The Nobel Prize as a catalyst for progress on the Sustainable Development Goals

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is shared by Benjamin List of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany and David MacMillan of Princeton University for their independent discovery of small molecules as alternative catalysts (to enzymes and metals) for chemical reactions. This might serve as a welcome example of how basic research can help us move towards the ambitions embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UN’s Agenda 2030.

Many chemical reactions, both biochemical and others, are catalyzed. The concept of catalysis was introduced by Jöns Jacob Berzelius in 1835. A catalyst is a substance that facilitates a chemical reaction by lowering its activation energy without itself being consumed – resulting in a more sustainable chemical process of lower overall energy demand.

Future generations

Catalysis can be for good or for bad, and sustainability is our responsibility to future generations. An important task of universities must be to generate “counter-innovations” that reduce rather than increase the distance to the SDGs. Together with two of my colleagues I introduced this term – counter-innovations – in a recent chapter in the book The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa.  In the present context the discovery of alternative catalysts might help “counter” the negative effects of the multitude of innovations whose accumulated carbon footprint challenges the planetary boundaries.

Let us look back on another Nobel Prize of relevance to the issue at hand. In 1995 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, providing a sterling example on how new knowledge and political engagement by scientists can contribute to progress on environmental goals. In this case, knowledge regarding the formation and chlorine-catalyzed decomposition of atmospheric ozone – processes that are affected by our emissions of various gases – has enabled sustainable development.

Questioned discovery

Out of Sweden’s 16 national environmental goals, it is only the goal of a protective ozone layer that is currently achieved. Initially, the discovery that chlorofluorocarbon compounds, or freons, could deplete the ozone layer of the stratosphere was questioned, not least by the chemical industry providing these compounds to refrigeration and freezing systems. A long struggle by the researchers eventually paved the way for the Montreal Protocol in 1987, in which the world’s nations agreed to ban emissions of the harmful gases. What started as research ended up in policy changes that forestalled irreversible damage on human and planetary health.

As mentioned above this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by Benjamin List and David MacMillan for their discovery of small molecules as alternative catalysts for chemical reactions. The use of simple, easily accessible and benign small molecule catalysts such as proline (List’s discovery) and an imidazolidinone (MacMillan’s discovery) may contribute to SDG 12 responsible consumption and production and its targets of a more efficient use of nature’s resources and a reduced amount of toxic waste. That the discoveries have been further developed into highly efficient processes to make chemicals in a much reduced overall number of reaction steps, may contribute to the SDG target on the use of more sustainable methods in industry.  

Widely applied

Asymmetric organocatalysis has been widely applied in the field of medicinal chemistry to prepare for example antiviral, anticancer, neuroprotective, cardiovascular, antibacterial and antiparasitic agents (Han et al. Chem. Soc. Rev., 2021,50, 1522–1586) related to both communicable and non-communicable diseases of SDG 3 good health and wellbeing.

Scientific discoveries and innovations have taken us to where we are today – for good or bad.  We need to ponder how science can lead us in the right direction – towards a more sustainable development. Knowing that the health of humans and the health of the planet are inextricably intertwined our mindset must be that every step matters – be it small or large.  


In the Nobel week – when we are celebrating researchers whose discoveries  “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” – we are well served to remember the challenges that we as humankind are facing, in the hope that they will inspire scientific endeavors in the years to come.  

Michaela Vallin provided invaluable input to this blog. Her contributions are gratefully acknowledged.


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