Whitesides & Deutch on What’s Wrong with Chemical AcademiaJanuary 6th, 2011
The latest issue of Nature is a celebration of 2011 as the year of chemistry. There are a number of great pieces that went online yesterday, including a comment/editorial by George Whitesides and John Deutch on how chemical academia needs to adapt to a research area that is “mature and fully embedded in society.”
I occasionally get kind of depressed about the current state of chemistry. The latest episode occurred around New Year’s Day, when I got to thinking about what a lousy past decade the world has had. In terms of chemistry, what have been the monumental achievements of the past 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? Is it the development of high-throughput sequencing techniques and completion of the Human Genome Project? Is that the best chemistry has done? And after that, what else? Ever since the end of the 1970s, we’ve been talking about the need to ween ourselves off of oil, but chemists have yet to find an effective solution. Research into another great chemical problem, the origin of life, is borderline non-existent relative to other sub-disciplines (e.g., organic synthesis). And despite all of the attention given to organic synthesis since the 1960s, we still have a ridiculously hard time making compounds that biology pumps out with ease. Something is wrong with us.
That last paragraph is mine—I don’t want to put any words into Whitesides and Deutch’s mouths—although they also use their editorial to make a case that academic chemistry needs to change the way it does business. Here are a couple of choice quotes from the piece:
Academic chemistry is established, and with its maturity has come an increasingly incurious and risk-averse attitude. So, what’s next? …’Business as usual’ is not an option. To solve new problems, chemistry must be braver in its research choices and in how it organizes them.
Under the short-term constraints of capitalism, industry has largely retreated from long-term research.
‘Solving practical problems’ is often claimed to vulgarize science. It does not: many of chemistry’s fundamental discoveries were made in the course of developing practical technologies — catalysis and polymer science, for instance, had their origins in industry. And such problems are often more challenging than the questions fashionable among academic chemists, driven as they are not by unfettered curiosity but by a conservative peer-review system — the spigot that regulates the flow of government funds.
Chemists must remember where the money comes from. Citizens reluctantly allow governments to collect taxes and to spend a minuscule fraction of that money on science, in the faith that by doing so, research will ultimately generate a better world: better health, less conflict, interesting jobs for their children. If that faith falters, the investment will slow or stop.
[E]ven the best academic chemists have a Prussian-like loyalty to the status quo. Universities that consider themselves the most innovative and radical in their thinking, and that should be in the forefront, are in the rear, defending already familiar and well-established fields.
[A]cademic chemistry is overpopulated. The proliferation of PhD programmes resulted in a demand for research funds that exceeded the (much-expanded) supply, and the imbalance of supply and demand contributed to a peer-review system that protects established fields at the expense of new ideas. These PhD programmes produced too few new ideas and too many average scientists, and neither provided novel solutions to problems (or jobs), nor caught the attention of the public.
Whitesides & Deutch go on to make suggestions for how to proceed:
To make fundamental discoveries, an approach that starts with practical problems, and uses them to reveal unsolved fundamental problems, will work at least as well as (and arguably better than) one that starts with the familiar questions of familiar disciplines.
Chemistry should cluster its teaching and research around the exciting and uncertain future rather than the ossified historical past.
[P]rofessors should teach students the tools of curiosity. An independent, engaged student, exploring as a colleague in a promising area, will do better work than a simple apprentice.
Chemistry must also change its coursework, to include…’non-science’ subjects — especially economics and corporate finance and manufacturing — useful in generating practical technologies.
Don’t just rely on the quotes I’ve pulled; go read the piece for yourself. I find that I agree with Whitesides & Deutch almost entirely. (In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for George in grad school. Feel free to call me a sycophant, but I think that anyone who regualrly sat in our group meetings when I was at Harvard would disagree with such an assessment. When I disagree with someone, I will usually let them know. Regular readers of this blog are keenly aware that I am not shy about voicing dissent. In the present case, I stand in total agreement with the authors.)
Their editorial is not an exhaustive list of everything that is wrong with chemical academia, but it covers a lot of what’s wrong with it. In my view, the especially sad thing is that the situation isn’t getting any better. These problems are ingrained deep within the culture of our field. I am inclined to believe that the best solution to the problem might be to start from scratch in a developing country. While funding would certainly become an issue, from an institutional standpoint, I think it’d be easier to build a working system than to repair a broken one.