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Time to rethink

Nachrichten aus der Chemie, Dezember 2023, S. 32-36, DOI, PDF. Login für Volltextzugriff.

Von Wiley-VCH zur Verfügung gestellt

Rethinking chemistry is what the GDCh wants to do in the coming years. But what does this mean in concrete terms? Nachrichten aus der Chemie wanted to know and asked the „presidential think tank“. A discussion with Stefanie Dehnen (President-elect of the GDCh), Karsten Danielmeier (current President), and Peter R. Schreiner (former President).

„Rethinking Chemistry“ – this is the motto under which the GDCh intends to act in the coming years. What are the goals?

Stefanie Dehnen: Rethinking chemistry, on the one hand, means changing people‘s minds about what chemists actually think about. It means thinking about new challenges that we have to face, that are global and that cannot be solved without chemists. Many people are not aware of this. Instead, they think that chemistry is mainly the cause of the problems, while chemistry is actually the means to get rid of the problems such as climate change, energy resources, new energies, clean water and air. On the other hand, what we need to do as chemists is to rethink how we achieve the goal of solving these problems. We cannot just carry on with business as usual, we really have to come up with new concepts and we also have to rethink how we transport knowledge into society.
In 2023, the GDCh Executive Board decided to declare „Rethinking Chemistry“ the GDCh motto. It is intended to provide space for new thoughts and ideas on all topics to which chemistry can and must make valuable contributions.

Peter R. Schreiner: Rethinking chemistry is basically putting every single chemical reaction, every chemical step on the table and thinking about whether it is sustainable. From an organic chemist‘s point of view, this means not just looking at the reaction steps, but also the energy that goes into the reaction, the mass, the material, the solvent. There are very few chemical reactions that can really be sustained for a very long time because most reactions are wasteful in terms of energy or materials.

Karsten Danielmeier: I would like to go one step further. Rethinking chemistry means staying curious, supporting technological progress, and improving the living conditions of people on this planet. Everyone in chemistry and in the GDCh should think about how they can contribute to this in their daily lives as professional chemists.

So rethinking chemistry is aimed both at people outside chemistry, but also at us chemists who need to change our way of thinking?

Karsten Danielmeier: Rethinking chemistry has both aspects. But there is an important third one: we need to look at other physical and even social sciences. We have to look at things like what are the economic, but also the ecological and socio-ecological impacts of what we are doing. So, rethinking chemistry has to take place within the chemical community, but also at the interface with other sciences and with society as a whole.

Stefanie Dehnen: It is certainly us chemists who need to start rethinking chemistry. One big thing that has to change is the speed of thinking. You have to be much faster nowadays, things change faster, things move faster. We have much more pressure to be more innovative, we have to rely on automation and computer power. Just as an example: now, people are doing ten crystal structures in the time it took us to do one when I did my PhD. So maybe we do not need to completely change our way of thinking in all regards, but adapt it to the much faster timescales that are needed today.

Peter R. Schreiner: I regard „Rethinking Chemistry“ mainly as something for chemists to do, because the chemical business – I‘m not saying the chemical industry, the same applies to academia – is rather conservative and that‘s not a bad thing. A certain degree of conservatism is good to maintain standards, but we should ask ourselves whether that‘s really the way forward in a society that‘s changing so much at the moment. We need to reconsider our beloved ways of doing things.

In this context, the claim „Rethinking Chemistry“ sounds a bit like announcing a revolution. What are the things we should be leaving behind?

Karsten Danielmeier: Silo thinking – we need to look at other areas within chemistry, but also outside of chemistry. The best innovations come from looking at the boundaries between disciplines. And from an industry perspective, we need to go further and follow John Elkington‘s triple bottom line concept: that we need to look not only at the economic value of what we do, but also at the environmental and social impact.

Peter R. Schreiner: We definitely need to break down the disciplinary walls. Even more: We need to break down the industrial-academic walls. Why don‘t we have ways to exchange the key players from industry and academia? For example, I‘d like to say to Karsten: I want to learn more about how your business works – could you host me in your department for a few weeks? And vice versa, could you come and spend a month with my group at the university a year later? Can we do this routinely to really get to know each other‘s inner workings and challenges? This does not happen at all in general. And, I think this is just a manifestation of the fact that there are hard walls to break down between chemists.

Stefanie Dehnen: Collaborations between academia and industry should be generally based on larger structures, and not so much on individual ties. Individual collaborations have been made even more difficult by a lot of administrative changes. Having more exchange between industry and academia, it would help a lot. I see academia mainly in the area of basic research, our original role should be to broaden and deepen the fundamental knowledge of chemistry. That is the source of innovation. Industry should then take what it can get out of this kind of research and knowledge to further develop things that seem to be promising and seem to be developing well into applications. Academic research traditionally is a source of new – even crazy – ideas, with so many young scientists coming in every year. So, things can develop in a very unconventional way, partly because you cannot plan everything and partly because we can take our time. We can take three-years or four-years over a PhD to pursue an idea with more or less unknown output and success. You do not have time for that in industry, you have to be profitable, you have to get your project off the ground and then see it through. I enjoy the interaction with colleagues from the ‚real chemical world‘, and I see that we have the same goal: to develop new interesting and useful materials, for example catalysts or medical compounds. Together we are more than the sum of the parts.

But is there not, in fact, a peculiar phenomenon in the chemical community: a kind of dualism between academia and industry?

Peter R. Schreiner: To be honest, I don‘t really see this divide between academia and industry. People talk about it sloppily in terms of what the career options are – you want to be a professor or you want to be an industrial chemist with an interesting career ladder. That is where people make the distinction. But in terms of the chemical challenges, I don‘t think there‘s a real distinction. In fact, we are trying to solve the same kind of problems with different approaches. There‘s more detail for the academic. For the industrial chemist, there is more large scale and cost effectiveness. But at the end of the day, it is the same kind of business. We shouldn‘t overemphasise that sharp separation. Maybe that‘s part of the rethinking: Learning that there‘s really no separation.

Karsten Danielmeier: I would totally agree. But I also believe that we have a pretty good situation in Germany. Industry and academia have been working very closely together for many years. We have people who do basic research, starting with the Max Planck Institutes, the universities, and then step by step with institutes in between, for example the Fraunhofer Institute, also the highly applied research in industry. And there‘s always a nice overlap that people on both sides can use. The only thing I can see that could be improved in recent years is that it takes quite a long time to agree on contracts. It‘s not the chemical and scientific side, that‘s always very clear. But what do we do with intellectual property, IP? How do we pay? In this respect, the rethinking could go into the direction of how we can get rid of bureaucratic processes.

Peter R. Schreiner: That is a very good point. In the old days, when I was starting out, there were a lot of projects where you could talk to industry and they‘d say „OK, we‘ll give you money for a year for a student to try something out“. But now, everything has to be done contractually, and that sometimes takes a year to sort out. So, nobody does it because it‘s not worth the effort.

If rethinking chemistry really starts a chemical revolution: In every revolution, things are thrown out and left behind. What are the things you will regret leaving behind?

Stefanie Dehnen: My regret is related to the faster timescales I mentioned earlier. Some things do take time, and I feel sorry that we probably do not have enough time to really think through every idea before we start experimenting. You will hardly be able to just sit down in your office or lab and plan something thoroughly in the future; for this, we are in need of more aid by computational tools, which will never be in the position to fully replace a person with all their unpredictable, creative thoughts..

Peter R. Schreiner: There are some traditions that I would like to keep, and I am afraid that they will disappear. For example, the common expectations of what chemists should learn in their training. Through the GDCh we have an agreement that we define what we think should be in our chemistry curriculum. This has been a very big strength in Germany, that we don‘t have this multi-class system, but that we have an agreement about what the training involves.

Karsten Danielmeier: Well, we‘ve had a pretty good time over the last, let‘s say, twenty years in terms of competition. We knew that there were strong players in Europe, there were strong players in Japan and in the US, both in academia and in industry. But, we have to accept that the competition has become much stronger in both areas. So, we have to really work on our position, which is often a good thing because you create something new.

In every aspect of modern society, we are now discussing how artificial intelligence, AI, will take over. What if humans aren‘t the best people to rethink chemistry – maybe machines can do it better?

Stefanie Dehnen: Thinking about crystal structures again, as an example, computers will give you a reasonable result in many cases. But: You need to feed the computer to get that point. Many processes have already been taken over by clever programs, but the programming was done by real people. So, the question is: can this part be taken over by artificial intelligence? Perhaps, but one fact remains: It will only increase the speed of analysing chemical data, not the understanding of chemistry.

Peter R. Schreiner: I agree. Rethinking requires a degree of universality that AI does not have. It is focused on a specific problem, not a universal larger issue. Second, AI is not yet at the stage of creativity that humans have. Maybe at a later stage – but I think the hype now is sort of promising that, but not delivering it. And it will take a long time for AI to become really creative out of the box, which humans can do, sometimes because of mistakes, sometimes because of just weird thoughts we have. But AI is not there yet. So I think it will help us. It will be very important to use it, but it will not replace our minds yet. Not in the next ten years.

The discussion with Stefanie Dehnen, Karsten Danielmeier and Peter R. Schreiner was moderated by Christian Remenyi, Editor-in-Chief of Nachrichten aus der Chemie.

At the GDCh Science Forum Chemistry in Leipzig, which was also held under the motto Rethinking Chemistry, Nachrichten aus der Chemie together with the online chemistry magazine Chemistry Views asked representatives of chemical societies what they associate with Rethinking Chemistry.

Link to video on ChemistryViews:

From left: Pall Thordarson, Helen Pain, Gianluca Farinola, Judith Giordan, Peter Gärtner

American Chemical Society (ACS): Judith C. Giordan, President

…on what „Rethinking Chemistry“ means to them:

Rethinking chemistry means rethinking more than pure scientific research. It means rethinking the value that chemistry provides from basic research to development, to scale up, and to the value the outcome brings to the people and the planet. It means thinking about minimizing costs of energy, waste and raw materials. As an example, it could mean rethinking the value and what to do with CO2. Can it become an important raw material or become the oil and gas of the future? Should we rethink chemistry in terms of who are chemists and what being a chemist means into the future? We can and must rethink chemistry in all these ways.

…on how does ACS align with the goals of „Rethinking“:

I really like the term „Rethinking Chemistry“ – it requires us to consider what chemistry could be in the future, who the chemists of the future will be, how do we get younger people into chemistry and the Society, how can we support the careers of chemists. All these question are important for ACS. We want to make sure that we support diverse groups in chemistry. And for me personally, one of my biggest initiatives in my presidential succession is trust in science and scientists.

…on the biggest challenges:

For the science itself, there are no challenges for chemistry it can’t address! Chemistry as a science is always moving ahead. With science we can get a reproducible result. It‘s not so easy with people. We can talk with people and pose the same questions but not always get a reproducible result. The challenge is that people hold biases. Biases including about science, scientists, the value of science, their level of trust in the information. One of the biggest challenges is for us all to work to let go of the biases we have about what chemistry can do, who should be chemists and whether we can trust science into the future.

Società Chimica Italiana (SCI): Gianluca Farinola, President

…on what „Rethinking Chemistry“ means to them:

Rethinking chemistry means broadening our mindset to include in the chemical discussion a lot of aspects that are perhaps sometimes not considered and that have to do with completely different areas, such as economics, politics, geopolitics. It‘s about the challenges we face today, such as environmental science, climate change, the consumption of new materials that can be built with better systems. Rethinking chemistry also means rethinking the way chemists engage with society. People need to understand the importance of the molecular perspective in solving the challenges we face today. This includes economic sustainability in the production of materials and medicines, and in the management of environmental issues. And, another level of thinking about rethinking chemistry is the way we approach younger people and teach them the concept of chemistry. Should we continue to do it in a very classical way? Or should we make them understand the consequences of many of these concepts? So rethinking chemistry is also rethinking the way we explain chemistry to the future generation.

…on how SCI is adapting to the goals of „Rethinking“:

When I started working as President with the new Board, we asked ourselves how we could best present chemistry as a science. The first thing we did was to launch a communication campaign aimed at the public. So we started to produce a video that explains very simply what chemistry is, aimed at ordinary people, not chemists. We have also published articles in national newspapers and we are stimulating the interest of younger students towards chemistry by increasing the number of participants to the chemistry competition games in high school. We also increased the use of social media, and when we communicate through social media, we not only talk about what we do, but we also talk about very simple applications of chemistry in everyday life.

Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC): Helen Pain, CEO

…on what „Rethinking Chemistry“ means to them:

Rethinking chemistry is really important because chemistry is such a fundamental science. It is important because of its discoveries and all the things that we rely on as human citizens in our daily lives. But rethinking chemistry is necessary to make sure that chemistry is more sustainable, to make sure that we achieve equality and diversity, and also to make sure that open science is a key part of our collective work going forward. We work very closely with the GDCh, because if we want to solve the big global

challenges in which chemistry plays a major role, we cannot do it as individual societies, we have to work together as core members of the European Chemical Society.

…on how the RSC aligns with the goals of „Rethinking“:

We have very clear and strong strategic goals that we want to achieve by 2025, and beyond that to 2030, and beyond that to 2040. We have two main strands of work that we are currently doing: sustainability and diversity and inclusion. For example, we have been working to influence the establishment of the United Nations International Panel on Chemical Pollution, where the chemical science communities will work together to solve problems such as waste.

…on the biggest challenges:

The biggest challenges are to be open within the community, to be willing to work together, to find solutions and to deliver them. While individual research efforts are very important, there is a need for people to come together, especially where funding might be limited. So I think it is about working together and not just within chemistry – it has to be interdisciplinary, across sectors and also across geographical boundaries. That’s particularly important from a UK perspective and is a major focus for the RSC.

Österreichische Chemische Gesellschaft: Peter Gärtner, President

…on what „Rethinking Chemistry“ means to them:

Rethinking chemistry is a really important issue because if you look at what is happening within chemistry and within society, there are so many things that need to change, and, therefore, the way we think about them needs to change. Chemistry has always been something that society has seen as a science that causes problems – industry, for example: pollution. Nowadays, we have to change the mindset that chemistry is actually the science that can provide the solutions to these problems. And, we chemists need to change our mindset too: In the past, when chemists thought about new products, they thought only about the properties of the products and how to get that product, and not really about what happens to the by-products, what happens to the waste. We have to find solutions to reduce carbon emissions and we have to think about reducing waste.

…on the biggest challenges:

The biggest challenges for society are the climate issue, the energy issue and also the food issue is a very important task. All these issues need to be solved by scientists, and chemistry will play an important role. Chemistry is not the only provider of solutions, but together with the other sciences we will make sure that future generations will be able to have a good life on earth.

…on how GÖCH is adapting to the goal of „Rethinking“:

We have several working groups dealing with the topics of „Rethinking Chemistry“: sustainable chemistry, circularity in chemistry and of course chemists talking to the general public, which is a different topic than chemists talking to chemists. Within the GÖCh, we will try to get more in touch with the general public to inform people about what chemistry can do for them, and that chemistry is not the science that causes problems but the science that finds solutions to problems.

Royal Australian Institute of Chemistry (RACI): Pall Thordarson, President

…on what „Rethinking Chemistry“ means to them:

We need to rethink chemistry because chemists actually have the opportunity to solve some of the most pressing challenges we face on this planet. The good thing is that we have probably the best generation of chemists that has ever worked in the world. There really are so many ideas out there – but if we now refocus on working with society, on using the power of fundamental chemistry to generate the knowledge that will create the solutions to solve some of our problems, then chemistry will go from strength to strength.

…on the cooperation between GDCh and RACI:

We hope to set up programmes that allow people to exchange between countries, because that is the best way to generate new ideas. Sending people to meetings between countries, companies and industries will generate new ideas in chemistry – with the aim of contributing to existing and new interesting communities.

Bildung + GesellschaftRethinking Chemistry

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