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Redefining Chemistry

Observations on chemistry's evolution suggest that the 'central science' theme is wearing thin

by Stephen K. Ritter
November 29, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 48


Will chemistry as a discipline be a part of science in the future? This is a question that chemists and chemical engineers have been pondering for a long time, as evidenced by reports, surveys, and editorial commentary that focus on the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of science. The latest idea to be proffered is a suggestion by C&EN Editor-In-Chief Rudy Baum that maybe it's time for the American Chemical Society to consider renaming itself the Society for Molecular Sciences & Engineering to reflect the changes that are taking place (C&EN, Nov. 8, page 5).

I imagine that Baum's suggestion is waking up a lot of chemists who dozed off after years of comfortably listening to the message that chemistry is nonpareil as the "central science." Chemistry is and will continue to be a body of knowledge essential for science to function. But chemistry as a discipline is noticeably in trouble and has been for some time, as Baum and others have pointed out. Baum's suggestion has given me reason to consider in greater depth how this trouble got started and to think about the future of chemistry on a personal level--something that all chemists should take time to do.

The changing nature of chemistry as a discipline isn't a paradigm shift. To borrow from biology, it's evolution. When science began as a broad endeavor centuries ago, it included mathematics, astronomy, anatomy, and alchemy. During the Age of Reason, in the 1700s, scientific disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and biology took shape. Now, science is evolving again, back into a multidisciplinary endeavor with key focal points at the interface between chemistry and physics, chemistry and biology, and biology and physics.

Chemistry, in particular, has evolved from largely being a study of the elements to being the study of molecules to currently being a study of molecular interactions. From the core subdisciplines of organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical chemistry, many second-generation subdisciplines have formed and continue to form. ACS currently has 33 technical divisions and four secretariats that broadly encroach into physics, biology, and other areas. No other discipline of science has that kind of breadth, hence the rationale for calling chemistry the central science.

It's the diffusion of these newer subdisciplines away from the bread-and-butter core of chemistry and into increasingly multidisciplinary space that has made chemistry vulnerable. While these areas remain strongly supported by chemistry, their practitioners are increasingly less likely to identify themselves as chemists or to identify with chemistry.

There are many harbingers of this separation. Some nonchemistry departments now hire their own chemists to teach a chemical subject in a way that meets the needs of their students, rather than relying on the chemistry department's version. Another trend is the "cluster hire," in which a university follows a business model and hires several scientists to work in a focused research area and places those scientists in the most appropriate department to meet the needs of the research. For nanomaterials, for example, a chemist could join the materials science, biological systems engineering, electrical engineering, or other department. Traditional chemistry is still being carried out in those instances, but it really isn't a part of the discipline of chemistry anymore.

A few weeks ago, I visited several nanotechnology companies in Virginia. A tremendous amount of innovation is taking place at small firms such as NanoSonic and Luna nanoWorks as they start commercializing products that are expected to include flexible displays, large-scale structural materials, medical diagnostics, and textiles. Similar work is being carried out to make sensors and electronic control systems at traditional government-contract firms such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. It was exciting to see firsthand.

Did the work involve chemistry? Yes, most definitely. Was the work done by chemists and chemical engineers? In most cases, yes, in teams that include electrical engineers, physicists, and others. But none of these companies would be considered a chemical company.

Even DuPont dropped "Through Chemistry" from its famous company slogan "Better Things for Better Living ... Through Chemistry" in the 1980s, in part to avoid the public's negative view of chemicals. In 1999, the company began to use the slogan "The Miracles of Science." DuPont now calls itself a "science company" to reflect its broad product portfolio.

Personally, I take pride in telling people that I'm a chemist when asked what I do for a living. I still have to explain that I am actually a reporter for a chemistry magazine. It would be much simpler to just say that I'm a science journalist who writes about chemistry.

I don't believe anyone is prepared to answer the question I posed in the first paragraph about whether or not chemistry will remain a defined discipline of science. ACS's Strategic Plan, with one goal to "transform the definition of chemistry to encompass its true multidisciplinary nature," may help the discipline of chemistry to better connect with "chemical practitioners" in the short term. Everyone should read it. But given that evolution can't be reversed, and that there will continue to be a fair amount of apathy among chemists, perhaps it's time to give up on the central science theme and redefine ourselves completely as molecular scientists or even just scientists. The focus of our work will still be chemistry.



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