Chemical & Engineering News,
March 27, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.


Michael Heylin


The scene in the TV commercial is idyllic. It looks like a remote section of the Pacific Coast. The sun, low in the sky, glints off the misty ocean. Waves roll gently against the rocks. A runner moves along easily, obviously enjoying the beauty of the moment. He slows and pulls an electronic device from his jacket pocket. He writes a message on it, faxes it, and receives a response - all right there on the jogging trail.

The technology displayed in the ad is awesome. But the implied message is a little frightening: In this modern age, one should never be out of the information loop, even for as long as it takes to relax a little and work off a few calories.

Be that as it may, the information revolution is here. The ability for everybody in the world to communicate instantly with practically everybody else and every available database on any topic and at any time is apparently no longer just a wild idea. For many, it is becoming a work-a-day reality.

Electronic wizardry of many kinds is not only revolutionizing how information is transmitted and received, it is also changing how information is generated, used, recorded, presented, published, analyzed, processed, protected, classified, stored, searched, and retrieved. Because the primary function of scientists is to generate and interpret new information, they find themselves at the center of all these shifts.

This issue of C&EN, with the exception of the breaking news and Concentrates departments, is devoted to an examination of how this revolution is changing the way chemists and chemistry-based organizations function.

Senior Correspondent James Krieger explores the changes for chemical research as well as the impact of computer programs that simulate processes and organizations. Senior Correspondent Wil Lepkowski analyzes the role of the federal government in the revolution. Senior Editor Stu Borman looks into the status of electronic publishing, and Assistant Editor Elisabeth Kirschner from C&EN's Northeast News Bureau details the role of the computer in the reengineering and globalization of chemical companies in this country.

As Lepkowski's article points out, information technology has support across the political spectrum in principle, if not in terms of who will pay for its development. Vice President Al Gore has made the establishment of the so-called information superhighway his highest priority. He has stated that the Clinton Administration "is committed to the goal of connecting every classroom, every library, every hospital, and every clinic to the national and global infrastructures by the end of this decade."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich is equally enthusiastic. As he puts it, "We are seeing that the information age means more decentralization, more market orientation, more freedom for individuals, more opportunity for choice, more capacity to be productive without controls." And the magazine of a think tank founded by Reagan Administration science adviser George A. Keyworth intones that the information age "spells the death of the central institutional paradigm of modern life, the bureaucratic organization."

The ability of computer programs to enable scientists to do many things quicker and better than they could before is unquestioned. The role of computer programs in designing and controlling chemical processes today is almost routine. And their ability to coordinate and optimize every aspect of the business side of chemical manufacture on a global scale, from receipt of initial order to product delivery, is growing apace.

One hopes that chemists remember in the excitement and enthusiasm of the information age that electronic gadgetry, however sophisticated, enhances, but never replaces, their chemical knowledge, experience, and intuition. Also, it is okay to disconnect from the electronic world once in a while and take time to think.

One also hopes that chemical makers realize their primary asset will always lie in the devotion and skills of their employees, not in their software.

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