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Disturbing Trends

by Rudy M. Baum
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

In conversations I've had recently with leaders of the chemical enterprise, I've picked up on several troubling developments. I do not know precisely what they indicate, but I am pretty sure they do not bode well for our science or our profession.

A Harvard University chemistry professor told me that a proposed revision of the university's science curriculum divides the sciences into "Life Sciences" and "Physical Sciences" headed by two distinct science deans, both of whom are already at Harvard. One is affiliated with the biological sciences and one with physics/engineering. Non-chemistry majors would be exposed to chemistry only through two required courses, "Life Sciences A/B" and "Physical Sciences A/B." "Perhaps you see where I am going with this - chemistry remains central but now is caught in the middle," the professor said. "My worst fear, and something that would be terrible for science, is that the chemistry department will be split apart in the future."

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor told me that MIT's biological engineering division has hired several chemists in the past few years, one of whom is now teaching physical chemistry to biological engineering students. Apparently, the biological engineers do not think the chemistry department's p-chem course meets the needs of their students.

What's more, the MIT chemistry professor said, it was not entirely surprising that a chemist interested in applying chemistry to biological questions would perceive a biological engineering program as a more welcoming home than a chemistry department. The fear is that a tradition-bound chemistry department might very well be less likely to see the work of a biophysical chemist as advancing physical chemistry (for example) - and thus less worthy of eventual tenure - than the folks over in biological engineering.

At a recent workshop I attended, another Harvard chemistry professor said to me during a break, "Chemistry is in trouble. You should be writing about that." I asked him why he thought chemistry was in trouble, and he asked me, "What is the last major, innovative new product brought out by a chemical company?" When I admitted I couldn't name one, he said: "That's an industry in trouble. It's not doing productive R&D. The chemical industry's business model no longer has innovation as a major component."

At another recent workshop I attended, a University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor observed that several chemistry departments in the U.K. are being closed or losing their independent status because they are no longer seen as central to the missions of their universities. These include the chemistry department at the University of Sussex, home to Nobel Laureates John Cornforth (1975) and Sir Harold Kroto (1996), which has been folded into the university's School of Life Sciences.

These are disturbing developments. They indicate to me that we are not taking seriously enough the challenges for chemistry that are being posed by the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of science. Chemistry prides itself on being the "central science" because of the role it plays in advancing much of the rest of science. However, chemistry has been a little arrogant about its relationships with other disciplines - there has been a sense that chemistry does not always care about what other disciplines need from it pedagogically, intellectually, or methodologically.

The result is that some chemists are feeling shunned by their own discipline because that discipline does not seem to respect the science they are now doing. And some science departments that should be natural allies of chemistry are going their own way and developing chemistry curricula and research programs better suited for their students and faculty.

I suspect that what I have been hearing is just the tip of the iceberg. If these sorts of developments are occurring at Harvard, MIT, and Sussex, they are occurring elsewhere, too, I'm sure. I would like to hear from C&EN readers about similar developments they know of and what they think about them. Write me at

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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