Prof. George Whitesides on the future of the field

Let me preface with this: before this week, I’d not had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Professor Whitesides.

Recently, Whitesides wrote an essay in ACIE in which he discussed the past, present, and future of the field of chemistry.  Chemistry, he argued is a field in flux.  Many fundamental problems have been worked out pretty well by now.  If you can draw a molecule on a piece of paper, someone, somewhere can figure out how to make it*.  Total synthesis for the sake of total synthesis is no more.

The real challenge in modern chemistry is figuring out what molecules are worth making.  Or even discovering new uses for ones we’ve already made.  That can range from drug candidates to polymers, organic conductors to explosives.

To this end, Professor Whitesides posed a hypothetical question:

Suppose you are given unlimited resources.  All the funding, personnel, and equipment you need.  And further suppose your research project achieves all of its goals and is completely successful.  Who cares?

It’s always useful to keep the big picture in mind.  What will your research contribute to society?  And sometimes, it’s perfectly OK if the answer to that question is a slightly ambiguous “Well, we’ll know a bit more about how subject x works.”  But, Whitesides argued, going forward that won’t be OK any more.  After all, we as researchers are using taxpayer money to do our work (in many cases).  Even corporate interests receive government funds through the NIH, NSF, DOE, other TLA.  And philosophically, we have both a moral and utilitarian duty to provide a return on the investment that the taxpayer has made in us.

This leads us to something of a conflict between scientists and the public.  Scientists want to work on cool science.  It’s what we do.  We want to look at tough problems (whether they exist or not is the subject of a different discussion) and find solutions to them.

Generally, the public couldn’t care less about solutions to arcane scientific problems.  They want solutions to everyday problems.  Not ones that are invented ex post facto to justify the expense of a program.

So, how do scientists and the public rectify this situation?  About halfway through his talk, Prof. Whitesides put up a slide with a simple, four quadrant chart.  Along the Y-axis was increasing scientific interest.  Along the X-axis was increasing contribution to society at large.  The bottom-left quadrant represented research no one, not even scientists care about: topics with little scientific merit and no potential for societal improvement.  Top-left represented interesting research areas which lack obvious applications.  Bottom-right would be areas which provide high return on the public’s investment, but which are not particularly interesting to scientists.

But it’s the top-right quadrant that’s the sweet spot.  How do we find areas of research which are scientifically interesting and provide a significant benefit to society?

The answer is simple: we invent new fields of science.

Louis Pasteur is the archetypal scientist in this regard.  Immunology did not exist before he invented it.  Vaccines did not exist before he postulated that they’d work.  His research literally created an entirely new field of science.  And moreover, it has probably had the greatest net-positive impact on society of any discovery scientists have ever made.  Louis Pasteur was a real top-right kind of scientist.

And that’s what, if nothing else, we should take away from Whitesides’ talk: try to be a top-right scientist.

______________________________________

* Given sufficient time and money.

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2 thoughts on “Prof. George Whitesides on the future of the field

  1. Whitesides is not the first person to draw this diagram. It was drawn at an internal seminar at my old company, for example, with “societal value” replaced by “market.” After a vibrant discussion, we added the caveat that focusing on being a “top-right” scientist can induce a counter-productive tunnel vision. The “bottom right” quadrant is the source of the truly transformative technologies with broad societal impact: isotactic polypropylene, Green Fluorescent Protein, the radio, etc.

    “Who cares?” is a valuable question to ask but I don’t know how it should be implemented. Using it at the outset of choosing a research problem will ultimately stifle science. But not asking at all will make the science, ultimately, irrelevant.

  2. Wasn’t Edward Jenner vaccinating people against smallpox some time before Pasteur was even born? He used cowpox as a “substitute” inoculant. Pasteur’s innovation was in finding a way to systematically “weaken” inoculants.

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