Chemistry Talks

President’s column

EuChemS involved in Sustainable Chemicals Policy

Floris Rutjes, EuChemS President

Instead of writing only an editorial contribution at the start of my presidency, I proposed to contribute a column to each issue of Chemistry in Europe to draw attention to particular topics that are relevant for EuChemS members. This first time I would like to focus on policy at the European level. One can read on the website that part of the mission of EuChemS is to ‘provide a single, unbiased European voice on key policy issues in chemistry and related fields. That sounds nice, but what does it actually mean?

Let me highlight several examples. To start with, on a regular basis EuChemS is taking positions with respect to consultations of the European Commission, which can all be read on the EuChemS website. Another example concerns the organization of policy workshops on relevant topics, often with participation of members of the European Parliament. During the past month, as part of our strategy to keep drawing attention to the scarcity of elements and inspired by the EuChemS Periodic Table, an online workshop was organised ‘The Carbon Element – Key towards a sustainable society’, which, with a record number of participants, was a great success. Nicola Armaroli, chair of the workshop and member of the EuChemS Executive Board, reports more extensively on this successful virtual meeting elsewhere in this issue.

Another recent example is the selection of EuChemS, represented by myself in my capacity as President, as member of the High-Level Roundtable on the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, which has been issued by the European Commission. The main task of this expert group is to support the Commission to realise the objectives of this new and important strategy. We, the European chemical community, are important stakeholders in helping to achieve successful implementation of the strategy, and we would like to contribute by feeding in perspectives on new and innovative science and technology that are relevant to effective chemicals management. Equally important, we will emphasise the role of education, since without training world-class scientists and innovators, we simply would not be able to develop the required sustainable solutions. On 5 May, a first meeting has been held, in which the selected stakeholders could bring in arguments and provide their viewpoints, resulting in a detailed work plan from the European Commission that will be executed in the years to come. This work plan will most likely contain multiple work packages to which EuChemS can provide relevant contributions. Having a large network of chemists behind us, and with active support from our members, I am confident that EuChemS can play an important role as a member of this roundtable!

Floris Rutjes 
EuChemS President 

Comparing COVID-19 Vaccines 

Currently, four Covid-19 vaccines have been approved for application in the EU, and partial registration dossiers have already been submitted for others. So far, all approved vaccines show very good efficacy. A Clever Picture just published in ChemistryViews illustrates the structure of the vaccines from AstraZeneca, BioNTech/Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna and compares their ingredients, storage, and administration. Two of the vaccines are vector vaccines based on adenoviruses, the other two are mRNA vaccines. But there are also differences within these two groups. For example, they use different adenoviruses or lipids to package the DNA or mRNA for the construction of the spike protein of COVID-19.

Vaccines typically require years of research and testing before they reach the clinic. However, scientists and regulators have been working extremely hard, and several vaccines against Sars-CoV-2, the virus that triggers COVID-19, are already in use.

The work began in January 2020 with the decoding of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. In March 2020, the first human safety studies of a vaccine began. BioNTech/Pfizer’s vaccine was the first to receive approval: first from the UK Medicines Regulatory Agency in December 2020, followed by emergency approvals in the US and the EU. It was the first time an mRNA vaccine received approval and is produced on a large scale.

Read full article in ChemistryViews: 

‘Increasing visibility is an important goal’ 

Professor Floris Rutjes, Vice-Chairman of the KNCV Board, started his mandate as EuChemS President on 1 January 2021 for a period of three years. A perfect time for an interview with this educator, researcher and entrepreneur who excels in each of those fields. In 2002, the KNCV awarded him the KNCV Gold Medal, and in 2008 he won the prize for the most enterprising scientist in the Netherlands.

How did you end up as a volunteer at KNCV? What path did you take within KNCV?
After winning the KNCV Gold Medal in 2002, I felt like doing something for the association in return. As a result, I took on several positions over the years, including serving on the board of the Organic Chemistry Section and the Pharmacochemistry Section. After this, the idea of playing an even greater role within the KNCV slowly began to take shape. Consequently, I rose to the positions of Vice Chair (2015-2016) and Chair (2016-2019) of the KNCV successively. These tasks have provided me with a valuable network and many unique experiences and skills.

What attracted you to run for EuChemS president?
‘When my term as president at the KNCV ended, the opportunity arose to run for president of EuChemS. I knew very little about EuChemS when I became president of the KNCV, but in the following years, we at the KNCV have become increasingly involved in EuChemS, and have familiarised ourselves with them. The KNCV board eventually persuaded me to run for this position.

What are the main challenges for EuChemS that you want to tackle in your term as president?
‘One problem for EuChemS is that there’s a much greater distance between us and the ‘chemist’ than is the case with the national societies. So EuChemS is not really on many people’s minds. I am sure that half of the members of the KNCV and the KVCV have hardly heard of EuChemS. Of course, that’s a problem if you say that you represent all these members. Name awareness is certainly one of the things we will be working on. Becoming more visible is an important goal. Some of the actions we are taking to achieve this include publicising our awards and our annual recognition of European chemical heritage, as well as producing short films that allow us to contact chemists all over Europe online.

If you would like to know more about Floris Rutjes’s views on membership, EuChemS, who will be the winner of the Nobel prize, and much more, then please see the complete interview here.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Standfirst: Chemical conspiracy theories have grown in recent years and experts are weighing in on what we can do about them.

In the age of Covid-19, conspiracy theories are all around us. Some say the virus was created by the military, others blame symptoms on 5G technology and some even say the virus doesn’t exist at all. But conspiracy theories are not new. ‘They’ve always been a way of thinking that people turn to in times of crisis, when things are not clear,’ says social psychologist Karen Douglas from the University of Kent in the UK.

A major focus of many conspiracy theories is the chemicals in our water, food and in the air we breathe. One of the most recent is the ‘chemtrails’ theory – the idea that governments are releasing chemicals into the environment via aircraft to control the population. This may seem laughable but recent surveys show a sizeable proportion of the public are open to believing this and other conspiracies, in some cases, with serious consequences.

Understanding how these ideas formulate and transmit is becoming a priority for psychologists like Douglas, but what role scientists themselves can play in debunking these theories is still unclear.

What leads people to embrace conspiracies is not straightforward. People are often looking for answers and certainty surrounding an issue, or for safety and a sense of control over their lives and they are often looking for a sense of belonging and community within a like-minded group.

One of the greatest ironies is that chemical-related conspiracies do little to hold the chemical industry and government regulators to account where real problems do exist, reflects says Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, a UK charity that campaigns for scientific thinking among the public and policy makers.

‘To have a sceptical impulse is a reasonable thing – to question what you’re told, to know that you get a varnished version of what’s going on in the world when you’re listening to people who’ve got skin in the game – that’s actually a reasonable position to take in the world,’ says Brown. But ultimately the message needs to be that it’s scientists, not conspiracists, who have the tools to find the truth.

Link to full article in Chemistry World