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Chemistry, Key to our Future


© N.Tiget/CNRS Photothèque

Gilberte Chambaud,
Scientific Director, Institute of Chemistry.

Nature needed billions of years to assemble atoms in the complex edifices from which life emerged. Then, some tens of thousands of years were necessary for the first humans to tame nature and begin transforming matter: their first act as chemists was perhaps cooking their food to spare their teeth; their second, a more deliberate action, was undoubtedly to succeed in extracting metal from its ore to design tools, but also weapons. Moving from isolated actions to community efforts, man gradually developed his talents as a creator of new materials to improve his everyday life. He used grapes to produce wine, transformed sand into glass, mastered color for his artistic expression and, more recently, turned wood into paper.
The major revolution in chemistry took place in Europe during the 19th century. It was during the industrial era that chemistry played an essential role, supplying new materials that enabled the development of hygiene, communications, and comfort. A great shift occurred that steered human knowledge from empiricism and the mysteries of alchemy to understanding, analysis, and prediction. We soon discovered that matter was made up of a small number of different atoms that could be combined ad infinitum. Chemistry thus turned into a science that brought fascination, penetrated all facets of life, and became a source of progress.
Today, chemistry is everywhere. Such an assumption conveys both positive and negative feelings. It is somehow proof of its usefulness, but sometimes too often linked to risks, pollution, and toxicity, while we forget its necessity in preserving the environment and in providing many innovations and medicinal products. Yes, chemistry is key to our future. To answer current– and more importantly, future–needs, those active in the field of chemistry are finding the solutions to global challenges like renewable energy sources, climate change, water and food supplies, demographic growth, health, preservation of resources, and the environment. More interestingly, as you will read in our feature article, this field also enables a clearer understanding of our heritage, the creation of new materials, or even the development of more natural cosmetic products.
As a source of innovation, chemistry has a major impact on improving quality of life, and is also an essential motor for economic growth in all industrial sectors. At CNRS, the Institute of Chemistry is set to become the national reference for advancing knowledge in all fields of chemistry, ranging from molecules to materials and all their cross-disciplinary developments. It provides a national framework for sharing high-performance tools, like high-field nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers (NMR), the Chemical Analysis Central Service,1 which performs complex analyses for both private and public sectors, or the French National Chemical Library.2 The institute initiates and supports national and international collaborations based on excellence and complementary skills. Its activities are carried out in 12 CNRS intramural laboratories and 141 joint laboratories in close partnership with universities and other research institutions, including industry. The entire workforce involved in academic research in chemistry represents nearly 7500 people (half from CNRS), with 5000 researchers (including those teaching in universities), and 2500 technical staff.
In support of the UN resolution which designates 2011 as the “International Year of Chemistry,” all French actors in the field have signed a document in May 2009 formalizing their intention to act in concert.


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