More than 1100 RACI members and friends attended last year’s very successful Congress in Brisbane. As expected, by far the majority of presentations and posters had a strong academic focus. The few non-academic presentations included sessions run by the HS&E and Industrial Chemistry Divisions and presentations by the Medicinal Chemistry and Analytical and Environment Divisions. Other than these and some CSIRO lunchtime presentations, the Congress had little appeal to the 3000 or so RACI members who are not academics, not to mention the many non-member chemists in Australia.
The authors of Chemistry for a better life: the decadal plan for Australian chemistry 2016–25 (bit.ly/3ku98zN) appeared to avoid involving other chemical-based societies and organisations in their deliberations. This was a pity and a weakness because thousands of people with chemistry qualifications, experience and backgrounds were unintentionally excluded from contributing to this important work.
A few years ago, RACI played a significant role in establishing the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies. It was also active when Commonwealth Chemistry, the Federation of Chemical Science Societies in Commonwealth countries, was established. Maybe it is now time to play another significant role and take the initiative to set up what we might call the Federation of Australian Academic and Applied Chemical Societies (FAAACS).
Science & Technology Australia (formerly known as Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, FASTS) is the umbrella organisation for all science and technology societies in Australia, representing the interests of more than 90 000 scientists and technologists. The proposed FAAACS would be the equivalent for chemists, focusing on the interests of chemists, chemical engineers and chemical technologists working in academia, teaching and industry.
We need to recognise that many chemists, particularly those working in industry, no longer belong to RACI because of perceived lack of relevance. In a letter to Chemistry in Australia (May 2008), Albright & Wilson (Australia) Senior Manager John O’Donnell described his membership of the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists as ‘being open to scientists involved in the industry at large’ rather than ‘based on a scientific discipline’. Unfortunately, the impression gained by many chemists working in industry is that RACI appears aloof and uninterested in who they are or what they do. This may not really be true, but the impression is still around and needs to be rectified. If industrial chemists won’t join RACI, RACI needs to collaborate and work with the organisations they do join.
If RACI truly wants to be the voice of chemistry in Australia, I believe it should find ways of establishing links with all relevant organisations. Just as RACI took the initiative to establish the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies, I think it is now time for it to advocate for the 90% of qualified chemists in this country who are not currently RACI members, not just the 10% who are.
How might this be implemented? How about regular meetings with all groups involved in chemistry-related research, development, manufacture, importing, selling or using chemicals, including representatives from the organisations listed below, with RACI taking a lead role in spearheading this initiative? Most of the organisations have their own annual meetings, often quite large affairs. Maybe a way could be found for future RACI Congresses to be combined with these other annual meetings. There should also be regular forums of all the chemical societies, institutes and organisations to address common problems.
Scope of the opportunity
Many scientific societies, institutes and organisations in Australia cater for the interests of chemists in specific industries. These include organisations such as Surface Coatings Association Australia, the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the Australasian Plastics and Rubber Institute, the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology, the Society of Dyers and Colourists of Australia and New Zealand, the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, and the Australian Institute of Energy. The total number of members of all of these organisations with chemistry qualifications would run into several thousand. Then there are the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Chemical Industry, and the American Chemical Society, nearly all of which have strong contingents of Australian members, only some of whom are also members of RACI. I am sure there are more societies, but these are enough to be going on with!
We could also add the industry associations covering chemical companies employing chemists in production, research and development, marketing and general management, such as Chemistry Australia (formerly the Plastics and Chemicals Institute of Australia, PACIA), ACCORD (hygiene, cosmetic and specialty products) and Fertilizer Australia. It is likely that the number of employees of member companies of these Associations with chemistry qualifications would probably also run into the thousands.
And what about teachers? A very rough estimate suggests that there may be 14 000–15 000 science teachers in Australia, a significant number of whom are chemists (although unfortunately not all chemistry teachers have chemistry qualifications). The Science Teachers Association has branches in every state, but a key association specifically for chemistry teachers is the Chemistry Education Association based in Victoria. They have a broad membership, but not many chemistry teachers are currently RACI members.
It is interesting to think that the three dozen or so Australian universities offering chemistry or chemistry-related degree programs probably produce in total about 1000 new chemistry graduates a year. Assuming an average working life of 40 years (and no net change due to immigration and emigration), up to 40 000 practising chemists might be working in Australia at any one time. Membership of RACI runs to around 10% of this number.
Potential benefits of working together
We all know the advantages of getting out of our own little silos in terms of cross-fertilisation of ideas, recognising and understanding other branches of chemistry not to mention other branches of science and technology, and discovering new ways of collaborating and working together. I suspect that currently many academics are unaware of the scope of the chemical industry in Australia, and many in industry are unaware of the groundbreaking research currently being undertaken in universities, CSIRO and other research institutions. Establishing FAAACS could help to improve communication between industry and academia.
A second major benefit would be in our dealings with the different layers of government. An organisation covering the thousands of people involved in the whole spectrum of chemistry in one way or another is likely to have a lot more clout than a largely academic chemical institute with 4000 members. A large FAAACS would be a true voice of chemistry and could speak to government more forcefully about regulation and control of chemical products, possible new directions for future funding for chemistry research, and the need to mandate suitably qualified personnel to manage chemical operations, to name but a few.
A third benefit would be in the sphere of chemical education: collaboration rather than fragmentation could bring about more relevant education and training programs at all levels (school, TAFE and university). A federation of chemical societies in Australia could help develop a common focus on chemistry education that is relevant and rigorous.
Complete amalgamations or mergers probably won’t work, but cooperation and collaboration, within a federation of societies with a chemical focus, should be the way forward.
Martin Luther King had a dream. I’m not sure that this dream of a Federation of Australian Academic and Applied Chemical Societies is quite in the same league, or whether trying to establish something like this would become a nightmare instead of a dream. But I’d like to think that coming together under an umbrella body spearheaded by RACI would generate benefits for Australian chemists beyond their own dreams.