A couple of recent comments got me thinking about the ‘big issues’ in materials science. Marshall Stoneham in his review of Robert Cahn’s book [Materials Today (2002) 5 (10), 37] cited the plastic bag as one of the great achievements of materials science. But with this success, there comes a problem: waste. Rustum Roy’s subsequent reflections on the neglect of ‘giga-problems’ [Materials Today (2002) 5 (12), 72] struck a cord. In this era of mass consumerism [an issue, incidentally, that is analyzed for the first time in a book by Thomas Princen et al., Confronting Consumption (2002, MIT Press)], the generation of waste and how to deal with it is increasingly — or should be — a cause for concern.

Here is where materials science surely has something profound to offer. By providing improved technologies for recyclable or biodegradable materials, and renewable energy sources, materials science could offer a solution to some of the pressing problems faced by the human race. Who better to advise on the sensible — sustainable — use of materials than a materials scientist? Julian Vincent touched on some of these issues in his comparison of man and nature’s use of raw materials [Materials Today (2002) 5 (12), 28–41]. Are cheap resources, he asks, necessarily better? The sentiment echoes the bottom line in Princen et al.’s book, how do we get from the idea that ‘more is better’ to ‘enough is best’?

Europe seems to be waking up to the centrality of materials science to the issue of sustainability. A recent conference in Germany on Future Sustainable Technologies concluded with a general declaration. Intended as recommendations for goals in the research, development, and implementation of novel materials and processes, the declaration identifies three pillars of sustainability: economy, ecology, and society. “Every single step in materials flows,” says the declaration, “including exploration, mining, production, distribution, utilization, and recycling must not only fulfill the ‘usual’ functional and economic requirements but must also meet the ecological and social demands of sustainability.”

European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin suggests that nanotechnology may be a revolution for sustainability (and for Europe, as well, perhaps?). “Nanotechnologies offer a crucial contribution to sustainable development,” he says, and will allow Europe “to do even more and better, while using fewer resources.” Realizing the potential of nanotechnology in this area is vital, he says, for Europe to meet its international commitments to, for example, the Kyoto Protocol and to be competitive. The ‘twin’ issues of nanotechnology and sustainability will occupy a pivotal role in the 6th European Framework Programme for Research, receiving nearly $3.5 billion over the next four years. Busquin asks the question, “How can we guarantee a quality of life of people today and future generations?” Technology holds the answer, he concludes, and research, “because no research, no innovation.” To paraphrase the director of the International Council for Science, Thomas Rosswall, after the Johannesburg World Summit last summer, now is the time to create a science — a materials science — for sustainable development.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00101-9