The tension of short-termism (Day 70)

Short term versus long termOne of the biggest frustrations that many scientists and engineers face, both in academia and industry, is short-termism. For issues like sustainability it’s problematic.

Investors and politicians can be nervous about taking the long-term view. Business likes quick wins; figures it can report quarterly and give annual performance targets.

By contrast, the journey to sustainability is often gradual, steady and long-term. For many of us it is a continual process of improvement – a step-by-step process of finding ways to use less energy, reduce waste and generally improve.

Innovation is even more challenging. The development and implementation of new technology is measured in years and decades – not months. It all leads to a tension that can undermine research and investment in particular.

One example is the planned new nuclear build in the UK. Until the UK government gave full backing and agreed a strike price, limited progress was made.

In difficult times, it is very easy to tighten the purse strings; cutting research funding to save money. In my view, it is exactly at this stage that companies should invest in research and improvements.

This is something I alluded to in my Presidential address. Often business is faced with satisfying shareholders and maintaining profit margins. However, this does not need to be to the detriment of sustainability.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices are a good source of inspiration about what can be done to improve sustainability. The top company in each of the 24 industry groups is named. To maintain position, continual improvements are needed.

In many of these industry sectors the improvements in sustainability performance have a contribution from chemical engineers. One inspiring example is the company leading the energy rankings – BG Group.

In 2012, BG Group passed its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one million tons. The new 2017 target aims to reduce the intensity of overall greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent.

The company is currently on-target to reduce group-wide sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 35 per cent (based on 2012 levels) by 2015. The main focus for achieving this target is in Tunisia, where its activities account for 30 per cent of the total SO2 emission by the Group.

There’s plenty more work to do, not only in achieving these targets, but how we promote and engage with policy makers, politicians and investors on issues like sustainability. Too few people will ever truly understand why chemical engineering matters if we don’t tell them.

One thought on “The tension of short-termism (Day 70)

  1. I agree that short termism is a problem.

    Recessions are actually good times to consider expansion projects, equipment and manpower are usually more competitve during recessions and by the time the project comes on line the recession will probably be over.

    If you invest during a boom the opposite is true, equipment and labour is expensive and by the time the project comes on line there is good chance that the boom will have bust.

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