Solvay’s 150 years of commitment to science: From Conference to Prize
Promoting scientific research and excellence is in our DNA
From the prestigious conferences initiated in the early 20th century to today’s Chemistry for the Future Prize, Solvay has always maintained a tradition of encouraging the advancement of scientific research. For the love of science, but also out of a long-standing sense of collaborative intelligence.
There were a few slow decades for the Solvay Conferences after World War II, and there was some talk of ending them altogether, until they were revived by Jacques Solvay in the 1960s. Ernest’s grandson was the president of the Institutes from 1958 to 2010, and he made sure they regained the academic level they had before the war. Distinguished scientists of their time continued to be associated with the Conferences, such as Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003), the naturalized Belgian physical chemist renowned for his work on the theory of chaos, who was appointed director of the Institutes in 1959, and then went on to receive a Nobel Prize in 1977.
The Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry
Today, the Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry pursue their mission, meeting in Brussels alternatively every three years (one year for physics, one gap year, one year for chemistry); the latest edition, dedicated to physics, was held in October 2017. Jean-Marie Solvay took Jacques’ succession in 2010. The Solvay Institutes continue to have a strong impact within the international scientific community and though the historical glamour and the big famous names of the first editions are a thing of the past, the level of quality of the conferences remains second to none, with a fair share of Nobel Prize winners or future laureates attending, before receiving the acclaimed recognition. For example Ben Feringa (pictured below), the Dutch chemist who received the Nobel in 2016 – after having been a Solvay Prize laureate – participated in several conferences. This is because the scientific committees that organize each physics and chemistry conference are comprised of outstanding and world renowned scientists that have total freedom to choose both the subject and the scientists who will participate in these events.
The Nobel Prize and Solvay
Speaking of Nobel Prizes, there is actually an interesting comparison to be made between Alfred Nobel and Ernest Solvay. These two chemical industry captains of the second Industrial Revolution invested their personal fortune for the encouragement of science, but while the former created prizes for completed research, the latter rather wanted to promote academic reflection and the general advancement of science. “Ernest Solvay encouraged curiosity-driven research in the making, and today the Solvay Prize follows the same logic, remarks Richard Thommeret, Communication Director at Solvay’s Research & Innovation department. There is still lots to develop based on the work of Solvay Prize laureates. With Solvay, scientists are rewarded for the potential impact of their work.”
Ernest Solvay encouraged curiosity-driven research in the making, and today the Solvay Prize follows the same logic.
Collaboration with public research institutions
But Solvay’s involvement in the scientific world doesn’t limit itself to the Institutes. For example in 1927 when the FNRS, the Belgian public research institution, was founded, the Solvay family acted as its main sponsor, contributing to as much as one quarter of its total budget!
A few years before that, Ernest Solvay was also instrumental in the foundation of the International Association of Chemical Societies (IACS) in 1911 in Paris, which would later morph into IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry), the world’s authority on chemical nomenclature and terminology to this day.
Similarly to the Conferences, Solvay’s objective was to do everything possible to make science more international, so that scientists from different “nations” (following the term used in those days) could discuss together in spite of mounting nationalist sentiments throughout Europe. “That’s why it was decided the Conferences would meet in Belgium, a neutral country, and be chaired by a quadrilingual Dutch scientist, explains Nicolas Coupain, Corporate Heritage Manager. This perfectly corresponded to Ernest Solvay’s vision. He wanted to encourage the scientific elite to work together regardless of nationality, which was a unique way of thinking: so far science was mostly considered from a national perspective.”
‘Open innovation’ before it was cool
Today, Ernest Solvay’s legacy lives on, both within the company and the Solvay Institutes – two organizations that operate separately, yet having been shaped by the same founder, they share the same passion for scientific excellence. “Ernest Solvay understood that only good things could come out of gathering scientists in the same room, says Richard Thommeret. The contemporary expression for this would be ‘open innovation’, and that represents a state of mind that is still very present within the company today.”
This idea of scientific patronage, supporting curiosity-driven research,giving an impulse while letting scientific minds work freely, seems to have been passed on through the 20th century. Every two years, the Solvay Prize for Chemistry for the Future symbolizes this continuity, as does the way in which research and collaboration are envisaged within the company on a daily basis. In the words of Ernest Solvay himself: “We have always operated by imposing on our minds a duty of continuous progress.”