Funding for life (Day 147)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that some of the most successful nations and organisations in the world are the ones that invest heavily in research. It is a way to fuel growth, improve competitiveness, efficiency, quality of life and much more.

R&D Spend

Research and development expenditure (% of GDP) 2009-2013. Source: The World Bank. Click to visit website and enlarge.

Some of the latest data from The World Bank shows who are the biggest researchers, as a percentage of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

There are some surprises, but in general the biggest spenders are in Europe and North America. The top 20 includes Israel (1st), Finland (2nd), Sweden (3rd), Denmark (4th), Germany (5th), Austria (6th), Slovenia (7th), United States (8th), France (9th), Belgium (10th), Estonia (11th), Netherlands (12th), Singapore (13th), China (14th), Czech Republic (15th), Canada (16th), Ireland (17th), United Kingdom (18th), Norway (19th) and Portugal (20th).

In our technical policy – Chemical Engineering Matters – we highlight why research is important and the contribution that chemical engineering can make on big issues like food, water, energy and health. In the strategy we say: “This report has identified a huge range of possibilities where chemical engineers can shape the future.

“IChemE will work to identify shining examples of chemical engineering research that offer real potential to change lives. It will act as a broker between the researchers, funding bodies and industry to build a confident and outward-looking international chemical engineering community that will play its part fully in building a more sustainable future.”

Chemeng365 is one of my contributions to this ambition, and I would urge all chemical engineers, with great stories to share, to work with their PR and marketing teams to promote their achievements to the wider public.

cystic fibrosisToday’s blog is called ‘Funding for Life’. I wanted to illustrate the difference that research funding and chemical engineering can make to quality of life – in this case sufferers of cystic fibrosis (CF).

People affected by CF, and their carers, will know that timely knowledge of a lung infection helps prevent life-shortening permanent damage to their already vulnerable airways. They need to seek immediate treatment.

Thanks to engineers at University of California, Irvine (UCI) – and a grant of US$1.3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) – they have developed a prototype low-cost, disposable lung infection detector.

The device can be used by people with cystic fibrosis, along with a smartphone, to immediately detect a lung infection, much like the device police use to gauge a driver’s blood alcohol level.

Regina Ragan

Associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, Regina Ragan.

Associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, Regina Ragan, and electrical engineer Filippo Capolino have created a nano-optical sensor that can detect trace levels of infection in a small sample of breath.

In addition to diagnosing medical conditions, the device could be modified to monitor environmental conditions – for instance, identifying harmful airborne agents produced through automotive or chemical industry practices.

Nanotechnologies such as this sensor depend on extremely small, nanometer-scale building blocks. A nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Fabricating on this tiny scale poses huge challenges, since most of the current methods that achieve a high level of precision are too costly and slow to be viable for manufacturing.

Regina says: “With support from the NSF and input from industry, our goal is to help nanoscale manufacturing processes leave the laboratory – where they’ve been confined – and become usable in widespread commercial applications.”

As a profession we can achieve so much. It’s up to use to keep shouting loudly for the funding that people like Regina can use so effectively.

One thought on “Funding for life (Day 147)

  1. I agree that we should be shouting loudly how chemical engineers can impact on human life and your point about R&D spending is well made.

    However, it is not just about how much money you spend on R&D but how well it is spent. One of the problems for the classic pharmaceutical industry is that their spend appears to be ever more ineffective. Small start up companies appear to much better at finding new products than the giant companies.

    It is also important to look at the “valley of death” where good ideas never make it to the market. The whole innovation process needs to work well so that you get plenty of “bangs for your bucks”.


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