sea - occasioned by human activity have accelerated in the last 200 years resulting in global warming, damage to the protective ozone layer and depletion of natural resources. Increasing use of energy, industrial activities, population growth and urbanization add pressure to the Earth system. It has become clear that major changes are now needed if multiple crises (e.g. in food, water, climate, energy) are to be averted and the planet is to move to a path of sustainability.

Chemistry has a dual role in this unfolding picture. It must accept responsibility as one of the sources of many of the processes and products that have inadvertently contributed to the emerging planetary crises. And it must also engage vigorously as one of the resources that can identify and implement solutions to avert or mitigate the unfolding crises and provide sustainable processes and products for the future development of the planet.

The global approach to development has undergone a profound shift during the 21st century. The Millennium Development Goals agreed by the world's governments at the UN in 2000 focused on specific problems in poorer countries. At the UN in September 2015, governments of 193 nations committed [2] to move to a pathway of sustainability, adopting 17 Sustainable Development Goals [3] (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. The vision of the SDGs – to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity – is a global vision of development for all and with responsibility shared by all countries.

Chemistry's contribution is essential to meeting most, if not all, of these SDGs. Importantly, many of these contributions require that chemistry works in close concert with other disciplines to identify solutions that are practical, affordable and sustainable.

UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030

Goal 1:End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2:End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3:Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4:Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning
Goal 5:Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6:Ensure access to water and sanitation for all
Goal 7:Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Goal 8:Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all
Goal 9:Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10:Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11:Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12:Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13:Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Goal 14:Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources
Goal 15:Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss
Goal 16:Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies
Goal 17:Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Chemistry's capacity for innovation and ability to serve as the basis of a wide range of technologies mean that it can make a pivotal contribution to meeting the SDGs [4,5,6]. The chemical sciences can be drivers for poverty reduction and inclusive, sustainable economic growth and industrialization (Goals 1,8,9). They can help reduce inequalities and make urban environments resilient and sustainable (Goals 10,11) and help avert and mitigate climate change and its impacts. They can assist in addressing environmental damage to air, sea and land (Goals 13,14,15), furnishing new agricultural and pharmaceutical processes and products (Goals 2,3) and developing more efficient and more sustainable processes for providing clean water, sanitation, energy and sustainable production (Goals 6,7,12). The chemical sciences can play a role in the delivery of quality education and lifelong learning that is based in gender equality and empowerment (Goal 4); assist in countering military uses of chemical warfare and promoting disarmament and the peaceful uses of technology (Goal 16); and across all these areas operate through global partnerships and alliances that work for collective benefit to the health, well-being and sustainable development of all people (Goal 17).


  1. S.A. Matlin, B.M. Abegaz. Chemistry for Development, in J. Garcia-Martinez, E. Serrano-Torregrosa (Eds), The Chemical Element: Chemistry's Contribution to Our Global Future, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2011, Chapter 1, 1-70.
  2. United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 Sep 2015. New York: UN 2015.
  3. Sustainable Development Goals. New York: UN 2015.
  4. S.A. Matlin, G. Mehta, H. Hopf, A. Krief. The role of chemistry in inventing a sustainable future. Nature Chemistry 2015, 7(12), 941-943.
  5. S.A. Matlin, G. Mehta, H. Hopf, A. Krief. ‘One-world’ chemistry and systems thinking. Nature Chemistry 2016, 8, 393-6.
  6. H. Hopf, S.A. Matlin, A. Krief, G. Mehta. Chemie für die eine Welt. Nachrichten aus der Chemie, 2016, 64, 1190-1191.

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