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Polymer Science and Engineering: The Shifting Research Frontiers
polymers as a class of materials. Hydrocarbons, ranging from natural gas, to gasoline, to paraffin wax, to polyethylene, illustrate the effect of molecular size. As a consequence of molecular size alone, an enormous change in physical properties is observed—from gases, to fluids, to waxy solids, to tough and durable building materials of many uses.
Cotton, linen, hemp, wool, and natural rubber are examples of polymers that occur in nature, while synthetic (or man-made) polymers include nylon, epoxies, polyethylene, Plexiglas, Styrofoam, Kevlar®, and Teflon®. Unless otherwise indicated, the term "polymer" refers to synthetic polymers throughout this report. The term "plastics" is often used as a synonym for synthetic polymers, although some synthetic polymers are not plastic in the sense of being permanently deformable.
Not surprisingly, the applications of polymers vary widely. Given their role in such vital national concerns as economic competitiveness, transportation and energy, and defense, it is necessary to keep in view the opportunities and needs associated with polymer science and engineering, so that appropriate efforts can be made to sustain U.S. well-being and leadership. Currently, however, there are many critical issues, both financial and political. For example, industrial competition has led many corporations to cut back on long-range research in favor of more immediate bottom-line results. University research budgets are under pressure from many directions. Federal funding, in which military research and development has always been a major factor in the United States (as distinguished from other industrialized nations), is in retreat with the end of the Cold War. The need for continued investment for future benefits has never been so great, nor the prospects for such investment more threatened.
The extent to which contributions from polymer science and engineering can be brought to bear on pressing national problems depends in part on the extent to which the field can maintain its strength. Continuing strength will depend on several factors that need to be addressed:
Will government policy encourage a state of health in the polymer industry?
What level of research and development spending is necessary for the long term to enable effective competition with other nations?
How can funding for university, industry, and government laboratories facilitate the development of new technologies and products that will benefit society?
How can state-of-the-art industrial infrastructure be maintained for processing and production equipment?
How should production, distribution, use, and disposal of polymeric materials be managed to ensure protection of the environment and the health of the public?