New ambitions for chemistry in France
Chemistry is everywhere: it is part of our daily lives. From its seemingly magical and esoteric origins to experiments carried out on a laboratory bench using instruments that are as complex as they are mysterious, chemistry is fundamental to the major challenges faced by society.
French chemistry has been undergoing a revival for a number of years. The figures paint a rosy picture: over 80 billion euros annual turnover and 3 billion invested in research and development. The academic and industrial players in French chemistry have just signed a partnership agreement designed to set the seal on their intent to work together to find solutions for global challenges related to energy and climate change, water and food, health, the conservation of resources and the environment.
Researchers, lecturers and industrialists in the field of chemistry met on 18 May 2009 at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris for a colloquium on the theme: Chemistry, an ambition for France and Europe. At the end of this meeting, a charter was signed by seven of the principal players in the field of chemistry in France. The aim: to develop chemical substances as cleanly as possible, examining their impact on health and the environment, but also to take a new approach to chemistry and make it more attractive. “Our measures should be viewed in the long term. We have already set up an ad hoc coordination committee for this purpose. Following on from the events planned for 2010, the importance of these measures will be established in 2011 in the “International Year of Chemistry” proclaimed by the UN in December last year and organised under the aegis of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUCPA),” comments Gérard Férey, member of the French Academy of Sciences and President of the National Committee of Chemistry. Chemistry is a wellspring of progress and is becoming vital in helping us make sense of the matter that surrounds us and makes us up, but a negative image sometimes clings to it. “These days, chemistry is too often associated with risks, pollution and toxicity and less often with environmental conservation, medicines and innovation. And yet chemistry is one of the keys to the future,” points out Gilberte Chambaud, university professor and scientific director of the Institute of Chemistry at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
In the field of chemistry, France is the second most important European producer and ranks fifth in the world. This industrial sector devotes 18% of its investments to environmental protection and risk management. A source of innovations, chemistry is an essential driving force in economic development for all industries. The activities of professionals are turning increasingly towards the environment, health and safety, where they find applications in various fields, including toxicology, nanomaterials, molecular electronics, biotechnologies, renewable resources, catalysis and energy management. “All-encompassing approaches have been taken to developing energy efficiency in the housing field, reducing the energy used by a factor of eight in places such as Fontenay-sous-Bois. We are increasingly open to such measures. Chemistry can and must contribute a great many solutions,” believes Olivier Homolle, President of the French Chemical Society, among others.
Gérard Férey points out that “people need to be made aware that chemistry is a science of life and a science of hope at the same time as a source of beneficial innovations and a strong economic driving force. We have to make it known that chemistry is a force in the service of mankind”, and that chemists contribute considerably to improving the quality of life. They monitor air and water pollution. The CNRS’ purification plants offer remarkable sites for environmental chemical studies. In order to improve their results, scientists have excellent analysis tools for detecting substances such as amoxicillin, an antibiotic whose presence in the environment might promote greater resistance in bacteria. The CNRS is involved in many national and international partnerships, based on complementarity. Its activities are conducted in close collaboration with the universities, the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm), the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and with industrialists.
But there are other sectors of activity in which chemistry plays an important role, for instance in museums, where it allows historians and archaeologists to penetrate the mysteries of works of art or reconstruct the history of an object. It also enables scientists, putting their expertise at the service of the judiciary, to act against crime and fraud, whether it concerns drugs in sport or counterfeiting, especially in the fields of food and agriculture or pharmaceutical products. Chemistry is also used to find out more about the phenomena of culinary processes, which helps control the quality of our food. All of these are functions that go into building up an increasingly sensitive knowledge base and chemical analysis methodology, areas in which France can pride itself on its internationally recognised knowledge and experience.