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August 2001
Vol. 10, No. 08, p 52.
Industry Facts & Figures
A matter of perception: Chemists unsung?

College degree and government funding numbers indicate that the role of chemistry may not be fully appreciated.

Many Today’s Chemist at Work readers may recall being asked, “So, you’re a chemistry major, uh . . . what can you do with that?” A few perfunctory phrases likely followed. Who has the time to expound on such topics in a short, casual conversation, anyway? But, to be sure, the response could be extensive. ACS, for example, has 34 technical divisions (www.acs.org/divisions) that define the landscape of modern chemistry, from organic and inorganic to biological and environmental to chemistry and the law. This is not even mentioning the diverse set of industries in which chemists work, as touched on in “Chemists Defy the Gravity of the Economy” of this issue.

How much, though, does a proper presentation of the chemical discipline really matter? Should queries, such as that above, be approached with care and depth, or with feigned interest as one makes one’s way to the lab? Certainly, chemistry often provides the building blocks to projects otherwise labeled. This is evident, for example, in the amount of chemistry other scientists, particularly biologists, are doing these days. As discussed in a recent news feature in Nature (2001, 411, 408–409), “rebranding” important chemical contributions, such as magnetic resonance imaging and DNA advancements, and minimizing the perceived role of chemistry in current hot science topics, such as nanotechnology and protein research, can make the discipline less attractive to potential scientists. From 1966 to 1998, the number of U.S. bachelor degrees awarded in chemistry has remained relatively stagnant (at around 10,000), while the number of biological/agricultural science bachelor degrees has almost tripled (from 29,804 to 85,079), according to a report by the National Science Foundation (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf01325/start.htm; see Figure 1). A likely contributor to this significant disconnect is the tendency for the biological aspects of “newsworthy” scientific topics of the day to hold the public spotlight.

In addition to the vibrant edges of chemistry, there are vast challenges to be met within its core topics, as laid out last year by Stephen Lippard, head of the chemistry department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a “wish list” of 22 goals for fundamental chemistry research (Chem. Eng. News 2000, 78, 64–65). The list, compiled from colleagues throughout the country, includes such aims as creating self-replicating molecules, further elucidating the properties of intermolecular interactions, and improving “the art of conducting chemical reactions without solvents.” Publicly releasing such information, including the long-term application prospects, is vital. Doing so emphasizes the importance of funding basic chemistry research to policy makers and business executives who may otherwise perceive the field as a completed enterprise with no “grand” goals on the scale of human genome or black hole research. Total government funding for biology (distinct from “medical sciences”) research is around $6 billion; for physics, it is between $2 and $3 billion; and for chemistry, it is between $800 and $900 million, according to the most recent figures available (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf01306/pdfstart.htm).

For a more direct appraisal of the public’s view of chemistry, a telephone survey was conducted last year for ACS by Wirthlin Worldwide (www.acs.org/wwfinalreport1.pdf). It was found that chemistry naturally came to the mind of 11% of respondents—fourth to medicine, biology, and astronomy—when they were prompted to think of various fields of science. And chemists were third to physicians and pharmacists as far as their perceived role in maintaining the health of respondents and their families. So, the results were not bad, although there is certainly room for improvement. Perhaps the top two traits—”visionary” and “innovative”—which were associated with chemists in this same survey can be put to use toward improving public appreciation and understanding of chemistry.

Further Reading

  1. Information Systems for Biotechnology, http://gophisb.biochem.vt.edu/index.html.
  2. Biotechnology Industry Organization, www.bio.org.
  3. C&RL NewsNet 1997, 8 (11); www.ala.org/acrl/resdec97.html.

David Filmore is a staff editor with Today’s Chemist at Work. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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