19 March was my visit to Rohm and Haas. I was met by Katie Hunt, Head of Technology Partnerships and former President of the American Chemical Society. She had set up a series of meetings with people from across the company and I had a fascinating afternoon with them.
We discussed (again) the cultural issues of innovation dividing the US and the EU, and an interesting thesis came to me. The risk-taking culture here can be seen as Darwinian, because just about everyone who has made the US what it is had taken a risk to do so. As the study of the Galapagos showed certain traits developed on certain islands when populations split, so the US has been built on a gene pool of risk-takers. Whereas in Europe, we’re the ones that stayed behind, that made the best of what we had. So maybe there’s not much we can do about it!
When I asked how Europe was perceived as an R&D destination, the answer was pretty depressing. Social costs are high, employment rules too rigid, there are inherent barriers to investment and Europe is seen as anti-science, with REACH and to an extent the GMO issue.
Contrary to the perception in the EU, there’s a strong interest here, both at Rohm and Haas and the previous day at DuPont, in environmental issues and alternative energies. Reasons as to why ranged from “it’s the right thing to do” to “it’s what our customers want”. Nevertheless, this is clearly seen as an area where Europe is in the lead, but if we don’t take the opportunity to use it, we will quickly get overhauled. Other areas mentioned where Europe was seen to have an advantage were carbon capture, biomedical (because of our approach to hESC) and high-efficiency vehicles.
Rohm and Haas is working with a Swedish NGO called Natural Step to address its environmental and energy issues – proof they’re serious or proof of a different approach which is about buying in expertise? Difficult to tell. The people I spoke with seemed genuinely motivated, not just driven by profit.
My final meeting of the session was with on communication. Back on familiar ground! Nothing particularly new or earth-shattering in what was said, but it confirmed much of the approach we have taken in the Potocnik cabinet – the need to change the means of talking about science, to focus on people’s/society’s values and what matters to them and if there is an issue, explain it. “The science” isn’t enough in itself nowadays. And rightly so, I reckon.
Then we got a couple of days off and went up country. No meetings, just beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and getting to know the others. Normal service resumes on Monday!