"Departmental anything, not just chemistry, may be dying"

(I think WordPress failed to publish this when I wrote it, so please excuse if it is a second posting).
Last week’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry has upset a number of the chemical bloggers, some of whom even posted odds for various chemists to win. It was not won by any of them – but by Roger Kornberg for what may be labelled “chemical biology”. There is a feeling of “unfairness” – the prize should be protected for “mainstream chemistry”. A useful summary of feeling in the ChemBlog is:

As for the Nobel… I’ve thought it out and I don’t really know what to say. Kornberg’s work is seminal and groundbreaking and had a Nobel coming to it; however, the endless frustration of seeing more synthetic or physical chemistry passed over for chemical biology is obnoxious. I want to dismiss it as a bandwagon trendy lots-a-hot-air chemistry, but it isn’t. If anything, its time has come and with so much money dumped into it there isn’t any rational reason why important discoveries shouldn’t be coming out of it. Traditional chemistry has built a foundation and upon that foundation we are finally able to tackle the more complex biological systems. That’s something all the self-assembly, macromolecular and synthetic folks can be proud of. That being said, we should also get used to this idea, and as sacrilegious as it is going to sound, it’s the fundamental truth:

Some more correspondents commenting in that blog – and I assume that many are recent graduates:

…LOL. Too bad it’s turned into the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Medicine. I’m going to re-read my molec & cell bio book before setting next year’s odds.

…The guy used x-ray crystallography as a tool to attain his goal… his prize wasn’t for his use of x-ray crystallography.
More importantly:
So far as I can tell, everyone is bitching that a biochemist won a nobel prize. Well, boo****in’hoo! It is biochemistry. Last I checked, just because you don’t use anhydrous THF at least four times a week, doesn’t mean you’re not a goddamn chemist.
…No, in that instance (and really, only in that instance) organic chemistry is a means unto itself. If your goal is to mass produce a marine natural product to fight cancer then synthetic organic chemistry is a tool and the nobel would rightly go to the guy that discovered the bioactivity and no the 20 groups that tried to make it.

…I mean… who honstly thought it was going to go to the molecular elevator guy or the yet-another-chiral-reduction-catalyst guy? If that deserves a nobel prize, I do.

and one of the most relevant:

Departmental anything, not just chemistry, may be dying, [my emphasis] but the real challenge is to find a way to give chemists both the special skills and insights that comprise chemistry at its best with the breadth and depth of knowledge of the complementary fields needed to understand where chemistry can make a contribution. The darwinian process of competitive evolution applied to science and academic recognition may not be the best way to either recognise or understand the major problems the science is now capable of solving. Do you get a Ph.D for finally synthesising something or for coming up with a question that is worth answering?

I think the quote is perceptive. I’m grateful to the chemical community for many things and proud to be part of it. But I hope I am more than a “chemist”. As I have posted earlier we need multidisciplinary scientists and technologists who go beyond labels. The activities of merging the language and practice of chemistry with the Internet revolution is valued outside chemistry but not yet within it. There are many examples and I’ll just briefly mention a few.
PubChem is probably the most prominent and valuable example of the knowledge revolution in chemical science, but it is largely unknown within mainstream chemistry. It has over 5 million molecules but the driving and funding force is biology, not chemistry. Similarly I lamented that when I and others presented at a session on last month “Cyberchemistry” at the ACS there was virtually no effective use or interest in the Grid/cyberinfrastructure for chemistry beyond the “usual suspect” 3-4 groups. And in Open Access matters the publishers of chemistry have been among the last to explore this (and most haven’t).
We see that in the UK chemistry departments continue to close. Chemistry is a wonderful subject and it’s given me a lot. But there is no divine right for chemistry to exist as a subject and its current components may well be appropriated as needs be by biology, nanotechnology, neuroscience, environmental and other subjects that catch people’s attention.
I use computers without being in a computing department – people are increasingly using chemistry without a “chemistry department”.

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One Response to "Departmental anything, not just chemistry, may be dying"

  1. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Is Natural Product Synthesis Interesting?

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