Why My PhD Matters – But It’s Not Enough

Danilo Bertagna(ESR6)

All of the fellows in NOWELTIES are working hard on cutting-edge technologies of water treatment. Specifically, in my case, I should study the applicability of UV-LED photocatalysis for the degradation of organic micropollutants and develop optimized photoreactor designs to further reduce energy expenses. By doing that, it would be possible to degrade toxic substances which currently are not removed in conventional wastewater treatment plants – and the whole process would be more efficient, sustainable, and cheaper for society.

As it is clearly stated on our website, the program is funded by the European Union Framework Programme for Research. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it is. The possibility to work with R&D in a relevant field with all the required resources is exciting. EU initiatives such as NOWELTIES and many other projects are necessary at this moment, and I feel honoured to participate. However, since I decided to enter the academic world, I noticed that in order to not lose sight of the bigger picture, we must realize that almost all of our problems have barriers more significant than science and technology.

Contaminants of emerging concern have been reported to cause harm to ecosystems, and their effects in human health are still largely uncertain due to the chronic character of the continuous micro doses we are exposed over long periods of time. Scientists and engineers all over the world are continuously (and successfully) finding ways of degrading these substances – chemically, physically, and/or biologically – every day more efficiently. Having said that, there is an alarming mismatch between science and legislation. Laws and regulations about emerging pollutants are still globally scarce – and limited to highly developed countries. Even in European Union, where other efforts have been made such as the Surface Water Watch List under the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), only this year a new draft of the regulation of minimal requirements for water reuse (currently waiting for approval in the EU parliament) mentions these contaminants officially.

The reasons for that mismatch are easy to find. “Contaminants of emerging concern” embrace, among other classes of chemicals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. The agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry are formed by huge conglomerates whose profits’ leftovers contaminate our water, soil, and air. While the agribusiness concentrates private property and sets the tone of our society’s cost of living, the pharmaceutical industry keeps us “healthy” and helps us cope with facing our daily routine – in a rhythm that keeps accelerating indefinitely, in despite of the deterioration of our personal relationships and quality of living standards brought about by the commodification of everything.

The quest for efficiency and sustainability has become a sort of “holy grail” of science, repeated to exhaustion in academic publications, political speeches, and private enterprises “our mission” marketing statements. While highly qualified professionals and students are working with renewable energy, trying to make solar panels and wind turbines better and “applicable”, increasing their efficiency inch by inch, designing new green products, developing and evaluating life cycle assessments for all aspects of our production chain (in a constant state of struggle, fighting against budget cuts), the fossil fuel industry continues as strong as ever, heavily influencing politicians all over the world to avoid stricter environmental legislations. Additionally, many of its stakeholders fund research on renewable energy to control its framework of action and applications, or use it for marketing strategies.

If we put the rest of the world in this discussion, the situation gets much more critical. In my country (Brazil), wastewater treatment legislations are anything, but rigorous, limited to a few considerations on pH, suspended solids, turbidity, nutrients, and total organic matter – and the inspection of their compliance is sparse and corrupted. Furthermore, half of the country’s population does not have access to basic sanitation infrastructures and sewage collection. Dozens of pesticides forbidden in Europe due to their severe toxic effects and still used in Brazil on a large scale, like atrazine and glyphosate. In that scenario, to discuss state-of-art technologies to degrade contaminants of emerging concern seems naïve or hypocritical.

Our current crisis triggered by the COVID-19 is a crystal-clear example of how our problem is not a technological one. Cheap and straightforward products – like alcohol, soap, masks, and gloves – are enough to reduce the reach of this disease significantly. However, our production chain is unable to provide these most essential items to everyone who needs it, and governments hesitate to listen to scientists and to adopt measures that go against their economic interests to save lives.

I’d like to raise a few questions I’ve been thinking about since I started this PhD to all the professionals in the field of water treatment technologies:

  • Why some regions of the globe have stricter environmental legislations and significant investments in science, education, and technology while others “can’t afford” that?
  • How efficient and cheap our technology has to be so we could finally stop drinking poisoned water?
  • To what purpose do industrial activities poison our water in the first place?
  • Who profits from water pollution, and why should they?


If the ultimate goal of science is to improve the material conditions of our society, answering these questions and facing these issues are urgent. No personal growth is possible for a scientist if s/he remains unaware or indifferent to what happens away from the lab.