Noting that it was the biggest “collection of brainpower we’ve had under this roof in a long time,” President Barack Obama welcomed 12 renowned researchers and 11 distinguished inventors to the White House on Feb. 1. The group of scientists, engineers, and innovators are the 2011 National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology & Innovation laureates.
The national medals are the nation’s top scientific honors awarded by the U.S. government. The annual awards recognize researchers, teams, and companies for significant accomplishments in science and contributions to the country’s economic well-being. Among the 2011 medal winners—which include one team and one company—are a half-dozen chemistry-related researchers.
“Thanks to the sacrifices they’ve made, the chances they’ve taken, the gallons of coffee they’ve consumed,” the President quipped, “we now have batteries that power everything from cell phones to electric cars. We have a map of the human genome and new ways to produce renewable energy. We’re learning to grow organs in the lab and better understand what’s happening in our deepest oceans.”
For the past 50 years, the U.S. has honored top researchers with the National Medal of Science. Established in 1959 by Congress as a presidential award, it recognizes outstanding contributions to the knowledge of the biological, engineering, mathematical, physical, or social and behavioral sciences. It was first awarded in 1962 and is administered by the National Science Foundation. To date, a total of nearly 470 scientists and engineers have received this annual award.
The National Medal of Technology & Innovation was established by Congress in 1980 and first awarded in 1985. Previously known as the National Medal of Technology, this annual presidential award is the highest honor given by the U.S. for outstanding contributions to the nation’s economic, environmental, and social well-being through the development and commercialization of technology. It is administered by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, and there have been 27 corporate winners and 176 laureates so far.
Six 2011 laureates are members of the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN. Four are science medalists, and two are technology recipients.
Allen J. Bard, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Regents Chair in Chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin, received a National Medal of Science “for contributions in electrochemistry, including electroluminescence, semiconductor photoelectrochemistry, electroanalytical chemistry, and the invention of the scanning electrochemical microscope.”
A fellow UT Austin professor, John B. Goodenough, the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering, was also honored with a science medal “for groundbreaking cathode research that led to the first commercial lithium-ion battery, which has since revolutionized consumer electronics with technical applications for portable and stationary power.”
A National Medal of Science was bestowed upon M. Frederick Hawthorne, director of the International Institute of Nano & Molecular Medicine at the University of Missouri, “for highly creative pioneering research in inorganic, organometallic, and medicinal borane chemistry; sustained and profound contributions to scientific and technical advice related to national security; and for effective, prolific, and devoted service to the broad field of chemical sciences.”
And Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology, was awarded a science medal “for pioneering spirit, passion, vision, inventions, and leadership combined with unique cross-disciplinary approaches resulting in entrepreneurial ventures, transformative commercial products, and several new scientific disciplines that have challenged and transformed the fields of biotechnology, genomics, proteomics, personalized medicine, and science education.”
Frances H. Arnold, the Dick & Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering & Biochemistry at California Institute of Technology, received a National Medal of Technology & Innovation “for pioneering research on biofuels and chemicals that could lead to the replacement of pollution-generating materials.”
Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also honored with a technology medal “for inventions and discoveries that led to the development of controlled drug release systems, engineered tissues, angiogenesis inhibitors, and new biomaterials.”
Collectively, this group of six ACS members has published more than 6,280 chemistry-related research papers and holds about 560 chemistry-related patents, according to Chemical Abstracts Service databases. This strong presence of chemical expertise was not lost on the laureates nor on observers.
“I was actually on the selection committee for the National Medal of Science” this year, explains Langer, who was awarded a science medal in 2006. The number of ACS members is significant in terms of both the importance of chemistry to our nation and the discipline diversity of these members whose primary research area is engineering or biology as well as chemistry, he adds.
Echoing Langer’s first point, Arnold says, “The fact is that chemists and chemical engineers do things that can have a real, beneficial impact on society.” And, she adds, “molecules are also pretty darn interesting.”
On Langer’s second point, Hood notes: “Chemistry is central to many aspects of biology—I started my career as a protein ‘chemist.’ And it is central to aspects of many other leading-edge disciplines: materials science, nanotechnology, agriculture, nutrition, a sustainable environment.” Hood adds, “The important point, though, is that the students of the future will have to become increasingly cross-disciplinary—bringing together knowledge from a variety of different fields to attack their scientific challenges.”
“I am absolutely thrilled to see six ACS members honored among this distinguished group of medalists,” ACS President Marinda Li Wu tells C&EN. “I extend my heartfelt congratulations to them on this well-deserved national recognition and honor. I believe all of us in the science and technology community can partner to solve global challenges we face with future innovations.”
In his remarks during the White House ceremony, the President noted that genius such as that displayed by the 2011 laureates isn’t always recognized right away. But in overcoming obstacles and remaining dedicated to one’s work, the group serves as inspiration to younger scientists, engineers, and innovators.
“If there is one idea that sets this country apart, it’s that here in America, success does not depend on where you were born or what your last name is,” Obama said. “Success depends on the ideas that you can dream up, the possibilities that you envision, and the hard work—the blood, sweat, and tears you’re willing to put in—to make them real.”