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Petroleum Research Fund Returns to Roots

New director steers grant program back to its mission in funding petroleum research

by Linda Wang
December 12, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 50

Credit: Photo by Linda Wang
Credit: Photo by Linda Wang

With two daughters still in grade school, you wouldn't expect W. Christopher Hollinsed to announce his retirement. Yet, that's exactly what he did earlier this year.

After 15 years at DuPont, Hollinsed, 56, decided to take early retirement. But it wasn't to travel the world or pursue his hobbies. He had bigger plans. This past August, Hollinsed started work as the director of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (ACS PRF), replacing Lawrence A. Funke, who died late last year.

Hollinsed is no stranger to PRF. In fact, PRF supported his own graduate research on tricyclic hydrazines at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the 1970s. After graduating, Hollinsed went to work for Polaroid. There, he climbed the corporate ladder, eventually becoming a group leader in the Chemical Development Laboratory.

At DuPont, Hollinsed was manager of Academic Programs, heading DuPont's Young Professor grant program and the Science & Engineering grants program. He sees his new position with PRF as a new challenge.

With the fund valued at $527 million and a 2006 budget of $25.8 million, Hollinsed sees an opportunity to make a difference in the impact scientific research can have on global energy problems. This year alone, PRF awarded 498 grants, totaling $22.3 million.

Hollinsed's job is to make sure PRF stays focused on its original mandate, which is "advanced scientific education and fundamental research in the " 'petroleum field.' " With requests for funding up 35% this year, possibly because of sluggish federal research funding, Hollinsed says PRF and its advisory board have to be more selective about which projects they can fund. "We don't have 35% more money," he says.

Beginning in 2006, grant applicants will have to include a statement in their proposals explaining why their research is both fundamental and related to the petroleum field. In the past, Hollinsed explains, the criteria were "open to looser interpretation," and PRF sometimes found itself funding research not clearly related to its mission.

Another change for 2006 is the switch to electronic proposal submission. Although this will make life easier for Hollinsed's staff, which includes four program officers and four senior program administrators, he doesn't anticipate it shortening the application process.

"The main thing that takes time is getting busy reviewers to send their reviews back," Hollinsed says, pointing out that a thorough review "really ensures that we have a high-quality process for choosing the best research to fund."

The PRF trust was established in 1944 after seven major oil companies, in an attempt to avoid an antitrust lawsuit, donated stock to found a charitable scientific and educational trust. ACS was named the recipient of the income, with instructions from the trust documents on how the funds were to be used.

In 2001, ACS acquired the entire trust, reestablishing it as ACS PRF. As part of the transfer, $5.1 million was set aside to fund three pilot programs: the ACS PRF Alternative Energy Postdoctoral Fellowships, the ACS PRF Summer Schools, and the ACS PRF Undergraduate Faculty Sabbaticals. These programs are now under evaluation to determine whether they should be included in future budgets.

PRF is known among the scientific community for launching careers, Hollinsed points out, and has even supported the work of 20 Nobel Laureates. "These grants have been really critical to getting a lot of young people off the ground."

Looking ahead, Hollinsed sees the need to keep up with the internationalization of chemistry research. Currently, 95% of PRF grants are going to fund U.S. research. "But there will come a point in time when absolutely world class research will be done outside the U.S., and we need to be there with it," Hollinsed says.

But with that challenge comes opportunity. "I think we have an opportunity to make a difference and to have an impact," Hollinsed says. "People do not see us as the splashy, exciting contributor to world science that I think we are."


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