Markets & Companies

Reinventing Chemistry

The End of One Era and the Beginning of Another

06.05.2015 -

The years following World War II were very kind to chemistry. The research universities and the chemical industry-one of the most beneficial partnerships our technologically sophisticated society has seen-developed the forms that we know. Industrial chemistry became a core part of the industrial world; academic chemistry explained how atoms and molecules made reality happen.

During this time complex organic synthesis, quantum chemistry, laser spectroscopy, production of polyolefins, organometallic chemistry, molecular beams, medicinal chemistry, and countless other areas developed and flourished. The range of commercial and scientific opportunities was very large.

This prolific era is over, and chemistry is now facing classes of opportunities, and obligations to society, that are even more interesting, but entirely different. They will require-I believe-a new structure for the field, and raise a fundamental question: „What must chemistry be in the future?" It has been the field of science that studied atoms, bonds, molecules, and reactions. And 50 years from now? Will it still be the study of molecules and what they do? Or will it deal with complex systems that involve molecules, in any form-in materials science, biology, geology, city management, whatever-„chemical" or not?

Chemistry Blended the Practical and Conceptual

This postwar era simultaneously developed academic chemistry-to analyze and understand complexity-and industrial chemistry-to produce the chemicals used by society. The two are sometimes described as separate, and even antagonistic. Far from it! The interchange between them-albeit usually unplanned and often haphazard-provided extraordinary benefits to both. This stimulating exchange of information between academic and industrial laboratories continued until the 1980s, and then slowed.

Since the 1990s, the chemical industry has focused on process improvement and on short-term product development, rather than to contribute actively to the development of new areas of large-scale chemistry. In the past two decades, the chemical industry has introduced few fundamentally new products. The changes that forced large companies out of long-term research are relatively straightforward to understand: the goals of capitalism and the public markets, and incentives for senior management, both favor investments in which financial returns are expected to be short-term. Research is generally a long-term investment. In the face of pressure for profitability, much of industry has chosen to emphasize the management of existing businesses, rather than to try to create new ones: research in the chemical industry is now often considered as an expense, rather than an investment.

This choice of direction has had several consequences:

1) It has ended (or constrained in scope and character) the unique and mutually beneficial intellectual partnership between industrial and academic chemistry that characterized the 1960s to 1980s.

2) It has increasingly limited the number of jobs for chemists in industry, and made a career in industrial chemistry less attractive for students choosing what to study.

3) It has limited the options for chemistry to explore new areas, since many of these areas require the kinds of resources and skills in large-scale project management that only industry can provide.

The narrowed focus of industry on maintaining profitability in commoditized product lines, in a business environment in which costs due to regulation (especially environmental regulation) and safety are increasing, has had another important effect. It has made the chemical industry seem relatively uninterested and uninvolved in research whose outcome might have social benefit rather than financial return. The disinterest in social return has placed the chemical industry increasingly in the position of appearing to be a necessary, valuable, but not necessarily attractive part of the industrial economy. That strategy may not be the best for it in the long term.

Although academic chemistry has migrated into new fields (biochemistry, materials science, and computational chemistry are examples), and academic departments have proliferated, the historical core disciplines have drifted more toward "iteration" and "improvement" and away from "discovery."

Nothing Goes on Forever

The depletion of the vein of new ideas and commercial opportunities that marked the end of the postwar period was inevitable: nothing goes on forever. And the issue is certainly not that society has run out of problems for chemistry to solve. In fact, I would argue the opposite: that chemistry may now be the most important of the sciences in its potential to impact society. The science and technology that developed in this period will continue as the foundation of whatever the field becomes, but the most urgent opportunities now lie in new directions.

These new opportunities are, however, much broader in scope and greater in complexity than the simpler, previous problems, and require new structures and methods. To deal efficiently with these problems, academic chemistry will need to integrate „solving problems" and „generating understanding" better. Industry must either augment its commodity- and service-based model to re-engage with invention, or face the prospect of settling into a corner of an industrial society that is comfortable, but largely irrelevant to the flows of technology that change the world.

In the new era, both academic and industrial chemistry (ideally with cooperation from government) would benefit from abandoning distinctions between science and engineering, between curiosity-driven understanding and solving hard problems, and between chemistry and other fields, from materials science to sociology.

What's Next?

Coming out of this extraordinary era of the 50s to the 80s, chemistry has a certain intellectual and organizational style. The perception-by society, and probably by most chemists-is that chemistry is less exciting than biomedicine, brain science, "social engineering", studies of climate change, astronomy, and a number of other fields. The increasing evolution of the chemical industry toward a commodity-and-service business model leaves it unarguably essential, but not exciting. Does this mean the field is over?

No. It is not over. In fact, a look at the problems facing society, and the requirement for the skills of chemistry that can be applied to the solutions of these problems, indicates exactly the opposite. But the structures that served so well in the past will not do equally well in the future.

One change is that some of the chemical "opportunities" are now urgent necessities. Academic scientists are uneasy when faced with "timelines" and "deliverables." Some of the problems facing society (for example, climate change, management of energy production and use, lowering costs of healthcare and distributing its benefits) must, in fact, be attacked immediately, and finding approaches to their solution is urgent.

Other, seemingly less urgent, enigmas (for example, understanding the molecular basis of life) will be entirely based on curiosity. While there are many problems to which chemistry is the discipline offering the most plausible expertise, how will the participants (research universities, industry, government, and interestingly, in the future, foundations) set priorities? Who will do what, in what order? How long will it take?

Table 1 contains examples of challenges. Some are obvious. Some are "inevitable," in the sense that it is certain that the problem is real and will be addressed somehow. (The only question is "How?") Some come simply by assuming that common wisdom is wrong. Some are purely my personal opinion and their connections with „chemistry", as it currently defines itself, may, for some, not be immediately obvious.

Setting Priorities for the Future

For the foreseeable future, many of the most important problems for society (and perhaps for government) will require chemistry, although not necessarily the kind of chemistry now popular in the research universities. Stabilizing the environment, managing energy, providing affordable healthcare, generating jobs, protecting societies in unsettled times: all are extraordinary challenges, opportunities (and obligations), but they are also evanescent: if chemistry does not accept them, other fields will. For large chemical companies, short-term financial return will continue to dominate strategy. Will it be possible to combine the academic enthusiasm for obligation-free funding, government´s need to solve problems, and industry´s focus on profitability?

Change Leaders

If chemistry needs to change-from the style developed in the period post-WW II to that needed to solve very different types of problems-who should lead the change?

Universities should, ideally, lead in changing the structure of chemistry, not because they are more competent than industry or government, but because they are less constrained, and because one of their jobs is education, and education is the future. Many useful types of change would be (in principle) easily accomplished: combining different departments (chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, materials science), broadening education, and changing the criteria for tenure to give credit for collaborative research are among them. Others may be more difficult. For example, there is growing agreement (at least in the US), that graduate research groups in many areas of science (including chemistry) need some form of restructuring.

The big chemical companies are essential to the production of chemical products and hydrocarbon fuels that require handling large amounts of materials, energy, and capital. They have settled into a strategy of technically sophisticated improvements to existing processes and products. Industries that do not change when technology shifts dramatically sometimes disappear-companies that produced steam engines, film for silver halide photography, and adding machines are examples-but Society will continue to need sulfuric acid, concrete, and polyethylene film.

The largest chemical companies will not disappear, but a future producing commodities at declining margins is not exciting. More importantly, these enormous, technically sophisticated companies have unique skills in managing technically demanding and dangerous processes on very large scales, in controlling flows of heat and materials, and managing capital: it would be a great loss if those skills were not applied to managing water resources, atmospheres, and megacities. Society (and their own stockholders) would be much better for it if they were to choose to explore avenues for growth, rather than to settle into a retirement that is irrelevant to channeling the streams of technology that will shape the future world.


In short, chemistry must expand its mission from "molecules," to "everything that involves molecules." For academic chemistry, this expansion will provide fresh intellectual and practical challenges, and fulfill its ethical obligations to the taxpayers who pay the bills. For industrial chemistry, the expansion of scope would open the door to new commercial opportunities, and to future growth. For government and for Society, it would build some of the capability needed to solve problems that currently seem insoluble.

This article is based on an essay Prof. Whitesides published in Wiley's journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, Vol. 54, 2015. The complete essay and references are available on Wiley Online Library via the following link.

Chemistry, Public Understanding, and a Sense of Style

If someone asks: "what does chemistry do? "better glue" is not an arresting answer. Let me sketch a conversation I have had on various occasions-in one form or another. The person next to me says, "What do you do?" I answer "I'm a chemist." S/he responds: "Chemistry was the one course in high school I flunked. What is it that chemists do, anyway?" I have tried two types of answers. One is: "Well, we make drugs. Like statins. They are inhibitors of a protein called HMGA-CoA reductase, and they help to control cholesterol biosynthesis and limit cardiovascular disease." (This answer usually ends the conversation.) The second is: "We change the way you live and die." The second answer works better.