SCI President Paul Drechsler lays out his vision

11 July 2022 | Simon Frost

At this year’s AGM, new SCI President Paul Drechsler CBE highlighted the role science will play in accelerating positive change and tackling society’s biggest challenges.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to have this opportunity to introduce myself to you and to make a few comments.

By way of a brief introduction I am an engineering science graduate from Trinity College in Dublin, and I spent 25 years at ICI at different times working across its whole portfolio and in many different countries. At ICI, I worked across every sector you could imagine when I was in Latin America – pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, plastics – whatever we made, that was in my portfolio. After I left ICI I didn't really think about chemistry for a long time, until Covid-19 came along.

Covid-19 was a wake-up call – here we had the biggest threat to humanity in our lifetime and, in absolutely record time, brilliant scientists, businesses, universities and governments around the world collaborated to design, develop, test, pilot, scale-up, manufacture, distribute and deliver vaccines to billions of people around the world, at a speed that we would all agree was unimaginable.

If ever any of you here wonder, have you made the right decision to work in the sciences, and for the SCI Scholars who presented today, if ever you needed persuasion – just look at what we've learned in the past couple of years about the huge difference science can make in dealing with the greatest challenges.

In the middle of this crisis I was invited to be the next President of the Society of Chemical Industry. And it just seemed like a fantastic opportunity – I really feel honoured to take on this role, and I want to just briefly touch on three reasons why.

Business as a force for good

First, I passionately believe that business is a force for good and I would highlight four examples:

First, life expectancy has increased by 30 years in the past 100 years as a result of research and development by people like you, and many others around the world. Second, 250,000 people have been lifted out of poverty every day, in the past decade, as a result of brilliant collaboration and innovation by people like you.

Third, 300,000 people every day gain access to electricity. That sort of progress for humanity in the past 100 years would be impossible without brilliant science. Fourth, Covid-19, the biggest threat to humanity since the Second World War, and look at how it’s been dealt with by brilliant scientific collaboration.

Science as a solution

The second reason I took on the role is because when I think about the future I see science as a foundational requirement for solving many of the world's greatest problems, whether it's food supply, hunger, or quality of water.

We take much of it for granted in the developed world, but many in the world today are already struggling to get the quality and quantity of food with the right level of nourishment and the water quality they need.

The only way we can meet the requirements needed for another 2 billion people – as we were reminded brilliantly by one of our SCI Scholars today – is by applying science to solve the problems.

As for health, whether it’s prevention or cure, it’s all about bringing all the sciences together. And it’s not just about pharmaceuticals – it’s biosciences, it’s physics, it’s chemistry; it's every aspect of science you could imagine. It’s areas of science that didn’t exist when some of us were students, whether that be artificial intelligence or other technology developments.

And finally, I think the greatest challenge for the next generation is climate change. Please, tell me how we can deliver solutions to climate change at the pace required if we do not get brilliant, global collaboration by scientists everywhere?

I know you'll hear more from Baroness Brown shortly on this, and that is so important, because without people like her putting her voice behind science in the highest house in the land, we will not get there.

Valuing education and research

The third reason I took on this role is that in business and in science, there is one vital ingredient that makes the difference, and it’s people. It’s about inspiring, attracting, educating and developing children to become great scientists. That’s the raw materials supply. We have it in abundance, but we have to convert it from a raw material into scientists later on.

It’s about universities – this country has some of the best universities on planet Earth, which get too little support and advocacy from the government, yet they are among the UK’s greatest national assets. And if you look at what we can do through the brilliant collaboration of science – members of SCI know better than anyone else – that’s how to solve the world’s biggest problems.

We need to urgently find a solution to the funding and collaboration crisis caused by losing access to the Horizon Programme. We need people to understand that we appreciate and value diversity in all its forms. Collaboration is the magic ingredient for great scientific achievement. We want UK universities to be at the centre of great research, not on the periphery. And that is a priority business and SCI members must persuade the government of its vital necessity.

As I said, we all know that industry and business is, above all, about people – as individuals and teams. That’s what makes business fun. Somebody asked what difference I can make in my new SCI role – somebody like me, who’s been absent for a few years from this sector. Well, I have a lot to learn, but I learn from people like you.

Accelerating solutions and valuing diversity

The Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) is a Learned Society, set up in 1881, that accelerates the rate of scientific innovations being commercialised by industry to benefit society through collaboration and education.

I am struck by the idea of accelerating learning, accelerating collaboration, and accelerating solutions. If there is anything I can do to be helpful to Sharon and the team, it is to focus on this word ‘acceleration’ and ask what are the things we all need to accelerate at a fierce pace?

It’s really important, we have to passionately and enthusiastically learn from Covid-19. All the lessons, of getting real pace in the research, development, commercialisation and delivering solutions to patients. We were able to do it once. Why can’t we do it every time there’s a big challenge?

I am delighted to see the diversity in this room. But the reality is the number of girls who love science when they’re five or six is a far higher percentage than when they’re nine or ten, and this appetite for science reduces rapidly as they go from primary to secondary school. By then, of course, you’ve lost them.

This country needs to enthuse, excite, accelerate and recognise girls across the board to go in to study the science subjects. I think there’s a transformation opportunity to do that.

I would also say that when I look at the proportion of black, Asian and other ethnic minorities in all of our industries, we're just not on the pace. Fifteen percent of the population of London is black. Where are all the senior black leaders across our sectors? They aren’t to be found.

And why is that? Is it because we have not attracted them at the beginning, or have not appreciated or recognised them on the way through? Are we not sponsoring or mentoring them? These are all the things we do brilliantly in this industry with our assets – so, I think that may be a second thought for all of us.

Appreciating education and embracing change

If you want to get more students, the essential ingredient must be teachers. You cannot produce brilliant science students without brilliant science teachers and a brilliant science teacher is a joy to be in front of and a gift to give to any child. I think we should always be thinking about what more we can do to boost up the number of people teaching science.

I mentioned earlier the university sector, and if I can do anything with any of you to get a step change in how universities are recognised, appreciated, and collaborated with, I will do it, because they are a vital source of economic prosperity in the places where they operate and vital to accelerate progress in industry – and it’s with industry, that together we can collaborate on faster and better commercialisation.

And finally, a topic on which I am not really competent to comment on; just imagine if we could take some of what we have learned about disruption, and some of what there is from artificial intelligence, and bolt that into our scientific processes to transform the pace and quality of solutions. Then nothing can stop us, and every scientist everywhere in the world would be a hero – you would all be eight or nine feet tall, or in my preferred measure, two to three metres tall.

I am delighted to be working with Sharon and her team and the Board over the next period of time, and I would like to say a huge thank you to my great friend and predecessor, Paul Booth.

We can do all we want for science, we can do all we want to do for universities, but if we don't have people in the political system who see the value of science, we just might as well be on a desert island. And every member of the House of Lords who’s working hard for the understanding of science is the best friend that the SCI has. I’m delighted that our best friend here tonight, Baroness Brown, is with us and is going to share some thoughts on Climate Change and Science.

In the face of such great geopolitical disruption the need for new, better and faster solutions to climate change is more urgent than ever. If that, and its consequences, is not our priority, what is?

Thank you for listening.

>> We chatted some more to Paul about his background and his views on levelling up and increasing diversity in scientific fields.

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