Whitesides & Deutch on What’s Wrong with Chemical Academia

January 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.

28 Responses to “Whitesides & Deutch on What’s Wrong with Chemical Academia”

  1. Matt Says:

    I was really happy to see their article pop up in Nature yesterday. I, like Paul, found myself nodding in agreement through the entire article.
    However, the one place where I disagree with Paul is in his despair. I don’t think that It will take trials in third world countries. I think that there is a sector of academia that is primed for this kind of change. Primarily unndergraduate institutions. (Admittedly this does nothing to improve upon the issue of too many/mediocre PhDs.) At my institution we are currently ripping out our upper-level labs and reinstalling a group-oriented directed research lab in which the students gain a skill set during the first semester and apply their knowledge by designing and carrying out novel experiments in the second semester. This is one approach. I also think that requiring more business/econ/management type courses is also a direction that we are headed. Point being, undergrad institutions are a little more nimble in their ability to adapt. The undergrads that we train will populate graduate schools and bring with them the sorts of sensibilities that we instill in them.

    Anyway, it was a great article. Thanks for highlighting it Paul … you suck-up!

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    I had no idea Deutch was a chemist (with a PhD, even.) Huh.

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  4. Hap Says:

    He used to be at MIT before he entered gov’t and administration.

  5. Tt Says:

    Great editorial by George. Looking back at my Ph.D. In syn. Org. Chemistry, although it gave me good lab training, I think the problems I solved were way too narrow and of little lasting impact. Chemist need to solve the big problems and those are the ones defined by society and require teams of people from a variety of backgrounds. I wish I had taken on something “big” in school, although I’m doing that more so now in industry where the problems are big and the payoff potential large. I’m definitely able to do things in industry on a scale and with people and funding that I could never do in academia. Research that is high risk and high reward gets me up in the morning, but may not be every scientist’s preference.

  6. Chemjobber Says:

    It’s not every day that the DCI is a former scientist.

  7. Wee Mad Andrew Says:

    I had the pleasure of seeing back-to-back Deutch/Whitesides talks at the last ACS meeting in Boston, covering the same theme, and they were fantastic. Deutch especially, as he dropped any kind of powerpoint or visual presentation and went with a “just sit back and give me a listen” approach.

  8. Not an Employee of the Taxpayer Says:

    I do not agree with commentary. I believe that academic chemistry should be focused on discovery the nature of the universe (specifically, the nature of chemicals). For example, things that seem appropriate to me include: “what is a bond?”; “what is the electronic structure of a molecule?”; “how are the atoms of a given molecule arranged in space?”; etc. These sorts of questions are numerous and familiar-just open a freshman chemistry book.
    It appears to me the commentary is suggesting that academic chemistry should be focused on solving the problems of society and the taxpayer-after all, they are the ones paying the bill. Hence, chemical engineering and chemistry should be merged, and the key question in judging a work moves from “how novel/interesting is it?” to “who cares?”
    I submit that academic chemistry is not simply another company (in this case a company working for a boss named “The Taxpayer”). Our work should be focused on whatever we want it to be (whether it is fundamental or applied) and what we consider to be “chemistry”. If we help society during the pursuit of knowledge, great. However, solving society’s problems is not our primary goal-learning and the dissipation of knowledge is. Lastly, we already have chemical engineering–do we need chemistry to become chemical engineering?
    One thing is certain-there seems to be competing camps concerning trends in chemistry. Take a look at the Bard commentary in C&EN News and compare that the Nature commentary.

  9. Hap Says:

    The initial Bard editorial seemed to be focusing more on the TT “research should be making us money NOW” school of *um*…thought, though the responses were more along the lines of the balance between applied and fundamental research.

    Whitesides’ research sort of sets the tone for his thinking – in some sense you can do both fundamental and applied research (surface properties, polyvalency). Some people do better research from the blue-sky end of things, while others do better research with goals in mind. The problem is that a lot of research seems to neither be fundamental nor applied, but career-guided masturbation, and isn’t useful for anyone other than the authors.

    Curiosity-driven learning is a good idea (teaching people to think would in general be a good idea), but its implementation (both directly and in providing people than someone wants to employ) is highly nontrivial.

  10. Wavefunction Says:

    The origin of life is the biggest problem that chemists can “solve”

  11. Wavefunction Says:

    One of the reasons academic chemistry has become risk-averse is because most PhD students end up in industry. And we all know how risk-averse industry has become. Very few companies today are going to hire fresh PhDs who want to embark on bold, risky projects.

  12. Ludovico Cademartiri Says:

    Hi Paul

    after reading the article I beamed to your blog, knowing that you would comment on it. I rejoice finding that, as often happened, we are on the same page.

    Keep it fun!

  13. Marx Says:

    @wavefunction said- “Very few companies today are going to hire fresh PhDs who want to embark on bold, risky projects.”

    You must exist in some alternate universe where chemists are deemed individual innovators. Only tenured academics get to toot their own horn.

    Management views Phd chemists in the same way a chef does his blender or spoon. So tell me, when was the last time you consulted with your spoon before preparing a meal?????

  14. Paul Says:

    @Ludo: Cheers. I bet that editorial sparked a lot of discussion in the group room.

  15. Wavefunction Says:

    -You must exist in some alternate universe

    That ‘alternate universe’ happens to be Merck and several other companies until the 1980s.

  16. anyway Says:

    Academic chemistry is overpopulated. I agree 100 % with that statement. Another point is, when I was a phd student, my advisor told me that “He has the ideas, I, as a graduate student, only work on the ideas to get my phd”. With this in mind, I think many schools having such professors should be banned from granting doctoral degrees. I remember, in the same school, a young assistant professor told me ” She needs hands in the lab, not brains”. I was like woow. I can write many books about these…Anyway, I wanted to share my opinion.

  17. Matt Says:

    Paul Bracher is my hero :-)

  18. Matt Says:

    Maybe that last comment should be retracted … Paul, I’d be interested to know what GMW thinks about how he and his science have benefited or not from the “great funding chase”. Also, I do take exception to the fact that there is worse science being done due to more PhD programs. I know plenty of very creative and capable PIs who didn’t end up at Harvard or other R1 school. I don’t know that the big schools only hire the best and most independent of thinkers. I also think that some of the big schools are really to blame for our current funding environment.

  19. Hap Says:

    “[A]cademic chemistry is overpopulated. The proliferation of PhD programmes resulted in a demand for research funds that exceeded the (much-expanded) supply…”

    This isn’t exactly new – see http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5889/644.citation (“Structural Disequilibria in Biomedical Research”). (I don’t think it’s an open reference, though).

  20. Paul Says:

    Congrats to Matt on leaving the 1000th comment on the reborn blog.

  21. sam Says:

    I was surprised that I actually like the editorial. Usually, those things can be either trite, obnoxious, impossible, or all three. This editorial was really thoughtful and reasonable. Inspiring, even. And novel.

    My favorite line was the definition of chemistry: “Chemistry is the science that connects the relative simplicity of atoms and molecules to the complexity and function of macroscopic matter and of life.” That’s why I started studying chemistry in college.

  22. Rebecca Says:

    Oh, bravo for their comments on ‘Solving practical problems’. Such a brisk antidote to Howard Zimmerman’s self-serving wallow on the joys of basic science in that recent C&EN issue.

  23. CD Says:

    During my Ph.D. I was able to explore real-world problems. I was also allowed to be creative and drive the projects myself than be told what to do. I worked in both the chemistry and chemical engineering department. I also did a post-doc where I was responsible for driving my project and coming up with new ideas. I was not just considered a pair of hands in both posts. In total I have 19 publications. Despite all of this, after my post-doc I could not find a job. I’ve been unemployed for almost one year now. I spoke with someone who works at Chevron and has been on hiring committees. This person told me that they like to hire chemists who are shy and timid, but nice. That way they don’t cause problems and they don’t have to worry about people being arrogant. I don’t really know what to think. But one thing is for sure: There are too many Ph.D. chemists. Why spend all this money on training people in science when their services are no longer needed once they hit their early thirties?

  24. MM Says:

    Thanks Paul. I fully agree with you, but I still hold a little more optimism as to what chemistry will do. Competition pushes creativity and this creativity will give birth to new frontier in the science that we do not know yet. who would have predicted that George Whitesides would one day work on microfluidics? I believe chemistry needs to redefine the problem it is trying to solve – basically widen the scope of its reach (maybe by venturing into unexplored territories like simplifying particle physics or astronomy).

  25. Jordan Says:

    Thanks for linking this Paul. I have long thought that academic chemistry has become too incremental and too detached from the “practical enterprise”, and several years of working in industry has cemented that view.

  26. Bryan Says:

    Thanks for linking this Paul. I have to say that I agree with you about going to a 3rd world country to begin exciting research. I am currently getting my professional degree in chemistry, and I wanted to continue my education to obtain my PhD. however if you are a dreamer, and have big ideas especially in the area of human continuous you are basically not welcomed in America. I have served in the Marine Corp, I was a body builder, and now it is time to see how far my brain can go. I have been on a journey to seek knowledge for over 14 years, and it finally lead me to get my PhD. in Chemistry, so when I speak of my ideas they can’t say that I am crazy. I have defeated every class that has been in my path, and I graduated in less than a year with a minor in math, and physics. I don’t understand why people who are supposed to be smart are so afraid to try and answers the big questions. I feel more and more that most people that are said to be smart, our only so in that one little area that they are looking or studding in, and are blind to connecting the dots of a larger picture. We will only advance as a society when we are ready to let go of all the dogma, rules, lies, and current regulations on what we are allowed to study. We are not stupid teenagers playing with chemicals, but we are the few that have devoted are life to understand the language of the universe. It is now about putting those letters together to make words that will allow the human race to flourish in not just the material world, but also the inner world of the human mind and body. I know that our country is not ready for that, we spend too much time and energy debating and fighting over stupid stuff, and in doing so we have blinding ourselves from seeing that the world is speeding right by us.

  27. ChemBark » Blog Archive » Birthday Meditation Says:

    […] asked this question before, but I’ll ask it again:  What is the greatest achievement in chemistry of the past 10 years?  […]

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