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Disturbing Thoughts

November 8, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 45

I'd like to congratulate you for your provocative and potentially unpopular editorial "Disturbing Trends" (C&EN, Oct. 11, page 5). The same ideas were presented by Richard Zare in a talk that he gave at a presidential event at the last American Chemical Society national meeting held in Dallas (perhaps six years ago?). Zare predicted that while chemistry in the future will continue to be a central science, its practitioners may not call themselves chemists, and there may not even be departments of chemistry. He suggested that such a scenario might be the logical result of many chemists' reluctance to embrace evolution within the discipline. Consider what's happened to rhetoric departments, on the one hand, and biology departments, on the other.

John M. Schwab
Bethesda, Md.

You must get your information about the state of chemistry education from colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University instead of from sources within ACS. Compare C&EN coverage of the economic status of the detergent industry with that of chemistry education. There is nothing to compare. This all reflects a complete failure on the part of ACS to take a leadership role in the most important activity shaping the future of our profession.

The resulting problems should have been quite predictable. Over the years, U.S. graduate programs in chemistry have decreased the number of required courses in favor of increasing the research expectation. There are no guidelines to stop them.

As a consequence, an ACS-certified chemistry program tends to emphasize preparation for graduate school instead of producing functioning chemistry journeymen. Nobody wants their students flunking out of graduate school because of insufficient preparation in statistical mechanics. So our undergraduate programs turn out students with outstanding skills in wavefunction normalization and orthogonalization, but who have zero exposure to materials science, dynamic electrochemistry, flow systems, and many other bread-and-butter issues for actual working chemists.

The ACS standards for approval of a program at the bachelor's level are vague. The smallest unit of knowledge it addresses is the course. There is no guidance at the level of individual topics. Textbook publishers have a much greater influence on the curriculum than ACS. So far as I know, ACS has not issued even vague suggestions for the content of graduate programs. The "disturbing trends" of loss of relevance and identity are only to be expected.

Roger Barth
West Chester, Pa.

My environment is totally different from Harvard's, but I do share the views expressed in your editorial. I teach at a comprehensive university in an ACS-approved department of 11 faculty. What struck home to me about what you said was the fact that I saw this starting some time ago. In fact, I wrote a provocative opinion for the Journal of Chemical Education [73, 447 (1996)].

As a chemistry department, we are now about ready to get hit by round two for our reluctance to be more "accommodating." Our second-semester general chemistry course is viewed so negatively by some faculty in our biology department that they are recommending that students take it elsewhere during summer school. Of course, this course is traditionally structured to the (perceived) needs of our handful of chemistry majors. As I anticipated in my article, a cadre of "new biologists" who have some molecular training are starting to believe that they can do chemistry better than we can for their students (one of the phenomena related in your piece).

I have the same fear that you have: that chemistry will be gutted for the tools we have developed to study the molecular world, and that the content that is left behind will increasingly be viewed as largely irrelevant (unless we make some serious changes). C&EN has reflected this movement in terms of its coverage, which is overall more interdisciplinary, with more and more being related to biology on one side and materials on the other. Here's a question that really puts it in perspective: Imagine suggesting 20 years ago that a Nobel Prize in Chemistry would be awarded for revealing how proteins are degraded in the cell! For some, even now, that just ain't chemistry.

Now the good news: We have had retirements and are able now to consider doing things we should have done years ago. As you relate, we (collectively) are a pretty conservative bunch. It sure would be nice if we would be a bit more bold. Thanks for using the bully pulpit.

Emeric Schultz
Orangeville, Pa.

Don't you find it the least bit hypo-critical to lament the demise of chemistry when week after week C&EN devotes so much attention to the latest fads in nanoscience, chemical biology, and materials science?

Kevin L. Greenman
Irvine, Calif.

I enjoyed your editorial. It gets better than that. "What was the last major, innovative new product brought out by a chemical company?" You should have cited the cyclic oligomer technology invented by GE and the DuPHOS catalyst ligands from DuPont. But those would have been the exceptions to prove the rule.

In the fall of 1989, Daniel J. Brunelle of GE Global Research in Schenectady, N.Y., unveiled the cyclic oligomer technology that he had invented together with two dozen coworkers. This was the copolymerization of phosgene with bisphenol A to form polycarbonate plastic resin. But instead of a linear molecule, they got a cyclic molecule with about 20 monomer units. The resulting substance was a white powder that melted at about 200 °F to a liquid with the consistency of corn syrup. If initiated with a salt like sodium acetate, the liquid set up into polycarbonate resin of molecular weight 60,000 or so. The difference was that instead of molding polycarbonate resin at temperatures of 520­560 °F and pressures of 8,000­20,000 psi, they could make plastic parts at 200 °F and ambient pressures.

For the next 10 years, GE noodled around trying to develop the process. Brunelle became a grand old man of research at GE. That won him the ACS Award in Applied Polymer Science in 2001. But GE finally concluded that they could never recoup the cost of development. About 2000, they sold all their patents to a start-up company called Cyclics of Schenectady.

About 1990, Mike Burk of DuPont's Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del., fulfilled his employer's order to get the company into chiral chemistry by inventing the so-called DuPHOS catalyst ligands. For a moment, DuPont management thought of using the proprietary technology to get into the business of optically active amino acids as human dietary supplements, animal-feed additives, and organic synthons. Then they realized that they would have to get into a market already dominated by the Rexim division of Degussa and NSC Technologies. Faced with the need to enter businesses that could generate $1 billion-per-year sales at once, DuPont decided to sell the patents to what was then called ChiroScience of the U.K.

The patents passed from one company to another until the last U.K. firm was bought by Dow. Burk himself left DuPont for the University of Southern California and tried to continue chiral chemical research there. For whatever reason, he left USC and immigrated to the U.K. to work for ChiroScience. Most recently, he has come back to the U.S. and has worked for various chemical technology companies here.

So you might say these two major innovative new products are on their way to being commercialized. But the large chemical firms cannot justify commercializing even the most major and the most innovative ones.

Stephen Stinson
Metuchen, N.J.

I am an ACS and Royal Society of Chemistry member. I was a postdoc in the U.S. and am a regular visitor. You are dead right: Chemistry is in terrible trouble here in the U.K.

I have written a few comment pieces in RSC journals about chemistry in the U.K. One said that if we don't smarten up, a lot of good chemistry and most of the best chemistry will be done in departments that don't have chemistry in their title.

There is a tension between what students ought to know because they have always known it and what students might like to know. The seemingly inviolate requirement to cover the core leads to tension during hiring. The U.K. in particular has worried about appointing nonchemists into chemistry departments: "What would they teach?" is a common refrain. This tension has complicated the hiring of faculty whose research is based on chemistry but who do not belong to the club.

In the U.K., a strong strand of chemistry is operated by synthetic hands, often supported by studentships from industry. For many, this defined a collaboration, a colleague in industry who paid £10,000 per year for a student to work on some synthetic problem. While there is clearly a place for this, I think it gained undue influence in the 1970s and '80s. As a result, in the '90s, when it became clear that collaborative interdisciplinary research was needed for the most exciting problems, the mind-set was wrong for many chemists. In fact, the common refrain was, "I'm no one's technician."

Take this to its logical conclusion, and a compound can never be made if someone else asks you to make it for their research; thus, only compounds of no value to anyone else should be made. As Whitesides diagnosed, too much research in U.K. chemistry departments lacks innovation; it is short-term, low-risk, and low-gain. For young chemists wishing to break out of this mold, biology departments seemed a good home. In materials, physics departments have done well.

I would say that in the U.K. over the past five years many people became aware of the dangers, and things have improved rapidly. My own department is a model of collaborative interdisciplinary research in many areas: catalysis, biology, materials, and synthesis. That has not always been true; when I was appointed 10 years ago, several colleagues told me that I belonged somewhere else (and my first degree is in chemistry). A driver for this change has been the extinction of chemistry departments.

Decisions made in the 1990s are turning out to have disastrous consequences. We have lost several departments and are due to lose more. However, biology departments are appointing chemistry faculty at an increasing rate as part of their integrated, problem-focused teams. As with your examples, they teach the chemistry they believe is "relevant."

The solution to the problem of chemistry splitting apart (because it's teaching program is no longer "relevant") surely lies in changing what chemistry you need to know today and reshaping the curriculum accordingly. This might mean culling a few sacred cows (or mad ones); many of tomorrow's chemists may not know about statistical mechanics; free-radical rearrangements; P,Q,R branches; or f-orbitals. Perhaps these could be left for graduate student courses. Here there is a role for ACS and RSC; accreditation is a huge asset. ACS and RSC need to be active participants in shaping new accredited curricula and preserving the stuff that matters, but not the comfort blanket of a bygone era. Too often, these organizations are perceived as an anchor against just such change.

James H. Naismith
Fife, Scotland

Your editorial was meant, no doubt, to provoke. Some recent innovations of which I am aware:

  • DuPont: Engineering the soybean genome to produce any desired mix of fatty acids. Trans-fatty-acid-free margarine? With omega-3 fatty acids?
  • DuPont: Ink-jet printing. Where do the inks come from?
  • Intel: New materials for short-wavelength photolithography.

I could go on and on.

Douglass F. Taber
Newark, Del.

Yes, the trends seem disturbing. but I would suggest that they offer a great opportunity if heeded.


As we know, all species, institutions, and individuals face environmental change. Survival depends on the ability (including willingness) to respond effectively. Some change is sudden, allowing little opportunity to adapt, as was the case with dinosaurs. Chemistry is lucky in that the environment is offering many signals. C&EN has been reporting on the trend toward life sciences for years. Perhaps that message was not loud enough. Now structural changes within universities are offering a much louder message.

The message is a true gift. It's telling us that science is evolving with or without traditional chemistry. Survival requires embracing the change with all the creativity and innovation that the chemical community has to offer. I think it is a very exciting time if we listen.

Theodore D. Goldman
West Chester, Pa.

I am pleased that you have written about some of the disturbing trends that have been evident to many of us in the trenches for years. I worked in industry for 16 years, many of them as an R&D manager, before coming to West Chester University 15 years ago. While in industry, I was active in the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), including chairing their Public Relations Committee and leading many management training seminars. I have also been active in ACS as a career consultant and past chair of the Philadelphia Section. I agree with many of your perceptive comments. However, I am somewhat dismayed that it has taken so long.

One of the many benefits of serving science through ACS and IRI was getting to see chemistry and its role from different perspectives. Here is some of what I learned:

Duncan Davies, deceased, who was the marketing leader at ICI at the time, warned around the mid-1980s that the chemical industry was in crisis for several reasons. One of the key reasons was that the industry was separated from consumers (thus needs) and relied on its customers (who better understood needs at a primary level) to understand the true value of its products and true requirements for innovation. He foresaw the trend of classical chemical companies being bought by companies closer to the consumer.

Harry Coover, also deceased, I believe, produced a disturbing, but sadly true, multimedia essay on the changes in public perception of "chemistry." If you saw it, you will never forget it. It used the media's representation of "chemistry"--actually the chemical industry--to show how we moved from a view of chemistry as the savior of the world at or around World War II to the destroyer of the world by the late-1980s.

The association with the "chemical industry," in its current state of ill repute, may be doing a disservice to chemistry the science, the study of change at the atomic/molecular level. There are many human endeavors highly dependent on accurate representations and interpretations of behavior at the atomic/molecular level, and most of them fail to include chemistry in their name. I see the chemical industry as a subset of either the basic or refined materials industry (sold primarily for their composition) or of the performance material industry (sold primarily for their performance characteristics). Most of the products in these industries, particularly the former, are well past their prime in the product life cycle; thus, the word out of Harvard is hardly news. Ask industrial chemists looking for work; many will tell you that the jobs are in biotechnology or pharmaceuticals and primarily in synthesis or analysis.

ACS has been part of the problem in that, at least in the 1960s and '70s, there appeared to be a rigid interpretation of what was "real" chemistry. Witness the Materials Research Society and the Pittsburgh Conference. There might be others. Marginalization of subdisciplines has led to much of the splintering that we now see.

Many academic department course offerings are driven by ACS guidelines that many believe place far too much emphasis on producing graduates prepared for graduate school work in chemistry. The statement about arrogance is spot on. We hear it through code words such as relevance, or we don't hear it at all, we simply feel it, as other departments drop chemistry courses from their requirements.

Jim Falcone
West Chester, Pa.

The dour harvard chemistry professor that was cited in your editorial would feel better about chemistry if he knew about the exciting chemistry performed at DuPont. Some DuPont statistics: The company has more than 2,300 patents since 1998, nearly 450 patents in 2003, more than 25 major awards since 2003, and five new joint ventures since 2003.

DuPont is a science company. Although DuPont's brands are well-known, their products are not consumer products; they are unseen components of other products. For example, a typical handheld digital device contains up to 14 different DuPont products--most of them less than three years old.

DuPont is working on new electronic materials, polymers, and inks that will help product designers and electrical engineers build the next generation of wireless phones, computers, and PDAs (personal digital assistants). DuPont's Artistri digital printing inks for textile systems are revolutionizing the printed textile industry with brilliant colors, speed, quality, and design flexibility. Serona fiber, DuPont's newest polymer platform, is made from cornstarch rather than petroleum-based feedstocks. DuPont's Super Solids technology, based on a polymer engineering breakthrough that led to a class of automobile coatings with lower solvents content and higher solids content, has helped reduce clear-coat air emissions by 25% in auto assembly plants.

The list goes on: DuPont brands such as Kevlar, Nomex, Teflon, and Tyvek have been around for decades, but they are continually being improved.

I hope this gives you another, and perhaps a more realistic, perspective on the state of chemical innovation at one dynamic U.S.-based chemical company.

Marvin J. Rudolph
Sharon, Mass.

I chair the MIT School of Engineering committee that is developing a biological engineering undergraduate curriculum for an anticipated new degree at MIT, and I participate in teaching the "biological engineering" physical chemistry class you mentioned in your editorial.

My take on biological engineering-chemistry educational interactions is more positive than the one you described. Our curriculum includes several subjects taught by the chemistry department, and a joint-taught physical chemistry course will soon be among them. My chemistry colleagues have taken substantial interest in the development of the biological engineering curriculum and are helping it evolve. Over the past year, we have worked together--at their initiative--to develop a common p-chem subject that will meet the educational needs of biological engineering students, and we will start to teach p-chem together this spring.

Linda G. Griffith
Cambridge, Mass.


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