Scientific Exceptionalism | January 27, 2014 Issue - Vol. 92 Issue 4 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 92 Issue 4 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: January 27, 2014

Scientific Exceptionalism

By Stephen A. Munk
Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: Science Funding, science policy, Nobel Prize

This guest editorial is by Stephen A. Munk, the president and CEO of Ash Stevens, a U.S. manufacturer of active pharmaceutical ingredients. Munk served on the C&EN Advisory Board from 2011 to 2013.

The awarding of the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm last month should remind us of two facts: The government has an unrivaled role in advancing our understanding of our world, and basic research has a catalytic function in laying the groundwork for advances that improve people’s lives. We should not let the ability of federal funding to advance basic research be diminished by unfocused thinking among some politicians.

The selection of Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel as the 2013 winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems” was especially thrilling. The computational paradigms they and others developed are now widely used to design drugs, catalysts, and new materials.

I bet that when they began devising ways to calculate electronic spectra and partitioning of electrons in the 1970s, they did not imagine where their studies would lead. Their revolutionary work changed how scientists approach problems, providing tools to efficiently obtain answers to difficult scientific questions. Federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, provided the funding that enabled those fundamental studies.

From such fundamental studies grew new industries, including the business of Internet search engines. Google was founded at Stanford University by two graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both of whom were funded by NSF. Software companies such as Gaussian and Schrödinger sell products that are based on molecular modeling. The productivity gains these products enabled have vastly improved the quality of our lives. Fundamental science is the engine providing the well-paid jobs that politicians of all persuasions strive to create.

When Nobel Prize-winning scientists address fundamental questions, they also are laying the foundation for advances that will improve our lives. This story has been repeated countless times.

Basic research in the 1930s by Isidor Isaac Rabi on the properties of molecules in magnetic fields led him to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944. It spawned a now-ubiquitous diagnostic tool, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as many subsequent Nobel Prizes: Felix Bloch and Edward Mill Purcell, 1952 physics prize for developing new methods for nuclear magnetic precision measurements; Richard R. Ernst, 1991 chemistry prize for developing high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy; Kurt Wüthrich, half of the 2002 chemistry prize for developing magnetic resonance methods for biomolecules in solution; and Paul C. Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield, 2003 prize in physiology or medicine for developing MRI, which revolutionized medical diagnoses and created plenty of jobs.

In the 1970s, Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko, and Irwin Rose initiated studies that led to the discovery of the protein degradation system called the proteasome. They won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for this discovery. Significantly, in the 1990s, Julian Adams, a chemist at ProScript, a biotech company in Cambridge, Mass., determined that the proteasome could be a target for therapeutics. Work at ProScript and at successor companies led to Velcade, a proteasome inhibitor to treat multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells. The Food & Drug Administration approved Velcade in 2003, the first drug of this type to go to market. In July 2012, FDA approved a second proteasome inhibitor, Onyx’s Kyprolis. Because of these drugs, cancer patients now have more treatment options.

With strong congressional support, science funding should be at the highest level, guided by national needs, not by political agendas. The government should give science high priority to maintain our ability to innovate, grow, flourish, and create a robust economy with opportunities for all. Congress should happily support programs that produce young scientists who are excited by, and are ready to tackle, the challenges of our rapidly changing world. It is this kind of American “exceptionalism” we should aspire to, the kind that would build an America that the world would want to emulate.

Stephen A. Munk

 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 
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