Saturday, February 22, 2014

Seeing chemistry through an Olympic lens and beyond

If science were an athletic pursuit, then chemistry would be a sport. Each of our chemistry departments would be like a team in the Olympics (think Nordic skiing). In chemistry departments, each faculty member competes in a given event such as organic chemistry (think biathlon), analytical chemistry (think cross-country) or computational chemistry (think jumping). To be successful we must conduct our scientific programs to be world (or better, international) class. The commitment that each faculty member must put in towards success is priceless. She or he must work countless hours, read and write papers, read and write grants, and sharpen their skills to see what has never been seen before. Scientists don't do this alone, of course. They build research groups of students and professionals that are critical to doing the work and advancing the ideas while at the same time they are being trained towards their own career objectives. The sacrifices are consequently not borne exclusively by the principal investigator. Looking at the winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks, it is clear that while any given athlete wins a medal, there is a corresponding team of people that is essential to the success and who share in the excitement of victory.

Just like Olympic events, some areas of chemistry are more "exciting" than others at any given moment. From time to time, new events such as materials or sustainable chemistry come along and they receive special attention (both in terms of funding and presence in the hot journals). That means that depending on your event (or research area), there are varying amounts of support available. But you can't work any less hard if you are to be the best in any given event. And there lies the problem. You have several teams of chemists in a department, all undertaking world-class research, but some have more money than others to do it. It's clear that Olympic sporting committees face the same problem. A few figure skaters, for example, are pulling in millions of dollars in endorsements while some of the bobsledders practically had to pay their own way to Sochi. So in the Olympic spirit, it is essential to look for ways to fund all the scientific events and their "athletes" well so that we are competitive across the board. The payoff for investing in science (and chemistry in particular) goes beyond the medals as the solutions that we create literally transform the human condition.