Headlines of the year

Headlines of the year

C&EN highlights the biggest chemistry stories of 2017

December 18, 2017 | Volume 95 Issue 49

March for Science

Chemists were among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets during the March for Science on April 22 in Washington, D.C. (shown), and hundreds of other cities across the U.S. and world. Organizers promoted the march as a nonpartisan event in support of science, but some scientists chose not to participate because they saw it as too political.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

Artificial intelligence took hold

Henrik Hahn, Evonik Industries’ chief digital officer (shown), is working with IBM on a digitalization project for the German company’s materials science research laboratories. Other major chemical firms, including BASF and Dow Chemical, launched programs this year to put artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to work on large stores of research data using supercomputers.

Credit: Evonik
Advertisement

National Chemistry Week at 30

National Chemistry Week, ACS’s largest chemistry outreach program, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. ACS past-president George Pimentel started the program in 1987 as National Chemistry Day to educate the public about the role of chemistry in everyday life. Today, ACS continues to spread the seeds of chemistry around the world through new outreach programs such as its international Chemistry Festivals. Next year, ACS will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Project SEED program, which provides research opportunities for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. C&EN will honor the milestone with a series of monthly profiles featuring program alumni.

Advertisement
Credit: ACS

Immigration fears shook science

Immigration was front and center in the U.S. in 2017, starting with President Donald J. Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order barring travel to the country by residents of seven Muslim-majority countries. The move upended the lives of many foreign chemists. Later in the year, the immigration focus turned to the 2012 Obama Administration immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave undocumented students an opportunity to step out of the shadows and apply for temporary work permits. In September, Trump ended the program. More than 1 million unauthorized young adults were eligible for DACA in 2016. What will happen to them remains to be seen.

“I don’t know what I would be doing now if it weren’t for DACA. Being in the U.S. with DACA has really been a life-changing event for me. It’s allowed me to do research and pursue a degree in STEM.”

Rudy, an undocumented student, University of California, Davis

Sexual harassment in chemistry

The persistent problem of sexual harassment in chemistry and in the broader community was on public display in 2017. C&EN and the ACS Women Chemists Committee will cohost a daylong symposium on sexual harassment in science at the March 2018 ACS meeting in New Orleans to discuss how to prevent harassment in the workplace and at meetings.

“I’m thinking, ‘What do I do? Do I shove him? Do I do anything? He’s got my proposal.’ ”

An academic chemist on her experience being sexually harassed at a conference

Business boomed

Chemical results
Source: Companies
Broad-based demand moved the needle in 2017.
a Data reflect results from Jan. 2, 2017, to Sept. 29, 2017, except for DowDuPont's stock price, which reflects change in the combined results from Jan. 2 to Aug. 31.

The global chemical industry enjoyed a subtle but profitable shift in economic conditions this year, with chemical firms reporting broad-based demand that increased both the quantity of chemical products sold and the prices companies could charge. The year was not without disruption, however. Tropical Storm Harvey brought destructive wind and flooding to dozens of chemical facilities near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, leading to temporary shutdowns in September. But those shutdowns did not seriously hurt company results. Sales grew as consumer spending on personal care and nutrition products remained robust in all global regions, construction rebounded in Europe, and automotive manufacturing took off in Asia.

World production at a glance

North American output was flat compared with 2016, while Europe and Asia remained strong.

Evolution of the Dow-DuPont deal

Responding in part to demands of major shareholders, Dow and DuPont modified the structures of the agricultural chemical, specialty products, and materials science firms slated to be spun off from the newly formed DowDuPont. The most significant changes involve moving businesses from the materials science to the specialty products company and are meant to better cultivate synergies among existing businesses when the splits happen in 2019, the companies say. To satisfy regulatory concerns about the merger, DuPont also sold a large part of its agricultural operations to FMC in return for FMC’s nutrition and health business.

Responding in part to demands of major shareholders, Dow and DuPont modified the structures of the firms slated to be spun off from the newly formed DowDuPont in mid-2019. The changes will better cultivate synergies between existing businesses, the companies say.

Chemistry preprint servers took off

Note: Numbers as of Nov. 30. Source: American Chemical Society

ACS launched the chemistry preprint server ChemRxiv in August with input from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the German Chemical Society, and other nonprofits and scientific publishers. Elsevier launched a competing chemistry preprint server, ChemRN, that same month.

CRISPR expanded

CRISPR continued to captivate life sciences researchers this year. Uses of the gene-editing technique spread while scientists honed their methods and developed new tools that take advantage of the DNA cut-and-paste abilities first discovered in bacteria.

Human health researchers used CRISPR in their quest for therapies to battle genetic diseases, cancer, and even bad gut bacteria. In agriculture, plant breeders used it to discover ways to enhance desirable plant traits, like starch quality in corn or taste and nutrition in vegetables.

Credit: OHSU
In August, researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health & Science University reported that they used CRISPR to repair an introduced genetic mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in a human embryo, resulting in two healthy copies of the gene. After the injection with the CRISPR/Cas9 system, the embryos progressed from zygotes (from left) to blastocysts.

One academic group claimed to use CRISPR to fix a genetic mutation in human embryos for the first time in the U.S., although a follow-up report cast doubt on whether the editing occurred as claimed.

To commercialize those discoveries, researchers’ companies or institutions have to obtain licenses from at least one—but likely more—of the groups that discovered CRISPR and own patents on it. But the CRISPR patent landscape grew increasingly complicated.

A legal battle over foundational CRISPR/Cas9 patents embroiled the University of California, Berkeley, and Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard. In February, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office ruled in Broad’s favor, but UC Berkeley appealed the ruling. Later, UC Berkeley won patents in Europe and China.

Additionally, some firms, such as MilliporeSigma, unexpectedly won extensive CRISPR patents, while start-ups opted to license CRISPR from groups besides UC Berkeley and Broad. Also this year, new variants of CRISPR, plus versions improved through engineering, provided alternatives to the classic CRISPR/Cas9 and its legally uncertain future.

Trump lost, won on plant safety

Credit: Chemical Safety Board
The Chemical Safety Board is currently investigating this 2016 release of chlorine from an MGPI Processing plant in Kansas.

The Trump Administration sought to weaken safety measures for the U.S. chemical industry in 2017, with mixed results.

In March, the Administration recommended defunding the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a small, independent agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. But Congress has shown support for the agency and, as of C&EN deadline, planned to provide it $11 million for 2018.

That amount would match past funding for CSB. Even this funding level, however, is inadequate, according to an oversight office. In a July report, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General noted that CSB’s funding has been flat for 15 years, hindering the purchase of needed equipment and the training and hiring of staff. The report added that the economic impact of a single accident would be far greater than the agency’s budget. Nevertheless, the Administration is expected to try to kill CSB again in 2019.

The Administration also set its sights on overturning an update of a 27-year-old safety regulation. In this case, it succeeded.

The update was triggered by a 2013 Texas accident that killed 15 people, mostly firefighters, when a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded. After a three-year review, EPA finalized a regulation to strengthen risk-management-plan provisions in the 1990 Clean Air Act. The regulation, released in the last weeks of the Obama Administration, would have toughened provisions for companies that handle hazardous materials, requiring them to develop better plans to avoid or mitigate accidents.

However, in March, EPA sought another review and put the regulation on hold until February 2019.

Tug-of-war over chemical safety rules

Implementing Obama Administration chemical safety rules in the Trump era is proving contentious.

The U.S. EPA welcomed Nancy Beck as deputy assistant administrator of its chemical safety and pollution prevention office in May, just weeks before rules for prioritizing and evaluating the risks of chemicals were due to be finalized under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was amended in 2016.

Environmental groups later claimed that Beck ordered a last-minute rewrite of the rules, which were proposed under the Obama Administration, in such a way that they reflect the chemical industry’s wish list. Before joining EPA, Beck served for five years as senior director of regulatory affairs at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s main trade association.

EPA’s chemical safety office is currently without an assistant administrator, so Beck has been calling the shots. President Donald J. Trump nominated Michael Dourson, a toxicologist with decades of experience in chemical risk assessment, for the position in July. But Dourson withdrew his nomination on Dec. 13 amid growing concerns about his close ties to the chemical industry and history of pushing for less-protective chemical safety standards. He had been serving as an adviser to EPA and is now expected to leave the agency.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are campaigning to stop Beck from handling three other rules proposed by the Obama Administration. The rules would ban certain uses of trichloroethylene, methylene chloride, and N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone because of human health risks. ACC is pushing to delay the bans.

UPDATE: This story was revised on Dec. 14, 2017, to reflect the fact that Dourson withdrew his nomination.

Dicamba

Dicamba drifted, controversy followed

For the first time, U.S. farmers were able to plant soybeans developed by Monsanto that are tolerant to the herbicide dicamba. Farmers could use dicamba to kill weeds that had developed resistance to glyphosate, also known as Roundup. But growers reported more than 2,700 cases of injury to nontolerant soybeans from dicamba drift. The U.S. EPA and some states have placed new restrictions on the use of the herbicide for the 2018 growing season.

Glyphosate - carcinogen or not?

Glyphosate

After more than a year of debate, officials in the European Union voted in late November to allow the use of the top-selling herbicide glyphosate for another five years in the EU. Pesticide manufacturers and farm groups had pushed for a 15-year renewal, but controversy over the chemical's listing as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization's cancer agency led to the shorter renewal period.

Opioid crisis grew

Fentanyl

Deaths from opioid overdoses have skyrocketed in the U.S. since 2013, largely because of the influx of illicit fentanyl. Drug dealers and traffickers are lacing their products with the synthetic opioid, which is 30 to 50 times as potent as heroin, and people may unknowingly take a fatal dose. The chemistry community is responding to the opioid crisis with tamper-resistant pills, rapid analysis of street drugs, and novel nonopioid analgesics.

Drug pricing scandals simmered

Emflaza (deflazacort)

The price of drugs continued to inspire outrage from patients and lawmakers in 2017. Marathon Pharmaceuticals was forced to pause the launch of Emflaza, a steroid that was approved in February for people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, after outcry over its $89,000 annual price tag. Marathon subsequently sold the drug to PTC Therapeutics, which lowered the annual price to a still-critiqued $35,000.

Short-chain perfluorochemicals under scruitiny

GenX

The fluoropolymer processing aid GenX was the target of an October class-action lawsuit against Chemours and its former parent, DuPont, for allegedly contaminating drinking water in Wilmington, N.C. In February, the two firms ponied up $670 million to settle claims that GenX predecessor perfluorooctanoic acid had contaminated West Virginia and Ohio drinking water and caused illnesses such as testicular cancer and thyroid disease.

EPA delays banning chlorpyrifos

Chlorpyrifos

In one of his first moves as U.S. EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt delayed until at least 2022 an Obama Administration proposal to ban the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos on food crops. Environmental activists, farmworkers, pediatricians, and others are urging EPA to follow through with the ban now, citing neurodevelopmental risks to children.

U.S. gives up lead on climate change

Luminaries we lost

The chemistry community lost several trailblazing chemists in 2017.

Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Ronald Breslow

March 14, 1931–Oct. 25, 2017 .

Introduced the concept of antiaromaticity, founded the field of biomimetic chemistry, and developed artificial enzymes

“He was an intellectual giant. Talking with Ronald about science was like a chess match—one where your opponent was always four moves ahead of you.” —Alanna Schepartz, Yale University

Credit: Bryce Vickmark

Mildred Dresselhaus

Nov. 11, 1930–Feb. 20, 2017 .

Pioneered research into condensed matter and the atomic properties of carbon.

“Millie is a giant in nanoscience through her groundbreaking work in carbon nanostructures and low-dimensional thermoelectrics. She has impacted the lives of many people at MIT and all over the world, including myself and many of my students, and she is MIT’s Yoda.” —Gang Chen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Credit: Naval Research Laboratory

Isabella Karle

Dec. 2, 1921–Oct. 3, 2017 .

Determined the structure of hundreds of biological molecules that helped revolutionize drug development.

“She solved one important structure after another. The range of molecules which people brought to her hoping for a crystal structure solution was notable. They were related to toxins, malaria and other medical maladies, carcinogens, and explosives to name only a few.” —Louis Massa, Hunter College

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

George Olah

May 22, 1927–March 8, 2017 .

Prepared carbocations with longer lifetimes, advanced and popularized the study of reactive intermediates and organic reaction mechanisms. Received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“George was a tireless promoter of science and technology, especially connected to energy independence. He used his scientific talents and excellent communication skills for the benefit of society.” —Gabor Somorjai, University of California, Berkeley

Credit: Columbia University

Gilbert Stork

Dec. 31, 1921–Oct. 21, 2017

Developed enamine chemistry, including the reaction now known as the Stork enamine alkylation.

“His synthetic achievements were driven by his uncanny ability to think mechanistically about reaction science. He saw, in the most simple and complex transformations, points of mechanism that most would miss. They became the basis for his amazing solutions to difficult problems.” —Paul Wender, Stanford University

News from around the world

U.S.

AP

Hurricanes pummeled the Gulf Coast and Caribbean islands. Massive flooding in the Houston area from Harvey shuttered dozens of refineries and chemical facilities located in low-lying areas and caused flammable organic peroxides at Arkema’s site in Crosby, Texas, to ignite.

Courtesy of Néstor Carballeira

A few weeks later, Hurricane Maria devastated utilities infrastructure and damaged universities and pharmaceutical production facilities in Puerto Rico.

Brazil

Although Brazil’s economy seemed to turn from recession to recovery, the government nevertheless cut its Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations & Communications budget by 44% in 2017 and plans further cuts in 2018. Scientists and their supporters took to the streets several times to protest.

Courtesy of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science

U.K.

“We must now ensure Brexit does not disrupt the safe supply of vital medicines to tens of millions of families in the EU 27 and the U.K.”
—Steve Bates, CEO, BioIndustry Association, a U.K. trade group

Bates spoke on Nov. 20, shortly after the European Commission decided to relocate the European Medicines Agency, the European equivalent of FDA, from London to Amsterdam. The U.K. has yet to finalize how it will approve drugs after it leaves the EU in March 2019.

Europe

A potential $20 billion merger of Clariant and Huntsman led by Clariant CEO Hariolf Kottmann and Huntsman CEO Peter Huntsman was torn apart by activist investor White Tale Holdings, a 20% shareholder of Clariant. White Tale calculated that the deal undervalued the Swiss firm and was a “complete reversal of the company’s long-standing strategy to become a pure-play specialty chemicals company.”

Meanwhile, AkzoNobel ducked and dived and, despite shareholder grumbling, escaped from being acquired by its U.S. rival, PPG Industries. Instead of rolling over, AkzoNobel rolled out a plan to exit its chemicals business and become a stand-alone paint maker. But AkzoNobel’s bullish growth projections have yet to materialize.

Clariant
Kottmann and Huntsman

Russia

VX

Russia destroyed the last of the chemical weapons stockpile, including artillery projectiles filled with the VX nerve agent, that it inherited from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Globally, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says that 96% of declared stockpiles have been eliminated by its 192 member nations.

China

After air pollution reached record levels in Beijing early this year, Chinese authorities closed, temporarily or permanently, hundreds—if not thousands—of chemical plants throughout the country. Meanwhile, thousands of chemical plants operating near residential areas are being told to relocate to industrial parks outside cities.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters/Newscom

India

India’s largest and premier R&D organization, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), declared a fiscal emergency in June. Implementing a commission’s recommendations for higher pay and other benefits chewed up most of CSIR’s $630 million budget, leaving it with merely $31.3 million to pay for instruments, supplies, utilities, travel, and maintenance.

CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory archive

Middle East

The Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, the first such user facility in the region, transmitted light for the first time through one of its three beamlines on Nov. 22. The $90 million project will primarily serve scientists from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey.

SESAME

Africa

The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) announced a partnership with F1000 to create an open access research platform, AAS Open Research, to launch in 2018. AAS hopes that the platform will benefit the scientific community, especially early career researchers such as student members of the ACS Nigeria International Chemical Sciences Chapter (shown).

ACS Nigeria International Chemical Sciences Chapter

Contributors:

Melody Bomgardner, Ryan Cross, Britt Erickson, Emma Hiolski, Cheryl Hogue, Lisa Jarvis, Jyllian Kemsley, Rick Mullin, Dorea Reeser, Marc Reisch, Alex Scott, Jean-François Tremblay, Alex Tullo, Linda Wang, and Andrea Widener, plus Glenn Hess, Jeff Johnson, and K. V. Venkatasubramanian, special to C&EN.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment