The field of sustainable chemistry has taken center stage in addressing critical global challenges such as climate change, pollution, and resource scarcity. To effectively tackle these complex issues, collaboration and innovation are paramount.
Sustainability, at its core, requires a holistic approach that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. Transformative innovations often emerge at the intersection of different fields, where diverse expertise converges to address complex problems. However, once researchers establish their own research groups, changing course and branching into new, interdisciplinary areas can be challenging.
Collaboration across industry and academia, and across disciplines is key to addressing the pressing sustainability challenges of our time. Benefits of these collaborations include:
People who have been engaged in these cross-sector, multidisciplinary partnerships will readily speak to their value. We caught up with a few collaborators to get their perspectives firsthand.
Mark B. Shiflett, Ph.D., P.E. is a Distinguished Foundation Professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Kansas and the Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Ionic Liquids. He came to academia after a long career in industry at DuPont where he helped develop the replacements for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants. “I have experienced the advantages of academic-industry partnerships both when I worked at DuPont and now at the University of Kansas, and I’m a firm believer that this is an important model for both institutions to be competitive in the future,” Shiflett says.
In a conversation with Shiflett, he described how the research landscape has changed over the years across many industries. Large R&D departments that were doing high-risk high-reward research with a 10-year development window have been abandoned in favor of short-term business opportunities. Academia, on the other hand, is a good place to experiment, bring diverse disciplines to the table, and recruit students from a variety of backgrounds.
Shiflett describes a scenario of mutual benefit where academia can leverage its research capacity and develop young innovators, while industry connections can provide input on what is needed to sustainability transform a multi-billion-dollar industry.
From a university perspective, Shiflett says industry partnerships provide financial support for research, educational, and service missions. “The partnership broadens the experience for students and faculty and can identify important and interesting problems that are relevant to industry,” he says. “The partnerships can also enhance economic development and increase employment opportunities for students.”
From an industry perspective, Shiflett says academic partnerships provide companies with knowledge, expertise, and resources that may not be available within the company. “Universities can evaluate more research options faster than often can be done in a large company,” he says. “Companies can participate in federally funded research with universities as partners to broaden their research portfolios.”
Additionally, Shiflett notes that partnerships can create networks for faculty and students, lead to internship opportunities, and help companies find new team members. “Companies get access to talent through students (graduate and undergraduate) and post-doctoral researchers over a sustained period of time to make the best decisions when hiring new employees,” Shiflett says.
Shiflett is fully leveraging industry-academic collaboration in a planned multi-university engineering research center that brings together the research community, industry, and educational institutions to address critical scientific, engineering, workforce development, and policy issues related to the future of refrigeration and air conditioning.
Megan Arnett, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and Education and Outreach Coordinator for the BEACO2N project. The Center’s Greener Solutions Program has long been at the forefront of providing a unique opportunity for students to explore real-world industry sustainability challenges. This program recruits students each year to work alongside partner organizations on interdisciplinary projects designed to pinpoint opportunities to adopt safer chemicals and materials within the organizations.
”At the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, we have seen first-hand the magic that happens when industry and academia are united in purpose and mission,” Arnett says. “Industry/Academia collaborations provide an avenue to overcome the tension that often exists between incumbency and innovation, providing a shared space for ingenuity that acknowledges the needs of the industry. When we bring the strengths of both academia and industry to bear on the same challenge, we can accelerate the shift toward safer chemistries."
Scott Plummer, Ph.D., Senior Principal Scientist at Novartis, and Landon Durak, Ph.D., Associate Director of Drug Substance Development at Biohaven Pharmaceuticals, are co-chairs of the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable grant program. The Roundtable’s annual grant program offers research funding to academics investigating greener approaches to key areas relevant to the pharmaceutical industry. Through this program, industry researchers work directly with the principal investigators and their students. "We help the professors understand what industry is looking for in terms of greener technology," says Plummer. These exploratory research collaborations can lead to companies forming enduring partnerships with professors who are exploring cutting-edge technologies.
"By tapping into the academic talent pool, you can explore speculative ideas you may not have time or resources to pursue on top of your portfolio demands," says Durak. "Academic researchers can dig deep into new chemistry, and industry may be able to apply it back into their pipeline." For industry scientists like Durak and Plummer, the mentorship component of working with graduate students who are excited about green chemistry is personally enriching, as well as career-boosting for the graduate students.
To spark such collaborations, the ACS Campaign for a Sustainable Future is providing a new funding opportunity for principal investigators to foster collaborations and drive innovation: the Principal Investigator Development in Sustainability Grant. The grant aims to facilitate collaboration by providing additional salary support that allows faculty to spend 6-12 months in a different research facility to establish long-term collaboration.
This initiative provides a unique opportunity for businesses, national laboratories, and institutions to host academic experts in their organizations, backed by a $50,000 sabbatical stipend. Organizations can derive significant long-term benefits from this program. To facilitate this collaboration, we are working to compile a list of participating companies/institutions willing to host academics.
If your organization is interested in participating, you can complete a brief form that will list your company/national laboratory/institution as a potential participant in this program. The list of industry hosts and academic researchers will be shared only with the involved/interested parties.
Please consider exploring the potential of hosting academics who can contribute to your organization's sustainability initiatives. Your participation can be a pivotal step toward driving innovation, solving sustainability challenges, and advancing the field of green and sustainable chemistry.
Early or mid-career investigators deeply committed to the principles of green and sustainable chemistry are invited to apply for the Principal Investigator Development in Sustainability Grant. By joining this initiative, you can embark on a transformative journey, cultivating cross-disciplinary alliances and advancing research that directly contributes to a more sustainable future. Act now and visit the application portal to submit your proposal before the November 15, 2023 deadline. If you are looking for research opportunities, you may also fill out the form, and we will see if there is a potential match to your interests.
Together, let's unlock the potential of cross-industry and cross-disciplinary collaborations in sustainable chemistry and create a positive impact on our world.
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