Chemistry Conference Hosts Future of Chemistry Forum

August 14, 2014

The Canadian Society for Chemistry - Science Policy Forum The Future of Chemistry, featuring five leaders in the field of chemistry, was held during the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in June. The panelists provided their thoughts and visions on the future of chemistry from academic, industrial, and governmental perspectives.  Issues discussed included academic preparedness for the current needs of the chemical industry, the impact of industry-academia collaboration on students, and the subsequent economic benefits. Consistent themes emerged throughout: the importance of chemistry, the need for adaptability, and nurturing of academic/industrial partnerships.

Thomas Barton, ACS president, spoke from the American perspective. He commented that  chemistry is a central science, it will always be important. However, as chemistry progresses and changes, the impact areas also change. In order to be successful and remain in the forefront, chemists and chemistry must be adaptable and willing to explore new areas and technologies.  Barton mused that maybe someday there will be a computer algorithm to select the reagents needed for a reaction based on the molecular structure of the starting material and desired product, similar to other fields where automation has been integrated, for example, DNA synthesis.

Jennifer Bean, Manager of Innovation Initiatives, NSERC, highlighted the different partnership grants offered by NSERC in its attempt to encourage more academic/industry partnerships, for instance, Interaction and Engage Grants. Despite a substantial share of Discovery Grants funding, and the potential for chemistry as a central science to have real world applications, the Chemistry group is one of the lowest users of NSERC partnership grants. Jennifer Bean argued that by applying some of the same innovative thinking the chemistry community has used to drive their success in discovery funding, academics could benefit from industrial partnership funding.

“The reality is that each professor running a research program is like a small company”, said Bean, “Partnerships can help gain management and business skills to enable research programs.”

To encourage more academic/industry partnerships, NSERC introduced new funding opportunities, including the Interaction and Engage grants, with parameters that make it easier for faculty and companies to begin working together. These options have enabled small- and medium-sized companies to take on projects with universities that have never before been possible, and has led to many new first-time collaborations.

Jennifer Bean pointed out that in addition to new ideas generated in universities, graduate students and their mentors need skills beyond research ability, like resource management, communications, human resources and market savvy, regardless of whether their career path leads to industry or to academia. These skills can be achieved through partnership grants.

A similar theme was echoed by Klaus Müllen, Director of the Max Plank Institute for Polymer Research.  Müllen stated that Germany has a strong tradition and culture for supporting and promoting academic/industrial interactions. Examples included on-site visits of academics to chemical companies and industrial sabbaticals. Müllen indicated that the design/discovery of new materials is an important future contribution of chemistry; to be successful in this field synthetic and analytical skills are just as important today as they were in the past.   

Mario Pinto, Vice-President of Research, Simon Fraser University, and the newly appointed President of NSERC, presented multiple case studies where cross-functionalization and outside-the-box thinking at SFU has resulted in successful ventures. He suggested that it is not only important to encourage a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in academia, but to also teach these skills to students in addition to the more traditional chemistry curriculum. This will best serve the next generation of students in a rapidly changing global economic environment.

Finally, Louis Plamondon, Senior Director of Chemistry, Vertex Canada asked: ‘Is there a future in chemistry?’ and if yes ‘What will it be?’”. His answer was: ‘Absolutely there is a future’ and ‘I don’t know what it will be’”. He emphasized the need for future chemists to be adaptable and mobile, and have a willingness to consider working with smaller companies where the work can be equally interesting and rewarding as working with big industrial companies. “If someone has a passion for chemistry, they should be open to trying something different,” said Plamondon “It may turn out to be a great experience.”

Overall, the insightful discussions during this forum provided new ideas which will continue to foster innovation in chemistry and build a future where chemists and other scientists are able to fulfill their creative potential and contribute to Canada’s economic growth.