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Professor Lesley Yellowlees has passionate views about the role and future of a science that is pivotal to our prosperity, writes Ginny Clark

Professor Yellowlees, of the Royal Society of Chemistry

From the colour of your clothes to the screen on your mobile phone, from a shampoo bottle — and its contents — to the ingredients in a loaf of bread, chemical science shapes our modern world. Yet most of us are unlikely to give a second thought to an industry that, fuelled by world class research and development, plays a crucial role in Scotland’s economy, with around 200 companies here responsible for exports of more than £3 billion a year, overseas business that is topped only by the whisky industry.

Particle physics may have been dominating the media headlines for some time, but shove over Higgs Boson, because chemical science will soon be hogging the limelight. Professor Lesley Yellowlees may not be the official spokesperson for this dynamic industry, but the University of Edinburgh’s vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering is already doing a grand job of singing its praises.

'I will never tire of telling politicians how important our sector is to the wellbeing of the nation.'

Professor Yellowlees

Last May, two months before she became the Royal Society of Chemistry’s first woman president, Yellowlees grabbed a few headlines herself, saying the United Kingdom was 50 years behind the USA in terms of providing opportunities for women in science. She followed that up a few days before the start of her two-year presidency in July by slamming the UK government for failing to tackle inequality, citing the macho culture of an “old boy’s club” affecting recruitment in an industry where men are six times more likely to find work than women.

Just in case the Scottish government didn’t think they were in the professor’s sights, she also previewed her keynote speech at last year’s fourth annual conference of Science Scotland, by vowing: “I will never tire of telling politicians just how important our sector is to the health and wellbeing of the nation.”

So important, in fact, that one of the biggest challenges it faces is ensuring we maintain a workforce that has all the skills and expertise necessary to meet the demands of this burgeoning industry. That’s another reason why Yellowlees believes its time chemical sciences gained some recognition for the role it plays in our society, and our economy.

The sector as breadwinner

“The chemical sector is a huge income earner for Scotland, with around 70,000 jobs here directly dependent on the chemical sciences sector and generating almost £10 billion in revenue,” she says. “As an industry the chemical sector may not be glamorous, but the bottom line is it does deliver. So could we make more of a splash about that? Yes, I believe we could, and the government knows that — or at least I hope it does.

It might not be as glamorous as a Higgs Boson, but chemistry will solve many of the global challenges we face.

Professor Yellowlees

“There is some really exciting work going on, such as in the interdisciplinary health area that will impact on pharmaceuticals, designing drugs sensors (that react only to specific aspects of a condition) that will have a huge part to play in tackling disease throughout the world. Also, the material graphene (a single layer of carbon atoms) can be used in the creation of flexible screens in computing, and chemistry has a valuable role to play in renewable solar energy. Scotland’s chemistry sector is well set up to play a large part in this, and we must be more effective in communicating it and engaging with all the players.”

Strategic thinking

The bar has already been set high. Last year saw the launch of the Chemical Sciences Scotland Refreshed Strategy, building on the original aims that had been set out in 2007. The main aim of the ‘Platform for Growth’ is to boost manufactured exports from the sector by 50 per cent by 2020. 

To achieve that, a 10-point plan sets out the determining aspects of sustainability, innovation, skills, reputation and investment. However, Yellowlees is adamant that one other aspect will be crucial to delivering on all elements of the 2020 vision, and that is quite simply the ability to keep industry and academia working together.

Stronger partnerships

“If the economy of Scotland is to deliver all that’s wanted, we can only do it by creating partnerships between universities and industry, and making sure they work efficiently and effectively, that’s where I see the innovation coming from,” she says.

“Blue skies research of today can have a significant impact tomorrow. In chemistry, work done right now to understand a reaction can have a huge role in what’s happening in drugs created next month. That’s why we need the space, the time, and the funding, it’s all related.

"We’re very fortunate here to have the Chemical Sciences Scotland (CSS) network, the partnership of the academic institutions with industry and government organisations, to help in delivering the opportunities. 

"Our sector probably doesn’t deliver much in the way of headlines and we haven’t had a Higgs Boson but if we are to solve many of the global challenges, in addition to those here in Scotland, then we need chemistry to do that, and we need universities and industry working in partnership to make it happen.”

The Scottish government recognises CSS as the voice of the sector in Scotland, at a time when the global chemical sector continues to flourish, with the rising demand for consumer goods, pharmaceuticals and food products. 

Inspiring the scientists of the future

Another vital step to making things “happen” is in the development of our future scientists.

Yellowlees has also spent five years as the director at EaStCHEM, the joint chemistry research school of Edinburgh and St Andrews that is supported by the Scottish Funding Council for Further and Higher Education and the Office of Science and Technology, along with the parent universities. 

It is considered to be the elite research school for chemistry in Scotland and is one of the largest in the UK, with around 500 researchers.

“We’ve formed a strong research collaboration between the chemistry schools and are working effectively and efficiently together,” explains Yellowlees. “It’s been very successful; we’ve punched well above our weight, and are regarded on a UK scale. 

"Of course, there is also the equivalent situation between Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, with WestChem. Pooling arrangements give you greater strength, undoubtedly. To do big science and tackle problems, that’s expensive. No one school has all the equipment and the expertise. By pooling resources, with academic staff, technicians and students, you have more expertise and more brainpower — it just makes sense to be working together.”

Where are the women?

Yellowlees is passionate about science education, and as her comments last year revealed, she’s committed to the cause of equality and diversity. Becoming the RSC’s first woman president has been a great pleasure for Yellowlees, but she also knows this position provides her with a unique opportunity.

There's no such thing as a boy's job

Professor Yellowlees

“Oh, absolutely,” she agrees. “I have a real feeling of pride, but also of responsibility. I never set out to be a role model, but I’m told now people do look to me, and that's fine. I’m at stage in my career when I really do want to give something back, I want to spend some time helping all our promising academics realise their potential. We need more women coming through. There are very few at the level I’m at and I see helping to change this as part of my role.

“It’s about engaging people in this conversation. I very much enjoy going out and speaking to young people at school, to explain how they can have a very good career in science or engineering. It’s also about engaging some of the parents, who might need reminded there is no such thing as a ‘boys job’. Chemistry has a good uptake at university, it’s about 50-50, but with engineering, I think the number of girls going in is less than 20 per cent. However, it’s not just an issue with stereotyping, and we’re not unique in Scotland with this problem, but there is a leaky pipeline from school through to university and with industry.

“Some women are making it through to the top now, we’re getting there, but it’s slow ... we need changes with support for childcare, flexible working, and transparency in the pay and promotion processes. I want to do what I can, and it’s my dream to see more women make it to the top in science. I want to make sure the phone calls between women to say: ‘Why didn’t you get it?’ just don’t happen anymore.”

Increase scientific literacy, increase engagement

Yellowlees might be disappointed by the rate of change but equally frustrating for her is the level of understanding about science, and it’s potential for humanity, in wider society. 

“I would love to see everyone, from the cradle to the grave, enthused by science, and to see possibilities for it,” she says. “It’s another dream of mine: I’d like to see more people involved, and we should be engaging the public in debate. My husband, who is not a scientist, was watching a programme on television about the expense of drugs. 

"What we have to do is to engage the public in a debate before the drugs become available; it would stop the issue becoming so emotional. Sometimes we get the debate round the wrong way.

“Yet if we could have a scientifically literate society we could engage in a wider conversation, people would understand the numbers and the risks, and we could go forward stronger together, with people understanding what we are trying to do. Unfortunately, there is little hope of that with the policy makers, as so few have a scientific background.” 

You can bet that will be next on the professor’s to-do list. As Yellowlees admits, her lifelong love of science was first sparked by it offering her the chance to excel at school. “I loved the analytical aspect of science, I like to be able to sit down and think things through,” she says. “However, I always enjoyed science because there was a right answer, and I could get 100 per cent in an exam. I am an overachiever, I’m told.”

This article first appeared in The Times Business Insight, Tuesday January 29 2013

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