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Synthesis

The Year In Review

by Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief
December 19, 2005 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 83, ISSUE 51

This issue of C&EN, the last of 2005, carries three stories that review different aspects of the chemical enterprise over the past year. Taken together, the stories reveal the dynamism and complexity of the chemical enterprise as well as the breadth of C&EN's coverage.

This week's cover story, "Chemistry Highlights 2005," is by Senior Correspondent Stu Borman (see page 15). In 2000, C&EN's review of advances in the science of chemistry and related disciplines was the first such annual review we published. Borman has written all six of the reviews, which have evolved significantly since the inaugural story.

Picking a couple dozen noteworthy advances out of the hundreds of advances covered in the pages of C&EN over the course of a year is no small task. Of his approach, Borman writes: "Like pharmaceutical chemists, we screen our library of news stories for those that seem most significant and try to ferret out the most promising hits. We look for long-sought or surprising breakthroughs, first-of-a-kind advances, and findings that are likely to have long-lasting influence." This year, Borman pared down the number of advances he covers in the feature, making it, I think, the most readable and useful of his efforts to date.

One of the things that struck me in reading through Borman's text is the incredible usefulness of our science. Much chemical research is driven by the sheer exhilaration of discovery-the motivation behind all basic research-but because chemistry is the science of transforming matter to our own ends, the science of making molecules, many basic research discoveries have very practical components.

Borman points, for instance, to the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry that honored the discovery by Yves Chauvin, Robert H. Grubbs, and Richard R. Schrock of olefin metathesis, "a broadly applicable catalytic reaction in which two carbon-carbon double bonds react to form two new ones." The elucidation and practical development of olefin metathesis by Chauvin, Grubbs, and Schrock is an example of exquisite basic research that has had enormous real-world applications.

So it is with numerous other advances in 2005 described by Borman. Among them: a practical synthetic route to tetracycline analogs; isolation of the female sex pheromone of the German cockroach, which had eluded researchers for decades; a novel way of fighting cancer by interfering with proteins that inhibit apoptosis; the first detailed atomic-level views of amyloid fibrils, which are associated with some 20 diseases, including Alzheimer's; and a new hybrid copper-organic microporous material that permits acetylene to be stored safely at a density 200 times its usual safe compression limit.

The annual review of chemical business developments was introduced in 2002; this year's version was written by Senior Correspondent Marc Reisch and Associate Editor Alex Tullo (see page 24). The strong chemical industry performance of 2004 carried over into 2005, Reisch and Tullo observe, but "escalating feedstock prices, punctuated by two unprecedented hurricanes, made the second half of the year challenging for chemical companies, particularly in the U.S."

Other industry trends noted by Reisch and Tullo include the continued downward trend in chemical employment, another big year for mergers and acquisitions, further pressure on fine and custom chemical manufacturers, and concerns over chemical plant safety and security.

Finally, although not precisely an annual review analogous to the other two articles, this week's Government & Policy Insights by Assistant Managing Editor David Hanson paints a rather bleak picture of the lack of meaningful actions by the federal government to advance science and technology over the past year (see page 46). Disarray at key agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, turnover in key personnel at numerous other agencies that deal with science and technology issues, and congressional inaction combined for a year in which, Hanson writes, "science and technology ... suffered somewhat at the hand of government." With congressional elections looming in 2006, the situation is unlikely to improve much in the coming year.

Happy holidays, and thanks for reading.

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