Developing Policies: What Can We Do?

Article by David Brennan

Parliament House, Canberra: Our profession needs to make a more organised and constructive contribution to government policy

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:

  • lack of adequate planning in supply of natural gas in Eastern Australia;
  • lost opportunities to add value to our mineral and hydrocarbon resources;
  • lack of initiatives in materials recycling;
  • a growing decline in manufacturing; and
  • a decline in office activity dedicated to process design and project management.

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.

Our role in policy development

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:

  • Professional engineers often express frustration at the perceived lack of scientific and engineering knowledge in political circles;
  • IChemE encourages debate based on sound science and good engineering practice and supports constructive dialogue with policymakers; and
  • IChemE will continue to support and train members who are interested in engaging with policymakers and the media.

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.

Article by David Brennan

Associate professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Monash University

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