Honorary Doctor Sir Poliakoff’s speech at the TTÜ academic ceremony
I am honoured to accept this award.
I feel both delighted and humbled. It is fifteen years since I first visited your fascinating country. I was invited here following a chance meeting with Dr Mihkel Koel at a big conference in the United States. Dr Koel is a distinguished analytical chemist from your University and one of the pioneers of Green Chemistry in Estonia. He has been a close scientific friend ever since our first meeting.
At that conference, Dr Koel was accompanied by one of his Masters students, Maia Sokolova, who subsequently came to study for doctorate in Green Chemistry in my research group in Nottingham. She was an excellent student and is now a successful scientist. Her arrival in Nottingham also marked the beginning of a close friendship between our two universities. I very much hope that my award today will strengthen this friendship even further.
We are here today to celebrate the 98th Anniversary of this famous University and a number of important awards and, most importantly, to celebrate the doctorates of a new generation of students. Completing a doctorate is one of the hardest tasks in anyone’s education. For most of us, this period of research can be quite stressful. Will our work be good enough? Will our papers be published? And will we defend our thesis successfully? So I must warmly congratulate all of you who have succeeded and are receiving your doctorates today. You and your families should feel immensely proud of your achievement.
So now you are poised at the start of your independent careers and, if you are like me, you probably still feel apprehensive. Unfortunately the world of research is becoming more and more competitive. Universities and funders are becoming increasingly obsessed with the possible applications of research, the patenting of even minor advances, and with the quality of publications and the Impact factors of journals. Obviously you cannot ignore these things but I urge you to see them as they are. They are just fashions and, like all fashions, they will quickly go away. So you should not feel obliged to design your whole career merely to satisfy these passing fashions.
What you do need is to have confidence in yourself. Confidence but not arrogance because all of us have much to learn, even at my age. You should not look at the distinguished scientists and engineers on this platform and feel that they are somehow cleverer than you. The reason why those people are here on the platform while you are just graduating is that they are older than you and more advanced in their careers. Not because they are more intelligent than you.
Recently, like most British scientists, I have been very disappointed by the unfortunate decision of our country to support Brexit, the leaving of Britain from the European Union. Therefore, I and my colleagues at the Royal Society, the UK Academy of Sciences, have been working hard to convince our politicians, and the general public, how important international collaboration is for the successful conduct of science and engineering. For example, our campaign on Twitter under the hashtag “ScienceIsGlobal” which reached more than 10 million people and showed just how the most successful research teams have many different nationalities working in them. We very much hope that this multinational approach to science will continue after Brexit and that some of you will come to work in the UK.
And it is here that you, the new doctors, have some interesting advantages compared to many researchers. You come from a small country with an excellent educational system and a highly unusual language. So you can think differently! You can have ideas that others cannot have! The reason that this is so important is because human society and our planet are facing huge challenges – increasing population, diminishing resources, climate change, extreme weather, cybersecurity, antimicrobial resistance. These are problems that we cannot ignore. They must be addressed or humanity will not survive into the 22nd century. We need new ideas to tackle these challenges and you, the new graduates, are part of the generation which has to solve them. Each of you can make a contribution and together you can really make a difference. I wish you every success in this hugely important task and I hope that many of your achievements will be celebrated by this University at its 150th anniversary in the year 2068.
Sir Martyn Poliakoff, Professor, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom