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Chemistry: Alive And Well

I’ve been on the road rather a lot recently. The first week of October, I was in Paris for the first two days of CPhI Worldwide. From Paris, I flew to Stanford University to attend the 25th Annual William S. Johnson Symposium, where I gave the after-dinner talk.

Coincidentally, the Nobel Prizes were announced during my travels. The following week, on Oct. 12, C&EN presented its 14th webinar, which featured Ei-ichi Negishi, who just happened to be one of the three winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions.

So I’ve been steeped in even more chemistry than usual in recent weeks. And it seems to me that the chemistry enterprise is in pretty good shape.

C&EN held a reception at CPhI on Monday evening to kick off the meeting. About 100 individuals from the custom and fine chemicals industry attended, and I chatted with a fair number of them. During the course of the meeting, I also met with a number of industry executives, including Roger Laforce, general manager at FIS; Michael Major, president and CEO of Cambridge Major Laboratories; Guy Villax, CEO of Hovione; and Raj Iyer, president of Arch Pharmalabs USA.

C&EN Senior Correspondent Ann M. Thayer and Senior Editor Rick Mullin also attended CPhI. In her first report from the conference, Thayer wrote that “the custom and fine chemicals industry is in a post-recessionary lull, and business is returning at a slower pace than many executives had hoped for” (C&EN, Oct. 11, page 9).

While that’s undoubtedly an accurate assessment, I did sense a note of optimism in most of the conversations I had at CPhI. The worst of the Great Recession does seem to be behind us. As Major pointed out to me, almost no company went out of business during the prolonged slump. Business is picking up, albeit more slowly than most would prefer.

This year’s Nobel Prizes were a pleasant surprise. I’m as big a fan of chemistry research at the interface with biology as anyone, but the recent string of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and in Physiology or Medicine going for work in biochemistry had become a bit much. This year, there wasn’t any prize for biochemical research at all! The chemistry prize went to three deserving chemists for developing one of the most important techniques in synthetic organic chemistry ever developed. The physics prize for discovering a way to produce graphene had a strong whiff of chemistry to it. And the prize in physiology or medicine for in vitro fertilization was for a medical advance. All the Nobel Prizes in science this year were of a refreshingly practical nature.

The Johnson Symposium at Stanford honors a great synthetic organic chemist and the individual responsible for creating the outstanding chemistry department at that university. It is traditionally a celebration of organic chemistry. Its organizers this year—Stanford chemistry professors Chaitan 
Khosla, Barry M. Trost, and Paul A. Wender—are organic chemists of the first rank.

Curiously, only one of the seven speakers at this year’s symposium (all of them Nobel Laureates) is a bona fide synthetic organic chemist—Harvard’s E. J. Corey. Two of the others—Caltech’s Robert H. Grubbs and MIT’s Richard R. Schrock—certainly synthesize organic molecules; the olefin metathesis catalyses they have pioneered are extraordinarily powerful synthetic tools, but Schrock is an inorganic chemist and Grubbs is kind of a hybrid physical organic/inorganic chemist.

The other four speakers—Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute, Andrew Fire of Stanford’s School of Medicine, Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University, and Stanley Prusiner of the University of California, San Francisco—aren’t even chemists, and their talks weren’t about organic chemistry.

No matter. All of the talks were fascinating, and each of them had a strong chemical component. That the Johnson Symposium can feature such a broad lineup of speakers on such a broad range of topics, all of them highly relevant to chemistry, bodes well for the future of our science.

Thanks for reading.

11 Comments

  • Oct 18th 201011:10
    by Gaythia

    I think that this post highlights issues raised in a previous post on this blog, and on other blogs elsewhere. For whom should the ACS, and C&EN serve as advocates?

    Several things in the post above concern me:

    It is nice to hear that custom and fine chemical industry executives are optimistic, and that almost no company went out business during the prolonged slump. It seems to me that CEO’s in most fields are in pretty good shape. But what of their employees (and former employees)? And where are they hiring now?

    I am also concerned by the comment: “but the recent string of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and in Physiology or Medicine going for work in biochemistry had become a bit much”. Not that I care about biochemistry, my interests are oriented more towards inorganic chemical applications. However, I think that it is huge that the field of Chemistry continues to define itself so narrowly that all kinds of interesting areas, that ought to be within our domain, are instead ceded to others. Thus, it is not surprising to read above that fascinating talks, with a strong chemical component, were given by people who do not identify themselves as chemists at all.

    In my opinion, if the field of chemistry, as represented by the ACS, is to truly remain alive and well, it needs to pay attention to it’s membership base, and broaden its outlook as to what chemistry is all about.

  • Oct 18th 201016:10
    by Rudy Baum

    @Gaythia: Thanks for your comment. Whether ACS should be an advocate for chemists–I happen to think it should be and is–is one question. Whether C&EN should be an advocate is another. As a news magazine, we report on events and trends in the chemistry enterprise, and outsourcing leading to unemployment among chemists is such a trend. I wish it weren’t so, but C&EN does have to report on it.

    As to the breadth of chemistry, I am all for an inclusive view of our science and have said so many times. My comment was more directed at the Nobel Chemistry Committee, which has in recent years seemed to view important advances in chemistry as limited primarily to biochemistry.

  • Oct 19th 201009:10
    by Eka-silicon

    I too, have a few concerns…

    “And it seems to me that the chemistry enterprise is in pretty good shape.”

    Especially for all jet-setting, Nobel-prize-winner-hand-shaking chemists out there! ;)

    “As Major pointed out to me, almost no company went out of business during the prolonged slump.”

    Surely, there’s no reporting bias here…after all, the ACS has a detailed up-to-date survey of all smaller mom-and-pop custom synthesis outfits, right?

  • Oct 19th 201010:10
    by Gaythia

    The 10/18/2010 issue of C&EN(online at least) has an article, which I believe is excellent, entitled: Chemical Bonding:
    At the top companies to work for, family-like relationships are strengthened by mutual respect and clear communication. The first sentence is “Strong ties among employees make for strong companies, according to three standout workplaces profiled in C&EN’s annual survey of the best places to work in chemistry:”
    I call this advocacy.

    Even something as relatively “dry” as the new addition of the “Anaytical Scene” feature, highlights and enhances reporting in this area. (an area that happens to be of interest to me)

    Partly by deciding which events and trends to report, partly in the manner in which the ACS hands out rewards (as a best places to work survey does), the ACS is obviously has an impact on the future of chemistry.

    Isn’t this what makes being the editor of C&EN worthwhile?

  • Oct 19th 201011:10
    by Organiker

    “And it seems to me that the chemistry enterprise is in pretty good shape.” (Unless you’re a chemist).

    “Almost no company went out of business during the prolonged slump.” (They just laid off employees instead. Yea!)

    This is precisely the attitude that breeds hostility towards the ACS.

  • Oct 22nd 201012:10
    by Fenton Heirtzler

    Mr Baum,

    More than two weeks ago, I submitted a letter to the editor for C & E News in which I analyzed the “Statements” of the two candidates for the office of ACS president. That analysis was from the perspective of the tens of thousands of unemployed American chemists who would like to see a proactive president to represent their predicament and propose solutions.

    If you will not be publishing the letter in C & E News, then please at least say so, so that it can appear in another publication in a timely fashion.

    Thank you

    Fenton Heirtzler

  • Oct 23rd 201008:10
    by fentonh

    Well Mr Baum refused to publish my letter to the editor in which I asked what the ACS presidential candidates were doing to address the discrepancy between numbers of PhDs being cranked out, and the hordes of unemployed PhDs. So it’s now on the ACS LinkedIn site.

    The Emperor has no clothes!

  • Oct 25th 201020:10
    by Eka-silicon

    Well, Dr. Fenton, looks as if the caviar is too good to allow time to respond to the serfs. Well, and puff-pieces take a a lot of time and imagination to write, I’m sure.

    The system (grad school labour-postdoc-grant machine-ACS) is too deeply entrenched; sadly, it will have to grind on some before it finally implodes and shudders to an (irrevocable) screeching halt.

  • Pingback

    Dec 1st 201010:12
    by Disturbing Trends | The Editor's Blog

    [...] month I wrote an editorial entitled “Chemistry: Alive and Well” in which, on the basis of conversations I had had at CPhI and Stanford University’s Johnson [...]

  • Dec 27th 201004:12
    by PramodVPai

    HI

    Any idea,when is Arch coming up with its IPO in INDIa

  • [...] Grad students continue to pile into total synthesis labs, and our flagship news weekly runs pieces titled “Chemistry: Alive and Well”.  Chemistry is alive, but is it really [...]

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