Key Characteristics of U.S. Chemistry Research
Chemists view the world at the atomic and molecular levels. They relate the properties of all substances to the detailed chemical compositions and atomic arrangements of all the chemical components. Understanding how the properties of substances are related to their molecular structures helps chemists design new molecules and materials that have the desired properties, allows them to develop or invent new types of transformations for carrying out the syntheses of these substances, and assists in designing ways to manufacture and process the new substances and materials.
A 2003 National Research Council report, Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering described some of the key structures and cultures of the disciplines and “the common chemical bond” that joins the two.1 Chemistry was described as an unusual natural science that pursues both discovery and creation. Chemists seek to discover the components of the chemical universe—from molecules to organized chemical systems such as materials, living cells, and whole organisms—and to understand how these components interact and change over time. Synthetic chemists create new substances unknown in the natural world and develop novel transformations needed to make them. Chemical scientists produce tangible benefits to society when they design and engineer useful substances, such as new pharmaceuticals and polymeric materials.
WHAT IS CHEMISTRY RESEARCH?
Chemists are concerned with the physical properties of substances. Are they solids, liquids, or gases? How much energy do they contain? Chemists are also concerned with chemical properties. Can they be transformed to other substances on heating or irradiating? What are the detailed mechanisms of these transformations?
Chemical scientists also seek to understand the biological properties of both natural and man-made substances. They strive to understand the molecular basis of life processes. Furthermore, chemical science is integral to all of bioengineering and biotechnology. Biosystems, from molecular assemblies to cells to organisms, require insight from synthetic and physical chemistry as well as analysis of complex chemical networks if they are to be understood and exploited for the benefit of society.
The Beyond the Molecular Frontier report provided a list of “Grand Challenges for Chemists and Chemical Engineers” that highlights modern issues in the chemical sciences. (See Box 2-1.)
WHAT KEY FACTORS CHARACTERIZE CHEMISTRY RESEARCH?
Chemists have historically specialized in standard subdivisions: analytical, biochemical, inorganic, organic, physical, and theoretical. Increasingly, the boundaries between areas of chemistry and between chemistry and other disciplines are blurring. While some chemists focus on fundamental problems in core areas, an increasing number of chemists are using multidisciplinary approaches to solve problems at the interfaces with biology, physics, or materials science. For the purposes of this report, chemistry has been divided into 11 areas, most with multiple subareas, to assess the U.S. strength in modern chemistry. (See Box 2-2.) The report from a related benchmarking study of chemical engineering should be seen for more information on the U.S. standing in green chemistry/engineering, sustainability, and energy production.
Academic chemists have traditionally operated as single investigators with a team of graduate students and postdoctoral research associates, but increasingly academic chemists are joining larger multidisciplinary teams that bring together chemists and scientists from other scientific and engineering areas (see Figure 4-1). Partnerships between industrial, university, and government laboratories are becoming more common. International collaborations made possible by improved Internet communications also are becoming more common.
Research in chemistry is often capital intensive and involves increasingly sophisticated instruments and equipment for synthesis, processing, characterization, and analysis. Such equipment ranges from simple labora-
Some Grand Challenges for Chemists and Chemical Engineers
SOURCE: National Research Council, 2003, Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
tory glassware and spectrophotometers, to sophisticated lasers, and from other instruments dedicated to a single investigator, to instruments such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers and mass spectrometers that serve a department or in some cases the entire country. Chemistry in the United States also benefits from a large base of research facilities, including synchrotron sources, nuclear reactors, and large-scale supercomputers. Computational research, involving supercomputers and computer
Areas and Subareas of Chemistry Used in This Report
Molecular and Surface Imaging
Microfluidics and Miniaturization
Sensors and Detectors
Chemical and Structural Biology
Nucleic Acids and Functional Genomics
In vivo Molecular Imaging
Main Group Chemistry
Organometallic Chemistry and Homogeneous Catalysis
Solid State Chemistry
Physical Characterization of Macromolecular Systems
networks, is gaining importance in solving a wide range of chemistry problems—from the subatomic to the macroscopic scale.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR THE UNITED STATES TO LEAD IN CHEMISTRY RESEARCH?
Chemistry is both a central science and an enabling science. It is often called on to provide scientific solutions for national problems. Chemistry plays a key role in conquering diseases, solving energy problems, ameliorating environmental problems, providing the discoveries that lead to new
Materials Chemistry and Nanoscience
Nanocrystal and Cluster Science Nanomaterials: Energy and Applications
Biomaterials/Bioinspired Materials Synthesis
Nuclear and Radiochemistry
Synthetic Organic Chemistry
Physical Organic Chemistry
Natural Products Chemistry
Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Discovery
Single-Molecule Imaging and Electronics
Surfaces and Interfaces Chemistry
Electronic Structure/Basic Theory
Molecular Dynamics Simulations
Computer-Aided Chemical Discovery
industries, and developing new materials for national defense and new technologies for homeland security.
Medical research in particular is moving toward the molecular level, and rigorous chemistry is central to future progress in medicine. As outlined in the National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research,2 current national priorities include new pathways to discovery in emerging and needed areas of research such as biological pathways (including metabolism) and networks; structural biology; molecular libraries and imaging;
nanotechnology; bioinformatics and computational biology—which cut across addressing all types of diseases and medical issues.
Chemistry is playing a central role in helping the United States attain energy independence. Almost all aspects of the national response to alternative energy issues involve chemistry—carbon dioxide sequestration, liquid fuels from coal, ethanol from corn and cellulose, the hydrogen economy, fuel cells, new battery concepts, and new concepts for solar energy. These involve energy storage and conversion into and out of chemical bonds. They also involve kinetics and multielectron catalysis. Solutions to energy problems will require a combination of basic research in chemistry with advanced chemical engineering and materials science. Chemists are now working to develop sustainable energy sources, including new photovoltaic devices and catalysts for the photo splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen and synthetic systems that mimic natural photosynthesis. The greater utilization of nuclear energy will depend on chemists developing better ways for separating and storing nuclear waste. The new hydrogen economy will require chemists to develop better fuel cells and new ways of storing hydrogen. Chemists will be called on to play key roles in developing biofuels and will be needed to develop new materials from biomass to replace the use of petroleum-derived materials.3
While chemistry has inadvertently contributed to environmental problems, chemistry also is essential to improving our environment. Chemists have developed sensitive and specific analyses to monitor our environment, alternative environmentally benign pesticides and herbicides to aid agriculture, and new materials from renewable or recycled resources. Chemists aim to develop highly selective, energy-efficient, and environmentally benign new synthetic methods for the sustainable production of materials. New processes for synthesizing sustainable materials will have to be greener by design to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. A success story involves the replacement of persistent chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants that led to the ozone hole. With replacements that are degraded in the lower atmosphere, the ozone hole is recovering.
The linkage between energy and climate will remain one of the most important challenges for the physical sciences for decades to come. It is certain the climate is warming, and chemistry will play a central role in understanding these changes and mitigating problems associated with global warming. Chemists are monitoring the increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that lead to global warming and will be involved in numer-
To see which Bush Administration initiatives in the past two years in research funding and public statement can be linked, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/01/20060131-6.html.
ous strategies to ameliorate global warming, including developing new energy sources and developing strategies for carbon dioxide sequestration.
WHAT ARE SOME CAVEATS?
There are well-known limitations associated with measures of scientific excellence, including publication and prize analysis. An additional problem arose for “virtual congresses,” where the panel found small but significant differences depending on whether the organizer was from the United States or not.
There are also important factors that are advantageous for chemistry in the United States that must be taken into account when analyzing the state of the field of chemistry. English is the dominant language for chemistry research and publications, likely stemming from the historical U.S. dominance of the field of chemistry. This historical U.S. dominance has also been the major contributing factor for the literature dominance of ACS journals, which are highly regarded and enjoy great popularity as indicated by their associated impact factors. A strong case can be made that the dominance of the United States in the field of chemistry has been historically tied to the prominence of ACS journals, and the choice of English as the language of chemistry.
Because of the sheer size and strength of the U.S. chemistry research community, it cannot be compared meaningfully with those of other single countries. The only sensible method is to compare the United States with regional groups within Europe or Asia. To the extent possible, in this report, specific countries are mentioned in connection with particular areas of chemistry. While ample data were available on human resources and research funding for the United States, the panel had little comparable data for Europe and Asia.
With the enormous breadth of the chemical sciences, it was necessary to divide chemistry into 11 areas, each of which is also extremely broad. Undoubtedly, some areas have been left out. The U.S. standing in green chemistry/engineering, sustainability, and energy production was not addressed because the subjects are being covered extensively in the related benchmarking study of U.S. chemical engineering research.