Alongside the importance of raising the visibility of what materials science contributes to the economy, an emerging theme at the Materials Research Exchange (MRE) in the UK 12–13 March 2018 was the importance of establishing responsible values for conducting and implementing materials science research.
“We need to consider the cultural, social and environmental impact of new materials,” Lord Haskell told the MRE 2018 plenary attendees, a theme that recurred in talks and discussions with attendees and exhibitors throughout the conference. While the £100bn annual turnover, £50bn exports and 450,000 jobs the materials industry contributes to the UK economy were celebrated as you might expect, there was also clear interest in the values of materials science – beyond its obvious contributions to environmental challenges, such as renewable energy sourcing and storage.
Samuel Jarvis from the recently established Materials Science Institute at Lancaster University – a virtual organization that links several departments involved in materials science at the university – gave as an example one of the alloys used in mobile phones. From sourcing the alloy to its disposal, it is an embarrassing story. It is mined in impoverished, often war-torn regions of Africa that see little of the affluence the alloy bestows, and extracting it from waste is a process so toxic that it ends up back in Africa where regulations are less stringent. Yet while the ensuing “urban mining” of precious metals from waste in developing countries may be hazardous, it can also be a significant contribution to local economies. It may be that the benefits of not using such alloys outweigh economic deficits in the short-term, but as Jarvis added, “we have to start thinking of all the positive and negative outcomes when we come up with an alternative material”.
As well as launching a framework for “Responsible Research & Innovation”, EPSRC is also allocating resources into tackling diversity, which is particularly low in engineering. Taking gender as a case in point, Richard Gunn, Head of Advanced Materials and formerly Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at EPSRC, pointed out that at just 10%, the UK is at the bottom in Europe when it comes to female representation among engineering professionals. While a discouraging statistic, initiatives such as innovate UK’s Women in Innovation among others are intended to improve matters.
That said, materials science is clearly making a lot of positive contributions to society, the environment and the economy. As well as the impressive economic statistics, presentations highlighted some of the achievements that materials research and SMEs were helping to deliver. Examples include Realcar, a university–industry collaboration for aluminium that is helping Jaguar towards its goal of using 75% recycled aluminium. In her plenary, chief executive of Innovate UK Ruth McKernon also highlighted the work of CCm Research, which turns industrial CO2 into plastics and fertilizer, and Polysolar, which specializes in organic polymer photovoltaic materials for glazing and has recently produced a heated energy-harvesting bus stop.
But another point Gunn raised is the difficulty the materials community has in distinguishing itself when compared with other sectors, such as quantum technology. Media coverage extolling quantum cryptography clearly celebrates achievements of quantum research, but the praise due to materials science is not so apparent when describing, for example, advances in batteries to enable increased uptake of electric vehicles. Materials science is crucial in a lot of less obvious sectors. As Phil Williams from the Knowledge Transfer Network pointed out in the robotics session, “robotics is so advanced that what will help an amputee to walk now is advances in materials science”. At the Materials Research Exchange at least both the value and values of materials science were clearly evident.