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Teach Chemistry The Way Chemistry Is Done

Will the NSF Chemistry Division’s realignment have any impact on the moribund structure of academic chemistry departments? That’s not its stated goal, but some people hope it will.

The division announced the realignment of its programs at a town hall meeting at the ACS meeting in Salt Lake City. In this week’s issue, Sue Morrissey has a story on the details of the realignment and the rationale behind it.

So, as of July, it’s out with organic dynamics; organic synthesis; theory or computational; experimental physical; inorganic, bioinorganic, and organometallic; and analytical and surface, and in with eight new interdisciplinary programs whose titles more accurately reflect the research that’s actually being done in chemistry labs these days.

It’s in with chemical synthesis; chemical structure, dynamics, and mechanisms; chemical measurement and imaging; theory, models, and computational methods; chemistry of life processes; macromolecular, supramolecular, or nanochemistry; environmental chemical sciences; and chemical catalysis. The division has put together a nifty decision tree to help chemists figure out where their research proposals will find a home in the new structure.

One point in Morrissey’s story that caught my eye was a quote from Luis Echegoyen, who told her that two outside panels of scientists in 2004 and 2007 “both said we should seriously consider looking at the structure because it is archaic.” The committees pointed out that the Chemistry Division’s structure reflects the way chemistry is taught, not necessarily the way it is done.

And the corollary of that observation is that we’re still not teaching chemistry the way it is done, we’re teaching it the way academic departments organize themselves. And that somehow that’s OK.

Isn’t it about time that academic chemistry departments finally decided that the traditional subdisciplines of chemistry have become operationally meaningless in today’s research world? And that we are doing students a tremendous disservice by teaching them chemistry within the bounds of those meaningless buckets?

I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and thoughtful chemists have been talking to me about this problem throughout my career. It’s not like we don’t know there’s a problem. It’s the 800-lb gorilla in the lab that we’re determined not to notice, the one that’s driving some of the best and brightest students away from careers in chemistry.

The realignment of NSF’s Chemistry Division will probably result in a better review process for research proposals. I hope it also spurs a long overdue and major reform of the chemistry curriculum that more accurately reflects the modern practice of chemistry. I’d like to hear what you think.

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