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April 8, 2002
Volume 80, Number 14
CENEAR 80 14 pp. 44-47
ISSN 0009-2347
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I am profoundly grateful to have been selected as the recipient of the 2002 Priestley Medal. It is an unbelievable honor to have my name listed among those distinguished chemists who have made important contributions to chemistry. I noticed several past editors of the Journal of the American Chemical Society among the list of Priestley medalists, including Arthur B. Lamb (sandwiched in his prize, as was his editorship, between the two W. A. Noyes), whose 32-year tenure as editor dwarfs my 20-year term. In all fairness, however, I should add that I handled twice as many journal pages as Lamb did and probably dealt with authors who were three times more ornery!



Medalists often also try to find a connection with Priestley, although most disavow a belief in phlogiston theory. As an electrochemist, I feel some kinship with Priestley, who did some of the first experiments that can be described as electrochemical, when he passed a spark between an electrode and water containing an indicator and demonstrated the formation of an acid.

In this lecture, I'd like to return to an issue raised by my colleague and fellow Texan Al Cotton four years ago in his Priestley Medal address. In his talk, he described the Golden Age of American science identified as beginning in the late 1950s, where generous support of fundamental research led to the development of a body of scientists and science that became the envy of the world. Al felt that the Golden Age was over, largely because of insufficient federal funding for curiosity-driven research. I would like to return to this theme and discuss other factors--cultural, social, and political--that also bear on the future of science in the U.S.

The start of the Golden Age is often traced to the founding of the National Science Foundation in 1952 and especially to the Cold War and the launching of Sputnik in 1957, but I think the age started earlier and was based as much on the American character as on funding levels. After all, five Nobel Prizes in Chemistry in the 10-year period of 1946–55 were awarded to Americans. Our society had a real appreciation of science and what its fruits could provide. I remember going to the 1939 New York World's Fair as a pretty young child and looking in wonderment at exhibit after exhibit extolling science, technology, and the world of the future. The theme of the fair was clearly that enunciated by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1842: "When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;/ Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be." Thus, I think the injection of generous funding in the late '50s provided the needed nourishment for science, but it fell on fertile soil.




NEVERTHELESS, as a graduate student in the mid-1950s, I had to take language exams in French and German because a good fraction of the important literature in chemistry had been, and was being, published in those languages. Conferences overseas were inevitably multilingual, and I remember attending one in the early '60s and watching in awe as comments and questions flew in English, German, and French. These language exams have disappeared as more and more of the world's science is published in English. International conferences today are inevitably in English, even if only a few of the participants are from English-speaking countries. The journals published by ACS are still clearly among the leading ones in chemistry. Students and postdoctoral fellows from throughout the world still flock to U.S. universities to study chemistry and carry out research. Thus, I think the Golden Age of U.S. science hasn't ended, but it is certainly endangered.

I don't intend to discuss here government funding levels for science. The question of the appropriate levels of support and the number of scientists that are needed for research in the U.S. is a complex issue that I don't have time to address. Moreover, a number of others have made a very good case for support of American science. Rather, I would like to address several other issues that bear on the current culture and that can also impact the quality and health of research.

At the outset, let me state emphatically that the NSF and other government funding sources have been very important in my own career. Indeed, the support of NSF was vital to my graduate education and research program from the start, and, in the course of my program, I have been privileged to meet and interact with many dedicated and caring program officers at NSF and other agencies.

However, I have certainly noticed changes over the years, both in the nature of the programs and the amount of work needed in raising sufficient funds to carry out research. The simple fact is that university chemists are spending too much of their time raising money. Indeed, this is a familiar complaint from almost all of the young (and older) scientists I know. Some claim they spend 70% of their time on fund-raising, and if this is so, it is a deplorable situation.

Why is this? For one thing, writing a proposal for an individual grant has become more complicated and elaborate. Because of the competitive pressure, scientists, especially younger ones, believe that they must explain in great detail how experiments will be carried out and try to project expected results. Moreover, they must now try to demonstrate the value of the proposed research to society in some explicit way. This, of course, is difficult, if not impossible, in basic research, so the principal investigator is forced into needless hype and inane projections. I'll return to the justification of basic research later.


Allen J. Bard is scheduled to present the Priestley Medal address on April 9 during the award ceremony at the American Chemical Society's 223rd national meeting in Orlando, Fla. He is Norman Hackerman-Welch Regents Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin. Bard is being honored for his 43-year career in electrochemical research, his skilled teaching and mentorship of students and colleagues, his 20 years of service to chemistry as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and "for his imagination that has profoundly influenced the development of modern chemistry in so many respects and for the integrity that has inspired so many colleagues." Published here is the text of his address.

What is worse, the agencies also expect research grants to further other goals. Factors such as principal investigator (PI) diversity, educational outreach, and geographical diversity come into play and need to be addressed in the proposal. Although I certainly favor the goals of these efforts, I don't think research grants are the proper media to attain them. Research grants should be judged on the past work of the PI and on the proposed research, and NSF and other agencies should not be expected to engage in social engineering.

The very competitive nature of research funding and the need to find multiple sources to support even a modest program at a research university mean that scientists are continually seeking new programs and sources of support. In recent times, the agencies have spent a greater and greater fraction of their funds on an alphabet soup of large-scale programs, like STC, MRSEC, IGERT, and MURI. These are large multi-investigator programs that are very highly competitive and highly sought after.

Indeed, a university would be remiss if it didn't get a group together to seek each and every one of these opportunities when they come along. This means that for each of these there will be 100 universities competing for something like five grants. Although the agencies often try to decrease the work involved by asking for preproposals or white papers that have to be accepted before the actual full proposal, even preparation of these is an enormous task. I have been involved in working on these at my university and others, and I have sat through endless meetings and exchanges of drafts and messages in the preparation of the preproposal. If your preproposal is one of the 10 to 20 or so selected, then watch out, because the work really starts, and, again, only half--at best--of these will be funded. Remember also that all of these have to be reviewed by other scientists who read, judge, and make recommendations, and, if this is done conscientiously, it is not a minor task.

THE UNIVERSITIES are not completely innocent in these matters, because funding is no longer just a desirable thing in a research program, it is the most important thing. More and more, professors at some universities are judged not on the quality of their research, but rather on the amount of research funds they have raised.

The situation is approaching that envisioned by Leo Szilard in 1948 in his amusing story "The Mark Gable Foundation." Let me excerpt a short part where the hero, sometime in the future, is asked by a wealthy entrepreneur, who believes that science has progressed too quickly, what he should do to retard this progress. The hero answers:

"You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. ... First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. ... By going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. ... There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashions would get grants. Those who wouldn't would not."

Szilard's humorous story brings up another factor: the tendency to play it safe in proposals and follow the latest fashions. More and more funds are put into focus areas that someone on high thinks are the most important fields in chemistry at a given time. This leads to "top down" science rather than "bottom up" proposals. I am a firm believer that the most interesting fundamental discoveries will come from individuals with good ideas, often far from the mainstream fashion of the day.

I have been involved in several efforts to identify the important areas (variously called opportunities, challenges, frontiers, etcetera) in chemistry, often working with some of the best chemists around. For example, I was privileged to work with George Pimentel (another Priestley medalist) when he was preparing his deservedly recognized National Research Council 1985 report, "Opportunities in Chemistry." A large number of first-class chemists (around 400) worked with George over several years on this report. Yet some of the key chemical areas that emerged only a few years after the report appeared--like the application of the scanning probe microscopies, high-temperature superconductors, nanoparticles, and the fullerenes--are not in the report. This is not a criticism of the report, but rather a reflection of the fact that reports like this are usually linear extrapolations from current knowledge and, of course, are usually not able to foresee the sudden appearance of completely new, and potentially important, areas. The most important new ideas will almost always come from some individual investigators working in isolation and not from a committee.

In addition to problems with fashionable areas, I have a really hard time with the idea of trying to find societal impact in basic research, as if it is easy to project from some initial good idea what may come of it. History has demonstrated time and again that fundamental research pays off in ways that cannot be imagined in the beginning. It takes a very long time to take a fundamental research finding and develop it into a useful application. Consider, for example, uranium fission, which was discovered in 1938. The first atomic bomb, developed under tremendous pressure and with vast resources, didn't appear until 1945, and peacetime uses took an additional 10 years.

A less extreme case is the transistor. The basic experiments and discoveries were made in 1947, but it took more than 10 years before transistorized TV sets were produced. In both of these cases, the possible applications were clear from the start, huge investments were made in their development, and it still took more than 10 years from discovery to application.

For less dramatic discoveries, the time line can be much longer and less obvious. Permit me to give an example from our own research. In the early '60s, our group was interested in the electrochemical generation and characterization of radical ions of aromatic hydrocarbons in aprotic solvents. The chemical community at the time tended to characterize these as rather exotic and unstable species, although we now know that they are easy to generate and are stable, if one keeps the system dry and oxygen-free.

If indeed the Golden Age of American science comes to an end, it will be sad for our society and ultimately a disaster for our economy.

WE BEGAN TO LOOK at the electron-transfer reaction between radical cations and radical anions (generated by cycling the electrode potential to quite positive and negative potentials) and observed the formation of excited states in a phenomenon now known as electrogenerated chemiluminescence (ECL). Several other groups, like that of Ed Chandross at Bell Labs, Dave Hercules at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a group at American Cyanamid, were also investigating ECL at this time.

We were interested in possible analytical applications of ECL, but it was pretty clear that there wasn't much use in developing a method that worked only in highly purified and deaerated solvents like acetonitrile. The problem in extending this to water was that the ECL active species were not soluble in water, water reacted with the radical cations, and the potential range of water was too small to generate sufficiently strong oxidants and reductants to form an excited state.

In 1972, we found that Ru(bpy)32+ (bpy is bipyridine), a species soluble in water, would produce ECL in acetonitrile. However, water still wasn't a useful solvent, because the reduced form needed for ECL was unstable and difficult to generate in water. In 1981, we figured out an approach using oxalate (which we called a coreactant) along with Ru(bpy)32+ to produce an excited state and light in water with only an oxidation step. By 1984, we had developed this approach into an analytical method that could employ Ru(bpy)32+ as a label on biological molecules. This technique was then developed by IGEN Inc., and licensed to several companies and is the basis of successful selective and sensitive immunoassays.

The point is that the technology took more than 20 years to develop, and in the initial basic research phase that dealt with electron transfer and radical ions, there was not the slightest idea about possible application to immunoassay. I think fundamental research can be justified based on a long history showing that it pays off in societal benefits in the long run, and it should be defended on that basis alone.

I also fear that changes in the American culture and psyche will have an effect on our research prowess. I've mentioned the tendency to play it safe and not engage in risky research. This aversion to risk seems to permeate our culture, perhaps because of fear of legal action, sometimes with undesirable results. Playgrounds are shut down as being too unsafe. Many of us grew up and became interested by playing with chemistry sets. Sets of this type, for example, sold by the Gilbert Co., are now considered much too dangerous. I remember doing an experiment changing water to wine and wine to ink that involved using phenolphthalein (a laxative) and ferrocyanide (a cyanide-containing compound!). We also did many more dangerous, and perhaps foolish, experiments, but I don't remember any serious problems (other than smelling up my apartment with H2S).

The U.K.'s wonderful Open University, where television and correspondence texts were used for "distance learning" years before the Internet, has successfully taught many students chemistry. However, a professor now states, "In chemistry, we used to send out huge lab kits, but we can no longer do this due to health and safety legislation."

I have also seen the effects of safety and waste disposal regulations on our research at the university. Students are now petrified about working with metallic mercury (which for a long time was a widely used electrode in my research). You know, I've been told that Lincoln took pills for many years that contained something like 9,000 times the safe level of mercury (but stopped when he became president), and he turned out all right.

The simple fact is that university chemists are spending too much of their time raising money.



ADD TO THE LIST an unreasonable fear of electric power lines and electric blankets (as causes of leukemia) and cell phones (as causes of brain tumors). I also fear cell phones, but rather as causes of automobile accidents. One has to realize that some risk is not a bad thing. I read a quotation from A. Scott Crossfield, who was a test pilot on the X-15 rocket plane in the '50s. Crossfield bemoans the fact that this kind of work would never be allowed today in our current play-it-safe climate, stating, "Our biggest risk for the future is to not risk for the future."

Part of the unreasonable fear of chemicals and technology grows from the lack of education of nonscientists in even the rudiments of science, as was eloquently discussed by Frank Westheimer in a Priestley talk 14 years ago. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved, and we have a culture in which pseudoscience and antiscience flourish. My local newspaper has a daily astrology column, not to mention frequent articles on nonsense like feng shui and psychics.

However, we are not quite in as bad shape as our colleagues in France, where the Sorbonne recently awarded the personal astrologer of former president François Mitterand a doctorate in sociology on a thesis concerning empirical evidence that validates astrology. This is not a climate that supports real science. As distasteful as pseudoscience is, the net effect of the antiscience movement might ultimately prove more significant.

It is probably not the time or the place to discuss the recent controversy about stem cell research or human cloning. However, I'm amazed that the federal government would not only be concerned with the funding of this type of research, but also, in an unprecedented action, would make scientific research in this area a criminal act. History has shown many times that authority cannot prevent scientific research from being carried out. If such research is not done in the U.S., it will surely be done elsewhere, in a less restrictive climate.

In looking over some of the excellent Priestley addresses of past years, I've noted, with dismay, that most have had little impact. I'm pretty sure mine will have a similar fate, because it is very difficult to change a culture. However, if indeed the Golden Age of American science comes to an end, it will be sad for our society and ultimately a disaster for our economy.

In closing, I thank many of the people who have contributed to any success I have had: my family, who has put up with me all these years; my students and postdoctoral fellows, who are mainly responsible for the work that has come out of our labs; my colleagues at the University of Texas, many of whom have been collaborators in research; and my friends and colleagues in the chemical community for their support and encouragement over the years. I would also like to break with tradition and thank a few molecules that have been so important in our research, so thanks, Ru(bpy)32+, TiO2, and 9,10-diphenylanthracene.

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