Martyn Poliakoff on science diplomacy and green chemistry in Africa

The Royal Society’s new foreign secretary, Martyn Poliakoff, talks to SciDev.Net about his plans to develop links with African scientists.

Martyn Poliakoff, a chemistry professor at the University of Nottingham, was elected on 7th July to foreign secretary of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s science academy, and will start work on 30 November.

Martyn PoliakoffNewly elected foreign secretary of the Royal Society, Martyn Poliakoff – Flickr/Periodic Videos

Poliakoff has a background in ‘green chemistry’ — a sustainable way of doing chemistry — and has research ties with African countries, especially Ethiopia. He is also a prolific science educator, featuring in the popular online chemistry videos, ‘Periodic Table of Videos’.

SciDev.Net asked him how he would engage with researchers in developing countries and discussed the state of green chemistry in Africa, where the budding chemical industry could avoid the mistakes made by similar industries elsewhere.

As foreign secretary of the Royal Society, what are your priorities in engaging with the developing world?

I’m very keen to engage with Africa. My initial priority is to find out what scientists in these countries feel they need to become part of the scientific community. I have a long-standing interest in Ethiopia, and my experience has been that it is important to listen, rather than to tell the scientists what they need.

Each country will have its own problems. But in general there are some mundane yet important things, such as scientific equipment.

Countries are beginning to buy scientific equipment because, although it is expensive, very few pieces of lab equipment remotely approach the cost of military hardware, such as a tank — and nobody is surprised when an African army has tanks. And since there isn’t the infrastructure to maintain scientific equipment, there are opportunities for technicians from the United Kingdom to visit and teach people how to maintain the equipment.

A tankPoliakoff: ‘Very few pieces of lab equipment remotely approach the cost of military hardware, such as a tank’ – Flickr/Peer.Gynt

Do you think donating second-hand scientific equipment to developing countries is helpful?

I wouldn’t discourage people from donating equipment, as second-hand equipment is terribly appealing, but by and large it’s unsuccessful because the things don’t work or the parts have run out. I don’t see why African countries should necessarily have second-hand equipment. They shouldn’t be regarded as scientific paupers to be dressed in our cast-offs. There is more of a case for getting a few really well set-up labs, which can collaborate with scientists all over the country. We must make sure there are people trained to use the equipment and that there is support to keep them running.

I visited one of the leading universities in Brazil recently and they had some equipment that was not working because it lacked a minor component — a really trivial component, like a screw, not some very exotic thing — and they were waiting for one of these from America. I think that is something where quite an immediate effort can be made to fix things.

It is important to identify areas where countries make a unique contribution, for example indigenous vegetation. Some plants may contain chemical compounds that have unique properties to use as potential drugs. Getting equipment to extract those compounds from plants is relatively simple. Initial screening and identification need modern equipment, but it’s not like needing the Diamond Light Source. Scientists in developing countries need collaborations with both academia and industry in other countries, so that when they see something promising they know where to go to do the appropriate experiments.

Will you be involved with improving educational standards in developing countries?

The question is how to provide the best possible education for postgraduates in Africa, but also provide an environment that will encourage them to return to their own countries. A scheme we’re trying at Nottingham is for students doing PhDs in Ethiopia to come for a one-year Master’s course in the middle of the PhD. They work in Nottingham, form relations with the university, and understand how science works in the developed world, but return to their own countries to finish their PhDs.

Old equipmentOld equipment comes with high maintenance needs – Flickr/DaKohlmeyer

What role do science academies provide in developing countries, and would you encourage forming more?

The academies of science are an obvious place to start for engaging with a broad organisation like the Royal Society. For each particular country it is important to ask if there is a need to establish an academy of sciences. There is an umbrella organisation for the African academies of science, and this could be used as a vehicle for approaching countries that don’t have their own academies.

Would the Royal Society be prepared to promote open-access journals in developing countries?

There are actually a surprising number of journals already available free to African countries. Very few people in Africa realise this. Early on in my interaction with Ethiopia, I wrote to the editor of Nature suggesting that Nature should be available free in Africa, and it turns out that it already is. Upon investigation in one of the Ethiopian universities, it seemed that the librarian knew this but hadn’t told anybody else.

Your expertise is in green chemistry. How do you describe this to people who haven’t heard of it?

I describe it as cleaner ways of making chemicals and materials. The great advantage of green chemistry as a topic is that it appeals to the public imagination considerably.

Green technologies address several UN Millennium Development Goals, such as generating wealth not waste, and improving human health. Green chemistry and green technologies are particularly important because many developing countries don’t have existing infrastructure. There is little chemical industry in Africa, apart from in South Africa, and if they wish to create a chemical industry it makes sense to create it with the greenest processes possible. I have worked with colleagues here and in Ethiopia to create 13 principles for greener chemistry and engineering for Africa. The 13th principle is “avoid the mistakes of others”, which is very important.

I will be meeting many senior scientists from different countries. It is an opportunity to persuade them or explain to them why I think green chemistry is important, and to assist them in persuading their policymakers that this is an important area.

Conical flasksAfrica has a chance to make its chemistry industry ‘green’ – Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH)

What is the state of green chemistry in Africa?

It’s making rapid advances. I think it is catching the imagination of a lot of African chemists because they see that they can exploit the resources of their countries, such as sunlight for photochemistry or biomass, to make chemicals.

One successful example is an Ethiopian company called YASCAI [Yitbarek Alemu Starch, Chemical & Adhesive Industry] that makes starch (which has a variety of industrial applications) from enset [E. ventricosum], a local plant. They use water to extract the starch from the plants, but instead of wasting a lot of energy to evaporate the water to get the starch, YASCAI uses sunlight, which is available in abundance, so essentially it requires no energy at all. That’s a very elegant process.

If you had to make a list of what African chemists need, what would be on it?

I’ve learned from my interactions with Ethiopia that nearly all my preconceptions were wrong. What they need most is for scientists in developed countries to listen to what they actually want. There is a role for senior scientists in developed countries to adopt an African country and put the case for that particular country. A difficulty for any organisation like the Royal Society is that, when it starts to engage with Africa, it can’t engage with 30 countries simultaneously. Therefore, if each country has its own ambassador, it will get at least some engagement from some initiatives.

Source – SciDev.Net – Katharine Sanderson – 8 July 2011


  1. Looks like Mr. Poliakoff is right about many things, especially about secondhand equipment. But what I like about him is his strive for green chemistry.
    Ask David

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