Professor Sir John Holman, President, Royal Society of Chemistry (JH): We can’t predict the long-term future, but we can prepare for it.
That’s why we ran the Future of the Chemical Sciences (FCS) initiative. We all know in theory that in 10-to-20 years the world will be radically different. But we seldom have the time to think about what that might mean in practice. FCS was all about challenging ourselves to think beyond the status quo.
The Royal Society of Chemistry ran a robust, iterative scenario-planning process. We involved a really diverse group of people from right across our community, as well as from government and the social sciences. Eminent scientists such as George Whitesides and Ben Feringa were involved in the process.
First, we identified themes that are already shaping our world. Big companies do this all the time; but they usually keep the process internal. Some themes directly impact the chemical sciences, for example: how might chemistry be taught and funded in the future? Others picked up on changes the wider world: how will an aging population affect the workforce and career patterns?
Using the same planning techniques as these companies, four possible scenarios for chemical science in the future emerged, which will set the scene for our discussion:
Scenario one: chemistry saves the world – a world wherein chemistry is celebrated and improves quality of life.
Scenario two: push button chemistry – chemistry is automated and decentralised in this scenario. Chemistry will be difficult to regulate as there will be minimal human interface and most of the work will be done by machines.
Scenario three: a world without chemists – chemistry ceases to exist as a discipline, and is absorbed into other disciplines. Expect very limited chemistry related discoveries.
Scenario four: free market chemistry – there is no government funding for chemistry and the funding gaps are filled by industry. Chemists would have to focus on the funders’ problems, and this scenario gives scope for the development of entrepreneurs and consultants.
Dr Alejandra Palermo, Royal Society of Chemistry, Panel discussion Chair (AP): Chemistry is becoming more interdisciplinary. How does chemistry fit into the new order?
Professor Sourav Pal, Chemical Research Society of India (SP): Chemistry will definitely change but a world without chemistry will not happen. Chemistry will be absorbed into other disciplines and devices/systems will be more important than molecules. Chemistry is too compartmentalised today and education will be more interdisciplinary in future. Funding will be driven by societal needs.
However, chemistry is not attracting the best talent in India and there is a need for more problem-based learning. Although the Indian government has initiated many programmes such as INSPIRE to attract best talent to sciences, the results are not tangible.
AP: How do you measure success?
Professor Graham Hutchings, Cardiff University (GH): The UK’s Research Excellence Framework has changed its mind-set about quality of science in the UK. It is not just about the impact factor (IF) of the journal in which one publishes but emphasis on interdisciplinary research, which has higher impact on society.
Professor Deepa Kushalani, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (DK): Papers published are still an active measure of academic success in India. H-index and IF are still important for our researchers. The problem with measuring success of science is that it isn’t really something that can be done meaningfully in the short term. However, doing science needs short-term aspects such as students and grants. Sometimes, we have seen a bias against researchers in India; double-blind publication could help.
GH: Double-blind could be done the other way round by publishing referee reports.
Professor Richard Zare, Stanford University (RZ): The double-blind reviewing system has not been successful. Consideration of the researcher’s track record is also important and needs to be considered during the review.
Professor Arun Chattopadhyay, Indian Institute of Technology Gauhati (AC): We need to make the world flat as resources are unevenly distributed globally. Although knowledge is more available, creation of knowledge is not. Chemists are not ambitious compared to other disciplines. Resources decide the outcome of the competition and we should expect the trend to continue.
AP: Lack of diversity has been a big issue in academia the world over.
DK: Lack of gender diversity in Indian academia is due to both parties – men and women. Parents tell daughters to study but never encourage having a career and contributing to society. Women are expected to get married, follow their husband and sacrifice their careers. This is a recipe for a “good Indian woman.” This can be attributed to cultural issues in India. The government doesn’t offer any sort of paternity leave so the concept of shared child rearing cannot be enacted.
RZ: Departments and institutes need to create a more family-friendly environment with childcare facilities and leave. Diversity should also include unrepresented and marginalised groups. There will be benefits to institutes and society from diversity.
Professor S Chandrasekaran, former President, Chemical Research Society of India: The RSC and the ACS have set the tone for everything that is happening in chemistry today, particularly publishing. Societies will need to adapt and diversify activities in the future and support younger scientists working positively in more interdisciplinary manner. For example, societies can facilitate interactions, and address misuse of open access (OA) by predatory journals, which damage the credibility of science and ethics in publishing caused by lack of awareness.
There is a need to expand RSC initiatives such as the Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN) and improve public understanding of science and its contribution to society. Academic and industry communities have failed to interact with each other and there is an urgent need for collaboration.
Professor Prodeep Phukan, University of Gauhati: Fundamental chemistry is important but it is expensive. How do we convince policy-makers or politicians to invest more in science?
JH: Politicians often listen to the loudest voice. They need to be educated of the importance of blue skies research, and the government needs to be updated regularly to stay aware.
AC: Politicians have been fair to academic community and have supported us.
JH: International mobility is currently and an issue especially after Brexit. International mobility is a key to developing good science. Stopping international mobility is as good as stopping science.
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• Read Chemistry World’s feature: Imagining tomorrow’s chemistry world