We find ourselves in a very different world from that of 1892, with many issues discussed in terms of borders, and staying within them. But this is not how we scientists talk about science. I strongly echo the sentiment of my predecessor: chemistry has no nationality. We work as one community and we will continue to do so.
We recognise that there are some areas where we compete – selling top quality chemistry journals for example – but a strong recognition that there’s far more that we can and must collaborate on than we compete on. I think hanging over all of this is Brexit and the recognition that it may be harder for us to collaborate in the future.
I hope not, I hope that the government will listen to what we’re saying about mobility of researchers. It may get harder but if we’re motivated by friendly relationships, then even if it is a little bit harder to be mobile between one another’s countries, we’ll be motivated to do it because, to put it simplistically, we’re going to see our friends, not just our collaborators.
Where is next on your international itinerary?
I go to New Orleans in March, to the American Chemical Society convention. I’m going to do two things – the first being a presidents’ symposium, jointly with Allison Campbell (who will by then be the ACS past president) and Thisbe Lindhorst, the president of GDCh. The theme is trust in the chemical sciences and the importance of it.
This, of course, has great relevance to a world where it seems trust and truth don’t necessarily have the value that we would like them to. There was a lovely quote in Chemistry World from Ben Feringa – “the biggest threat to science is those who think science is only an opinion”, which I think is a perfect way of putting it.
I’m also doing a session for American science teachers. They have a “teachers’ day”, and I’m contributing to that, telling them about some of the international comparative studies I’ve done. They’re interested to know what it’s like teaching in other countries.
The EuCheMS congress comes here in 2018. How good an opportunity is that to connect to people, particularly from all over Europe but also beyond?
It’s perfect timing because the subliminal messages that people will have from the general media is that the UK is turning its back on Europe, closing the doors, and here we are – in science at least – throwing them open to people from all over Europe. There’s a big symbolic point there, as well as a real one.
How is our message being received at governmental level?
In the forum I’m in – Science Minister Jo Johnson’s high level group advising on Brexit – most of the time we, quite rightly, deal in data and facts. But every now and then someone says something that hits home emotionally and I think we need to do that. We need to tell stories about individuals, about how it feels to be a European national who’s devoted their career to the United Kingdom and no longer feels welcome.
We’re scientists so we tend to deal in facts, but there is an emotional side to this as well. We can all contribute to making people feel welcome, and to making the UK feel like a country whose doors are open. If we all do that, as institutions like the Royal Society of Chemistry as well as us as individuals, then we can make a difference. And that’s important, because science is an innately human activity. The best scientific ideas come as a result of individuals – often from different countries – meeting to collaborate and spark ideas off one another.