Dr Seth Snyder
Bolstered by a long and successful history, the US chemical research community is in fine health at present. However, with growing R&D investment from BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the US cannot afford complacency in any of its research sectors.
Dr Seth Snyder, President of the Council for Chemical Research (CCR) and Section Leader of Process Technology Research at the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, leads a cross-discipline team that operates across a broad range of research areas. Snyder explains to Science Omega how he believes that his country's chemical research sector can remain one step ahead of its competitors...
Chemistry professionals have to be comfortable working across disciplines and using their skills to impact non-chemical fields. The chemical research community has a significant advantage over other disciplines in concept synthesis and integrationWhat, in your opinion, are some of the unique strengths of the chemical research community in the US?
Dr Seth Snyder
The US chemical research community has several unique strengths. The US leads the world in academic training. Young scientists from around the world are attracted to our universities because our academic research is first class. The US doesn't completely own this space but we are certainly the leader in discovery science. US leadership is especially dominant in areas such as nanoscience or new high performance materials that require crosscutting ideas or span disciplines.
Another strength in the US research community is the engagement and commitment of angel and venture capital investment. New technology companies are created more rapidly in the US than anywhere. We have the willingness to take risks and potentially fail. As an example, the US is the home for most start-up companies working on bio-based chemicals and advanced biofuels. Many of these VC-backed companies were created from ideas generated in our universities and national laboratories.
Chemistry professionals have to be comfortable working across disciplines and using their skills to impact non-chemical fields. The chemical research community has a significant advantage over other disciplines in concept synthesis and integration. Chemistry is a central science at the most fundamental level. Chemistry impacts fields from biology to physics, and provides the core to advance medicine, food, agriculture, environment, energy, materials, consumer products, electronics, building materials and transportation. Chemistry is a unique field in that success requires creativity in both mathematical skills and spatial, essentially artistic, design skills.What are the challenges of conducting high-quality chemical research in the current economic climate?
There are three core challenges in the current economic environment:
• The national debate on cutting federal spending could have a significant impact on research investment. Federal investments represent a small but significant portion of the total R&D funding pie. Corporate investments in basic research are much more difficult to justify. Taken together, investments in basic and applied R&D could suffer. It is not clear that the US will be able to maintain the R&D investments necessary to retain economic leadership;
• As economies advance in China, India, Brazil, and other places, the US is starting to experience a young brain drain. International scientists and engineers have many more opportunities in their home countries in both academic and industrial environments. The huge expansion in information technology is accelerating the process. A young scientist can access the same information from virtually every region of the world. We make significant public investments in training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; if not provided an opportunity to contribute to the US economy, they will return home to use their skills to compete with us. Our visa programmes actually promote this outcome;
• As international markets grow, the chemical industry is moving R&D centres closer to their supply chain and customer. R&D investments that might have been made in the US are moving to China, Singapore and other countries. As the talent pool develops in these emerging economies, the role of the US chemical researchers is declining in influence.How are chemists working to overcome these challenges?
Many companies are making large investments in academic research. Recently, Dr William Banholzer, the Chief Technical Officer of The Dow Chemical Company, announced strategic investments in a core set of universities. Dow is looking to both develop new technology and ensure that a talent pipeline of chemists and chemical engineers is available for the continued success of the US chemical enterprise. Other companies are making similar investments with strategic partners. On the research side, universities and national laboratories are increasing their commitments to technology transfer and foster the process. The potential for technology transfer and eventual commercial deployment is considered a career positive in many R&D institutions. The CCR strongly supports these changes in the culture of the chemical R&D community.
From the standpoint of international competition, many young scientists and engineers are seeking international rotations as a stepping stone to career advancement. Science students are pursuing international exchange programmes. These career decisions enable young researchers to develop deeper understandings of the research, business and cultural aspects of their organisation. They become more valuable assets to their company or institution.
The US is the world leader in social media and Cloud computing. Personally, I am concerned that the US chemical community is not using competitive advantages in information technology platforms to maintain leadership.Why is it important to improve the public's understanding of the work of chemists, and their achievements?
If a chemist speaks with her next door neighbour about chemistry, engineering and the chemicals that are produced, the typical person will respond with concern regarding pollution, environmental contamination and health impacts. Without a full understanding of the positive role that chemistry plays in advancing healthcare, environmental enhancements, energy, food and materials production, the non-chemist may resist both R&D investment in chemistry and deployment of beneficial chemical technologies. It is critical for the chemistry community to both develop sustainable solutions to society's needs and publicly highlight those benefits. When I discuss public engagement with other researchers, I say: 'If you can't convince your next door neighbour that they should pay your salary, they're not going to.' CCR has developed tools to enable the researcher to quantify the societal benefits of chemical R&D.What are your priorities for the coming year?
The CCR's mission is 'Improving Chemical Innovation Through Collaboration and Advocacy'. In 2012 CCR will:
• Update our models for quantifying the societal and public benefits of R&D investments with thought leaders in research and investment – CCR will work with R&D leaders in the chemical sciences to quantify the public and societal benefits of public investments in research through deployment. CCR will generate reports, fact sheets and graphics that highlight the benefits. Members will communicate these highlights in meetings, presentations, email and social media;
• Evaluate how the economic climate will impact R&D collaborations – CCR has invested significantly in understanding research collaborations at every stage from identifying a partner, building the relationship, developing new technology, through transferring the technology. CCR continues to revise the collaboration models and develop solutions to barriers. As one example, CCR will provide a forum for industrial CTOs to meet with directors of the national laboratories;
• Develop new tools to prepare the future workforce to become productive as rapidly as possible – last year CCR issued a study that investigated the interrelationships between graduate school training and workforce needs. New graduates frequently lack critical skills to ensure success, such as working on multidisciplinary teams outside of a researcher's core expertise. The tools will use the experience from industrial hiring managers to provide guidance to graduate school training programmes;
• Conduct workshops that enable R&D leaders to make strategic decisions regarding R&D opportunities – CCR will continue its long history of hosting highly-interactive NIChE workshops on emerging issues. A short timeline between topic proposals and workshop delivery allows leaders who participate to make strategic decisions. Topics are selected by our members.For further information, please visit the CCR homepage.