You're the voice

Written by Prof Steven Bottle, RACI President 

Published 10 December 2020

(An extended version of the “From the President” Column from the Dec 2020 - Feb 2021 issue of Chemistry in Australia magazine)


The future is an important focus for the RACI. Currently around 40% of our total membership base is under 45 years of age. Building a dynamic and enthusiastic cohort of younger members remains a key objective if we are to keep the RACI a vibrant and active organisation. One of the advantages of membership for new chemistry professionals is access to established networks and the knowledge-base of experienced members. The RACI continues to be strong in this element. Our youngest member is just 18 years old. To balance this, we have two members who are over 100 and our longest serving member (who is 98) joined in 1939! I can only marvel when I consider the changes to the science and applications of chemistry (and to the RACI) that those members must have experienced over all of those years.
No matter the nature of the RACI member, from the most junior to the most senior Fellow, everyone in the RACI should feel a sense of pride about being part of our organisation. Being part of the RACI means being part of an important body that serves a critically important branch of science. The RACI educates and advocates and is recognised as “the voice of chemistry”. The RACI makes submissions to various government bodies and plays advocacy roles in a number of national and international committees ranging from the National Chemistry Committee of the Australian Academy of Science, through to the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies and the Commonwealth Chemistry Committee. It is at the grass roots level however that RACI members have such a significant impact and deliver real value to our society. Chemists provide solutions to society’s problems and the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be no different. From boutique hand sanitising gels and cleaning products through to safe and effective chemicals in anti-viral fogging machines, the public gains confidence when professional RACI chemists provide sensible commentary, advice and resources to meet the challenges currently facing the world. When people turn away from science then fakes, fads and baseless cures (and the charlatans that peddle them), can be amplified through the resonances of social media. It remains our core role to serve society through education and advice and our members provide critical expertise that enables safe manufacture and consumer confidence. These roles have become even more critical through the pandemic.
The impact of the pandemic on our borders has also made us realise that in Australia we have lost much of our manufacturing capability and the technical skills to support these industries. Australia needs a base level of sovereign manufacturing for key chemicals and other essential commodities. The RACI has a role to remind the Government of its responsibility to ensure our society possesses a degree of infrastructure to meet our needs in times of hardship and to maximise opportunities for growth in our economy.
The RACI has long held such views and championed this point of view. Past President Ian Rae recently sent me a quote from a 1919 edition of the Australasian Chemist and Metallurgist, the magazine of our forebearer institution, the Australian Chemical Institute (we didn’t become Royal till 1932). In the first volume of 1919 (Aust. Chem. & Met., 1, 1919, 30), it was lamented that Australian wool was being exported to Belgium to be treated there with sulphuric acid made from sulphide ores sourced also from Australia. As the wool returned to Australia in the form of woollen fabric and clothing, we lost the opportunity to add value to the raw product and build a valuable industry.
We can only hope that in another hundred years we won’t be sending Australian aluminium and iron ore overseas to be converted into products (perhaps using Australian uranium or coal for energy) that are then shipped back to us as high value-added goods. Hopefully the battery manufacturing capability being developed in Western Australia and North Queensland using our substantial reserves of lithium and other battery metals will mean that in another 100 years Australia will be playing a high value role in building a cleaner, greener economy. Chemists will be critical in ensuring success in such ventures.
Most of us won’t be around to see it, but who knows – maybe that 18-year-old member might be? One thing of which I am certain however, is that the RACI will be around and will be still going strong. As always, it is our responsibility to keep the present-day RACI moving forward to enable it to be part of the opportunities of the future.


Prof Steven Bottle, RACI President


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