Increasing chemical engineering contributions to sustainable policy development: an Australian perspective
SINCE retirement, I have valued the opportunity to continue contributing to chemical engineering at Monash
University, Australia, and through IChemE volunteer work. Retirement has provided an opportunity to reflect on the achievement and skills of our profession, but also concern about some recent issues in Australia, namely:
These issues are not simple, and demand an understanding of the complexities involved. Chemical engineers have the background and skills to address such challenges, but our profession as a whole has not traditionally tackled related policy development as a priority. The root cause of this reluctance is, I believe, embedded in the traditional culture, practice, and education of our profession.
Government policy on economics (eg taxation, payroll overheads), safety (eg major hazard facility regulation), and environmental performance (eg emissions and waste disposal regulation) is well recognised in our education and practice.
In chemical engineering literature on sustainability, the importance of stakeholder engagement is emphasised, including with government policymakers and legislators. However, little reference is made to how chemical engineers should contribute to policy development and outcomes. Our profession sees itself as agents in improving process technology, design and operations, meeting a spectrum of performance criteria. Most commonly we are employed by private companies, specialising in particular resources or products, and as part of this activity, meeting legislative requirements. Rarely do we adopt the perspective of government planners or policymakers.
Recent IChemE presidents have raised the importance of chemical engineers communicating with the wider community. The latest version of Chemical Engineering Matters makes several key points related to communicating with policymakers:
IChemE has also undertaken initiatives such as the Energy Centre, a key step in potentially contributing to government policy development.
A key question is what we can do as individuals and corporately in contributing to future government policy on matters such as energy, water, and transforming raw materials into valuable products. There are specific examples where government policy related to Australia’s resources and opportunities to add value to them has been deficient. In most of these cases, there is little evidence of a concerted effort by the chemical engineering profession as a whole to make formal, well-organised contributions to policy development. A number of these cases are now briefly reviewed.