Guest Column - Philip Jessop
Are you ready for a green wave?
By Philip Jessop
A green wave is coming. A wave of young chemists who are strongly motivated by and interested in helping the environment. As they find their way into industry and academia, they will change the way that chemical research and development decisions are made. They will spend more thought on the environmental consequences of their choices and spend more time on the discovery and development of greener technologies. Those new technologies will make their employers more efficient and more competitive. But first, let me tell you where this wave is coming from.
The wave starts in school. Far more of the present curriculum focuses on the environment than when I went through the system. In Ontario, the No. 1 goal of Grades 9-10 science curriculum is “to relate science to technology, society and the environment.” The Grade 9 science curriculum specifies that students must learn about the environmental impacts of chemical production and use. Grade 10 science and Grade 11 chemistry cover how chemistry can be used to address environmental challenges. Grade 12 chemistry requires students to “propose a course of action to reduce the use of compounds that are harmful to human health and the environment.” That students get charged up about helping the environment is evident from their participation in environmental clubs and green school programs.
In university, far more students are getting excited about environmental topics. Universities used to be hotbeds of activism for women’s rights, peace, or other topics. Now it is the environment. Enrollment in environmental courses is higher than ever. At Queen’s University, our Environmental and Green Chemistry course always reaches the enrollment cap. Queen’s School of Environmental Studies has seen its undergraduate enrollment triple since opening in 2005. New programs are being created, including the University of Western Ontario’s Green Process Engineering Program, Dalhousie University’s Environment, Sustainability and Society program, and the Master’s program in Applied Sustainability at Queen’s (although, despite the central role of chemistry in protecting or harming the environment, none of these programs is hosted by chemistry departments).
The wave now reaches up into graduate school, post-docs and is starting to reach the faculty level. When I moved back to Canada in 2003, only one professor was promoting green chemistry research. A quick Internet search shows that there are now more than two dozen chemistry and chemical engineering faculty identifying their research as green, plus many more doing green chemistry without using that terminology. All of these new environmentally conscious students, postdoctoral fellows and professors will discover and invent green technologies, which bodes well for the environment and the competitiveness of the companies that adopt these technologies.
Is society ready for this wave? Are our students, who will be getting jobs designing chemicals for society, being taught anything about how to design safer chemicals? Do our universities have relevant courses such as Green Chemistry or Toxicology for Chemists? (Answer: no, with a few exceptions). Do our professors and students understand what they need to do to protect their ideas? Do we have the commercialization pathway perfected yet, or is the commercialization gap still a big impediment? It’s still a problem, which is why GreenCentre Canada — a partnership between academic researchers and industry partners based at Queen’s — was created. Are our companies willing to share their problems with young professors so that the faculty know what is needed? Are faculty in biology or environmental studies who have identified environmental problems talking with chemistry faculty about solutions?
I suggest that we are not ready. And if we don’t get ready, the wave is going to pass us by. Students will obtain chemistry degrees without learning about toxicology or how to do chemistry while protecting the environment. Applied research designed to develop greener technologies will miss the mark because of a lack of communication between the disciplines or between academia and industry. Neither the environment nor the economy will benefit.
Let’s get ready for the wave. Let’s educate students on green chemistry. Let’s bring in guest speakers from toxicology departments to speak to chemistry classes or require discussion of toxicology in the organic chemistry curriculum. Let’s educate graduate students on innovation. Industry representatives, talk with young faculty. Faculty and students who want to help the environment, find out what chemical problems are really hurting the environment and then choose those as research challenges.
Philip Jessop is the Canada Research Chair of Green Chemistry at Queen’s University and the Technical Director of GreenCentre Canada.
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