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NSF's Chemical Bonding Centers

New centers fund collaborative work on large-scale, high-risk chemical problems

by Susan R. Morrissey
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

During a sabbatical in 2001, Spaldin spent time teaching educators in Nepal about science. She proposed to start a similar program in California as part of the Chemical Design of Materials Center.
During a sabbatical in 2001, Spaldin spent time teaching educators in Nepal about science. She proposed to start a similar program in California as part of the Chemical Design of Materials Center.

The traditional peer review system used by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies to evaluate research grant proposals has proven to be a good way of ensuring that the best projects get funded. The more proof-of-concept experiments that a researcher can include in his or her proposal, the more likely it will be scored well in this system. As a result, more conservative, lower risk proposals are perceived to have an advantage.

Some scientists worry that this characteristic of the peer review system could lead to missed opportunities to make big strides in science. This concern has not fallen on deaf ears at NSF's Division of Chemistry. The division has launched a new initiative called the Chemical Bonding Centers (CBC) program that is designed to target highly innovative research.

The program encourages researchers to tackle large-scale, high-risk problems in chemistry through collaborative groups of scientists and engineers from around the country who join to form a virtual center. The flexible structure of the centers allows for the principal investigator to put together a team with the exact personnel needed to address the problem, regardless of geographic or departmental location. The structure also allows for the composition of the investigating team to change as the need for expertise evolves.

The idea for the CBC program developed from the workshop "New Mechanisms for Support of High-Risk & Unconventional Research in Chemistry," held at NSF in May 2003, says Philip B. Shevlin, program officer managing the bonding centers. "Essentially, the idea of the workshop was to explore ways in which we can encourage what we call high-risk research with a potential of high return," Shevlin says.

Incorporating the division's priorities with the workshop's recommendations, the Division of Chemistry set up the CBC program with the intent that these centers be "collaborations of very talented people getting together to propose to solve what we would say is a big problem in chemistry--either a new problem or a problem that has maybe been around for a while, but we now have the wherewithal to solve it," Shevlin explains.

An important component of these centers is that the research be transformative, Shevlin points out. "We didn't really want to be funding very good people to do more of what they're already doing--although they certainly should be funded for that," he says. Instead, he explains, the goal of this initiative is to get researchers to think more boldly and come up with proposals that would make important advances in the chemical sciences.

In addition to encouraging innovative research, the program is also focused on public awareness of chemistry. According to Shevlin, the hope is that these projects will not only be innovative, but they will also capture the imagination of the public through education and outreach activities.

TO CHOOSE the first centers it would fund, the Division of Chemistry used a two-step plan. Initially, the scientific community was invited to submit preliminary proposals for peer review. The resulting reviews were then evaluated by a panel charged with finding new, high-risk, potentially high-payoff projects. A subset of the initial proposals was chosen and those investigators were invited to submit full proposals. The process was repeated.

Ultimately, three proposals were selected to become the first CBCs. Announced in late August, the centers are the Center for the Activation & Transformation of Strong Bonds, the Chemical Design of Materials Center, and the Darwinian Chemical Systems Center (C&EN, Sept. 6, page 33). Each center will receive a grant of $1.5 million over three years to complete proof-of-concept experiments. If after this initial period the projects continue to show high potential, they will be eligible to compete for Phase II grants that could run $2 million to $3 million per year for five years.

Credit: Jack Szostak
Credit: Jack Szostak
Credit: Serena Newhall
Credit: Serena Newhall

"The awards are emblematic of the kinds of bold visionary projects in basic research and education that the CBC program was designed to support," says Arthur B. Ellis, director of the Division of Chemistry at NSF. "They are projects that have the capacity to impact many areas of science and technology, and they also have the potential to engage the public." He adds that the division is now accepting proposals for the next round of awards.

The Center for the Activation & Transformation of Strong Bonds is the largest of the three centers, with 12 investigators located at seven different institutions across the country. Based at the University of Washington, this center is led by chemistry professor Karen I. Goldberg. The goal of the center, as the name suggests, is to find new methods of activating and transforming strong bonds.

"One of the large problems that we are going to tackle is C­H bond activation and functionalization," Goldberg says. "There has been a lot of work on activating C­H bonds, but carrying that to fruition and functionalizing the C­H bond has proven to be more difficult. All of the people involved in this center have worked in the area of bond activation and have joined together in hopes that with our diverse set of talents and expertise, we can as a group make real progress on this problem," she explains.

The center will also include undergraduate research programs in the summer based at each of the participating institutions. According to Goldberg, the students will work with the various investigators and come together at the end of the summer to present their work. In addition, the center plans to develop a presentation that the students and postdocs from around the country involved with this project can give at local secondary schools. "The presentation will concentrate on the goals of the center and how progress toward these goals will affect society," Goldberg says.

At the Chemical Design of Materials Center, based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, associate professor of materials Nicola A. Spaldin leads a six-member team of scientists from four institutions who are developing "smart" materials with rationally designed electrical and magnetic properties that can change in useful ways based on outside stimulation.

According to Spaldin, the novelty of this project is that it uses basic chemical principles to drive the design of new materials. "Our goal is to use a real chemistry-based approach to first understand what causes functionality in solids and then to use that to design and prepare new materials," she notes. "We are particularly interested in making new materials that combine functionalities that don't like to occur together naturally," she says.

Spaldin points out that another of the center's goals is to inform the public about the chemical nature of this work. "We want to help the public realize that chemistry is driving much of modern technology and innovation, as opposed to thinking that electrical engineering and physics drive all their little gadgets," she says.

The center will also work with fifth-grade teachers and students in California. Spaldin explains that this grade was chosen because it's when students in that state are first introduced to the principles of chemical bonding. "We're first going to work with teachers to introduce them to concepts in materials chemistry and develop hands-on activities for them to take into the classroom," she says.

The importance of linking these centers to education initiatives is underscored by Jack W. Szostak, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, who leads the Massachusetts General Hospital-based Darwinian Chemical Systems Center. He notes that plans are being developed for education activities related to the center's focus.

"I THINK one of the things that can help education in chemistry is talking to kids about projects that are really exciting, not just little incremental steps, but the really big things you can do with chemistry," Szostak says. "I hope we can have some impact on that."

The long-term scientific goal of this three-investigator center is to use molecular design and lab selection to generate RNA-like structures that undergo self-replication. "The difference between normal chemistry and systems that show Darwinian evolution is the role of natural or directed selection and preferential reproduction," he explains. "Instead of just letting chemicals react and seeing what we get, we're trying to do what living systems do and arrange a chemical system that actually shows self-replication where more effective molecules replicate faster," he says.

The scientific novelty of this project is its complexity and the fact that the goal is to get chemistry to behave in a way that is biological, Szostak says. "We are really trying to use every tool of chemistry to get Darwinian evolution to work," he notes.

The leaders of all three centers are excited to be involved in such a novel program and look forward to interacting with their fellow investigators to make significant advances in basic chemistry. "The important thing about the CBC program is that it is targeting funding at really big, interesting questions that might normally be seen as too risky to push forward on," Szostak notes.

But it's not just the frontiers of science that stand to gain from this new program. "I think this program is going to be a tremendous benefit for the Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars involved in the research," Goldberg points out. "They will have the opportunity to work closely with eminent scientists at all of these different places on a regular basis."

"This program is filling a need," Spaldin says. "If things go well, the idea is that these centers will blossom into very big affairs and have a larger budget, more flexibility, and a larger group in terms of what we are able to do."



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