Chemistry is central to providing the products, materials, and
processes that support human needs and to understanding life itself. In
the past century, chemical discoveries have raised the standard of living
throughout the world and defned modern life. Metals, concrete, glass,
paper, plastics, electronic materials, agrochemicals, drinking water,
fuels, refrigerants, and pharmaceuticals are among the many products
that have been created or advanced through chemistry.
The astonishing developments of the 20
century have made
it possible to dream of new goals that were previously unthinkable.
Chemistry is moving rapidly from a reductionist science concerned
with atoms, molecules and pure substances to an integrationist science
concerned with organized molecular systems. Chemists and chemical
engineers, working in concert with biologists, physicists, electrical engineers, and other professionals,
are on the road to fantastic achievements: commercially viable replacement organs; computer chips
that are not carved in silicon, but rather self-assembled from chemical components; therapeutics
tailor-made for individual genetic make-up; and materials that interact with living tissue.
What else could we dare to dream in the 21
century? Is it possible that we could conquer
disease, deter terrorism, solve our energy problems, clean the environment, and reduce poverty and
inequality? Beyond the sociopolitical and economic dimensions of these problems lie scientifc
questions that chemists and chemical engineers will help solve.
The National Academies’ report Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry
and Chemical Engineering outlines numerous challenges for chemists and chemical engineers in the
century –a daunting but tremendously important list of goals that, if accomplished, could lead
to many new discoveries. The report breaks new ground by summarizing, for the frst time, the full
spectrum of chemical science activities from fundamental, molecular-level chemistry to large-scale
chemical processing technology. The authors of the report fully expect that the challenges they
outline can and will be realized.
Chemists as Creators: Challenges in Synthesis
Chemistry, more than any other science, seeks not only to discover but also to create. Chemists
create new compounds, consisting of new molecules, at the rate of more than one million per year
with the aim that their properties will have a tangible beneft for society or will create new scientifc
knowledge. Beyond the millions of molecules that occur in nature, there is a nearly infnite number
of molecules that could exist within the limits of natural law.
One of the most important continuing challenges for chemists is to devise new ways to
manipulate molecules in order to create and manufacture useful new substances. Polymers, along with
pharmaceuticals, are arguably the most important and benefcial substances that synthetic chemistry
has brought to the human race. For more than a half-century, polymers (chains of repeating subunits)
have transformed our world through the development of novel materials--from nylon to synthetic
tires to new copolymers that combine, for example, rubbery polymers with glassy polymers for better
windshields. Signifcant progress continues to be made in polymer synthesis, including a current
focus on how the architecture of macromolecules affects function.
Developments in electronic, optoelectronic, photonic, and magnetic devices provide another
great story of science and have enabled television, computers, and fber optic telecommunications
among other applications. Chemists continue to develop materials that are superconductors, which
conduct electricity free of any resistance and thus free of power loss. Superconductors that operate
at room temperature are being actively pursued, which, if made, could transfer electric power very
effciently over long distances, or even pave the way to futuristic visions of using magnetic levitation
for transportation systems.
A good example of the integrationist trend in chemistry is advancing work with composites,
which combine different materials to gain benefcial properties. For example, ceramics are of
interest for use in automobile engines because they are poor conductors of heat and electricity and
perform well at high temperatures. However, they are fragile. A challenge for the future is to invent
improved structural materials, such as composites based on resins or ceramics, that are stable at high
temperatures and easily machined.
The study of surfaces is another important area of focus. The chemistry of gene chips used
in genomic research, for example, depends on properties of system surfaces. New techniques and
tools that enable researchers to penetrate and manipulate nanometer-thick surfaces are fundamentally
changing the ability to characterize and prepare surface materials.
One of the grandest challenges in synthesis for chemists is to learn how to design and produce
new substances and materials with properties that can be predicted, tailored, and tuned before
production. Unlike architects, who know enough about buildings that they can design them in great
detail before breaking ground, chemists seeking to produce a substance with certain properties must
now conduct time-consuming trial-and-error procedures in the laboratory.
Inspired by Nature
Nature is an inventive chemist. Explaining the processes of life in
chemical terms is one of the greatest challenges continuing into the future.
Such complex events as the cleavage of RNA by the enzyme ribonuclease, the
multistep synthesis of ATP in vivo (Paul Boyer and John E. Walker received
Nobel prizes in 1997 for working this out), and the activity of molecular motors
that power bacterial fagellae are now understood in molecular detail, but these
represent only a tiny fraction of the universe of natural processes.
Imitating some aspects of life, biomimetic chemistry, is not the only way
to invent new things, but it is an important way. Today, the chemical industry
produces ammonia for fertilizers and other products by causing nitrogen to
react with hydrogen at high temperature and pressure. Yet microorganisms in the roots of some
legumes are capable of carrying out the same conversion at ordinary temperatures and pressures.
We need to understand their chemistry, even if it is not as practical as our current methods.
Much research in recent times has centered on trying to understand the chemical mechanisms
by which various biological processes occur. Enzymes are of particular interest because of their
unique selectivity. They can react at a particular site on a molecule even though it’s not the most
chemically reactive site. Enzymes can selectively bind a particular molecule out of the mixture of
substances in the cell, then hold it in such a way that the geometry of the enzyme-substrate complex
determines what happens next in a sequence.
The catalytic mechanisms of enzymes are understood well enough to have already produced
drugs, such as cholesterol-reducing agents, that block the active sites of enzymes. However, the
factors that contribute to enzymes high selectivity are not completely understood, and we do no yet
have good synthetic analogs. A full understanding of enzymes will be of great value in manufacturing
and also the development of new classes of medicines.
The sequencing of the human genome has provided a molecular foundation from which other
complex biological processes might be tackled at a molecular level. A critical challenge in the
postgenomic era will be to make the connections between protein sequence and architecture, and
between protein architecture and functions. The 3D shape of a protein is a key factor in determining
its function. If chemists could predict how a protein folds and how that folded structure is related
to function, they could then seek to design new functions for proteins that would have a profound
impact on medicine.
One of the most intriguing aspects of nature is the process of evolution, which illustrates the
ability of living systems to self-optimize. If the chemical sciences could build on this approach,
a system would produce the optimal new substance as a single product, rather than as a mixture
from which the desired component must be isolated and identifed. Self-optimizing systems would
allow visionary chemical scientists to use this approach to make new medicines, catalysts, and
other important chemical products, in part by combining new approaches to informatics with rapid
experimental screening methods.
Self-Assembly and Nanotechnology
Chemists have been moving atoms with subnanometer
precision for most of the last century. However, the new
areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology—work with
particles that range in size from about 1 to 100 nm (about
1/100,000 the width of a hair)—are exploding as tools used
to explore these dimensions have become available. One
vision of this revolution includes the possibility of making
tiny machines that can imitate many of the processes in
single-cell organisms that possess much of the information
content of biological systems. Several techniques are now
available to fabricate nanostructures, including electron
beam writing, scanning probe devices, and soft lithography
(see Sidebar 1).
There is a growing focus on the use of “self-assembly”
in constructing nanostructures. Self-assembly is the ability
of properly designed mixtures of chemical components to
organize themselves into complex, organized structures. It’s
as if the components of an automobile would automatically
fall in the correct places, rather than being placed there by
machines. In the computer industry, the etching of silicon
chips could be replaced by self-assembly techniques. Such
spontaneous self-assembly is possible on the molecular scale, but needs to be developed.
A vital aspect of chemical self-assembly is selection. In a mixture of compounds, the correct
pairing of chemicals must occur, so the system must have a way to choose those pairings. An exciting
new challenge is to develop ways to impose a process of selection on the mixture of components, so
that unwanted interactions are suppressed. In biological systems, mutants convey an advantage to a
cell, illustrating nature’s ability to self-optimize. Chemists need similar tools, for example, a library
of possible catalysts from which the system would self-select the most potent. This would remove
the current need to screen the entire library for such activity.
New approaches in synthetic chemistry and biochemistry have paved the way for tremendous
advances in self-assembly. The future will hold the opportunity for chemists to make molecules of
size and complexity approaching protein structures—and to fold and assemble them. By creating
the appropriate molecules, patterning them on surfaces, and providing them with the appropriate
functions, chemists could mimic taste and smell, the most chemical of the senses.
Chemical engineers are now aiming to use these advances on larger scales. Taking self-assembly
methodology from laboratory experimentation to the practical manufacturing arena could revolutionize
chemical processing. The approach to the future should be a holistic one, with synthetic advances
moving in concert with assembly and microstructural control.
Sidebar 1
Soft Lithography
Building ever smaller devices has been a
dominant trend in microelectronics technology
for 50 years. Photolithography, a kind of
photography used to fabricate small devices,
changed the world by enabling the computing
A less expensive, more versatile technique
called “soft lithography” has been developed to
make micro- and nano-structures. It is a “back
to the future” strategy that uses stamping,
printing, and molding. Patterns of small
features are embossed on a stamp or mold that
can print lines that are <100 nm in width. These
patterns become microchannels for analysis of
nucleic acids, proteins, or cells.
The technique has opened doors for chem-
ists wishing to play an active role in many areas
of cell biology, bioanalytical chemistry, microfu-
idics, optics, and new forms of electronics.
Characterization and Measurement
The need for measurements of chemicals is ubiquitous—of mass and
dimensions of chemical substances and their capacity to absorb heat, absorb
or refect light, and respond to pressure and temperature. The determination of
quantity in complex mixtures is vital in developing pharmaceuticals and other
products. There is a constant need for better methods of chemical analysis to
answer, “What’s in that, how much is present, and how long will it last?” The
frontiers in this feld lie in improving sensitivity to detect vanishingly small
quantities, to separate extremely complex mixtures, and to assess the structures
or compositions of components.
The number and types of customers who need analysis are growing and
now encompass industrial enterprises and government functions that span manufacturing, shipping,
communications, domestic power, water supplies, waste disposal, forensic analysis, environmental
policies, and national security. These customers place urgent demands on chemical scientists for
new, better, faster, cheaper, more sensitive and more selective measurements.
One of the grand challenges in chemistry is to understand how molecules react over all time
scales and the full range of molecular size. An increase in this fundamental understanding will directly
affect our ability to improve the practical applications in chemistry. However, there are still big gaps
in our understanding of molecular details of chemical and biochemical reactions. Many intermediates
along the path of a reaction cannot be directly observed with current instrumental technology, making
this objective one of the long-standing goals of the chemical sciences.
An exciting advance was acknowledged in 1999 when Ahmed Zewail received the most recent
of the several Nobel Prizes recognizing developments of methods to follow fast reactions. He was
able to witness the bond-breaking and bond-making process on the time scale of 10
seconds, which
some say is the limiting time scale for chemical reactions. Chemical science still seeks to develop
ultrafast techniques, such as superfast electron diffraction, that will permit observation of the actual
molecular structure of a transition state, not just its rate of passage.
Even mature instrumentation techniques continue to advance in small steps. Mass spectrometry
requires that material being studied be converted into a vapor. Great strides have been made in
recent years to entice large, thermally fragile molecules into the vapor states from solids and surfaces
through new techniques. These strides have reinvigorated this feld and provided a good example
of how supposedly “dead” areas can fnd new life.
Detailed molecular structure determinations can be accomplished by diffraction techniques,
electromagnetic radiation absorption, and emission
techniques such as microwave spectroscopy and nuclear
magnetic resonance (NMR). The major current limitation
of NMR is its sensitivity. Stronger magnets, improved
instrumentation, and software could help NMR move
toward analyses of single molecules. A major limitation
of diffraction techniques has been the need to obtain
crystalline samples. Chemists are now devising techniques
to crystallize proteins in two-or three-dimensional lattices
but are still challenged to crystallize large molecules in a
routine manner (see Sidebar 2).
Chemical measurements will continue to advance toward
the need for high-throughput, miniaturized instrumental
analyses, preferably with “smart instruments” that are self-
calibrating and highly automated. A related need exists for
massive automation in data, reduction, storage, retrieval,
and graphic presentation. Urgent expansion is needed in the
following fve broad categories.
1 High-performance instruments and measurements of
unprecedented precision, sensitivity, spatial resolution, and
Sidebar 2
Crystallizing the Ribosome
The use of diffraction techniques to
determine molecular structure depends on
the ability to obtain crystalline structures.
Chemists are still challenged by the need to
routinely crystallize large molecules.
In a breakthrough in 2000, chemists
learned how to crystallize the ribosome, a
particle about 100 times as large as a simple
protein enzyme, so that its structure could be
analyzed. The surprising results revealed that
the catalytic center of the ribosome, where the
protein is actually made, was seen to consist
of RNA, not of a protein enzyme. The many
proteins present help organize the structure,
but do not play a catalytic role. This fnding
helped to validate an earlier idea that the
original process in early life forms used RNA
2 Low-cost, robust instruments for analyzing exceptionally small volumes.
3 High-throughput measurements including informatics and mathematics for interpretation
of large-volume data streams.
4 Separation and analysis of chemical and biological mixtures of extreme complexity.
5 Determining the structural arrangements of atoms within noncyrstalline chemical
substances and resolving how they change as a function of time.
Advancing Chemical Theory and Modeling
The chemical sciences are built on a set of fundamental mathematical theories, such as quantum
mechanics, that have increasing utility as computational hardware and software have become
more powerful. Impressive recent progress has been made in determining molecular structures. A
continuing important goal is to devise better and more accurate ways to predict molecular structures,
bond energies, molecular properties, transition state structures, and energies for systems increasing
in size. While quantum mechanics can be reliably applied to isolated molecules, another important
goal is to develop methodologies for molecules in organized systems.
Chemistry covers an enormous span of time and space from atoms and molecules to industrial-
scale processing. Chemical processes at the commercial scale ultimately involve spatial scales on the
order of meters, and time scales ranging from seconds to hours and, in the case of many bioengineering
processes involving fermentations, days or weeks. Advances in computing and modeling could help
us connect phenomena at the electronic and molecular scale to the commercial processing.
The chemical industry can largely be viewed as being composed of two major segments.
The “value preservation” industry is largely based on the large-scale production of commodity
chemicals. The “value growth” industry is based on the small-scale production of specialty chemicals,
biotechnology products, and pharmaceuticals. To stay competitive and economically strong, the
“value preservation” industry must be able to reduce costs, operate effciently, and continuously
improve product quality. The value growth industry must be agile and quick to market new products,
making supply chain management one of its key technologies. In both cases, major challenges over
the next two decades will be to gain a better understanding of the structure and information fows
underlying the chemical supply chain, and to develop novel mathematical models and methods for
its simulation and optimization.
Greener by Design
An increasing concern with the environment
is affecting all of chemistry from the laboratory to
manufacturing. A half-century ago, people were only
beginning to understand the extent to which human activity
could affect the environment, often in very negative
ways. Tough environmental problems of toxic waste
dumps, smog acid rains, and polluted rivers and oceans
require a full understanding of the complex chemical
interactions of the earth and atmosphere. Almost all U.S.
chemical manufacturers now subscribe to a program called
Responsible Care, pledging to make only products that are
harmless to the environment and its occupants through
processes that are environmentally benign.
In addition, an important initiative called “green
chemistry” seeks to design chemical products and processes
that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous
substances. New methods are still being sought for even
the simplest transformations. For example, the oxidation of
an alcohol to a ketone or aldehyde has long been performed
in the laboratory by using chromium as the oxidant,
which often further oxidize the end products and result in
environmentally harmful waste products. If oxygen were
Sidebar 3
The Green Revolution
As evidence of the “green revolution” in
industry, manufacturers are replacing the use
of organic solvents in processing with the use
of supercritical CO
), an inert molecule
that has excellent performance attributes
as a solvent. The use of sCO
reduces the amount of water used mostly for
washing, that subsequently must be cleaned
through waste treatment to avoid polluting
the environment. In addition, the low heat of
vaporization of sCO
also reduces energy usage
in comparison to conventional solvents.
The use of sCO
is being commercialized
in several applications: decaffeination of coffee
and tea and extraction of favors, fragrances,and
neutraceuticals; production of certain plastics;
professional garment dry cleaning; and coatings/
encapsulation technologies for pharmaceuticals,
textiles and automotive parts.
used as an oxidant, water would be the resultant waste produce. Catalysts for air oxidation already
exist; however, improved catalysts may be needed for manufacturing processes. Another example
of the green revolution is the use of CO
to replace organic solvents, reducing the use of both water
and energy (see Sidebar 3).
Reducing waste in chemical processes is another continuing challenge. In the pharmaceutical
industry, for example, classical methods produce, on the average, about nine times as much disposable
waste as desired product. This has led to the demand for procedures that have atom effciency, in
which all the atoms of the reacting compounds appear in the product. The use of multicomponent
processes could contribute to this goal. Conventional process development has focused on optimizing
single reactions. New processes that involve reaction cascades, where the product of one reaction
feeds the next, will permit more effcient production of industrial or biomedical products. The future
will also likely see greater use of more abundant or renewable raw materials and greater reuse of
materials such as carbon dioxide, salts, tars,and sludges which are currently discarded as waste.
Chemistry and Medicine
Medicinal chemistry has greatly contributed to the fght against disease.
Modern biochemical engineering began with the challenge of large-scale
production of penicillin by fermentation during World War II, requiring the
cooperation of microbiologists, biochemists, and chemical engineers. Other
early contributions include the artifcial kidney and “pharmacokinetic models”
used to successfully deliver chemotherapeutic drugs and assess risk exposure
from toxins. More recently, bioprocesses have been developed that produce
high-purity proteins from genetically engineered cells that are used to treat
stroke, heart attack and other diseases. Chemists, of course, are integrally tied
to continuing advances in pharmaceuticals (see Sidebar 4).
The explosive growth in our understanding of the chemical basis of life couldn’t come at a
better time. The aging generation of baby boomers will sorely challenge the nation’s resources and
intensify the need for more effective and cost-effcient therapies—therapies are on the horizon for
problems of memory and cognition, vision and hearing, pain, addiction, sleep disorders, weight
gain, or loss and even aging. Chemists and chemical engineers are working toward the production
of human “spare parts”: joints and valves, eyes and ears linked to the brain, and even implantable
endocrine systems that act as mini chemical factories and delivery systems.
Progress in genomics and proteomics will become increasingly important in strategies for
the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. We are
entering a new era of molecular medicine where we will
develop technologies to rapidly screen the effects of small
molecules on large arrays of gene products. Capitalizing on
self-assembly and nanoscience will enhance the ability to screen
drugs for individual sensitivities. Advances in drug discovery,
combinatorial synthesis, and screening with sensors that have the
ability to detect multitudes of specifc genetic matches—marrying
microelectronics and self-assembly—are expected to be near-
term breakthroughs enabling the possible creation of “in the
feld” or “in the offce” tests for chemical risks, pharmaceutical
compatibility, or environmental hazards.
There are still many major challenges ahead: treating viral
diseases from infuenza to the AIDS and Ebola viruses; bacterial
resistance to antibiotics, cures for cancer, heart disease, stroke,
and Alzheimer’s diseases; better treatments for diabetes, arthritis
and psychological conditions such as schizophrenia or manic
depression. Commercially viable organ replacements are more
than a decade away, inhibited by a poor understanding of the
signals tissues use to control the growth and differentiation of
Sidebar 4
A Better Pain Blocker
Aspirin and ibuprofen block pain
by bl ocki ng the acti on of the enzyme
cyclooxygenase (COX). A major drawback
to inhibiting COX is that this also inadvertently
blocks its good action—protecting the
intestinal tract. It was recently discovered
that COX is not a single enzyme, but rather
a family containing at least two isoenzymes—
COX-1, the protective agent, and COX-2, the
enzyme involved with pain. The availability of
detailed structural information at a molecular
level was key, revealing that COX-2 had a
side pocket. This knowledge paid off in 1999
with the availability of an anti-infammatory
with a 50-fold selectivity for the COX-2
enzyme, thus providing a drug with reduced
gastrointestinal side effects for treatment of
pain and infammation.
Fueling New Energy Sources
The basic science of chemical reactions has been put to good
use in the fuel industry for more than a half century, with notable
early work that dramatically improved fossil fuels (see Sidebar
5). About 85% of the world’s energy today is obtained by burning
fossil fuels. At current rates of consumption, we may still be using
petroleum as a major source of energy 50 years from now. Natural
gas may last 100 years, while coal reserves could last for perhaps
four centuries. Despite continuing improvements, atmospheric
carbon dioxide produced by combustion of fossil fuels has
increased by about one-third since the beginning of the industrial
revolution with potentially signifcant consequences for global
warming. The real solution may be in fnding fuel alternatives.
Solar energy is currently captured on rooftops by photovoltaic
cells that convert as much as 30% of the incident sunlight to
electricity. The chemical sciences are challenged to devise
materials and processes for photocells that are cheap, long lasting,
and effcient in converting sunlight and also devise better means to
collect, store, and distribute the energy where it’s needed. Another
approach to capturing solar energy is to grow special plants that
can be converted to electricity either by burning or in a fuel cell.
Nuclear energy is currently the source of 7% of the world’s
total energy and 20% of U.S. electrical energy. Chemists and chemical engineers devised the processes
for producing nuclear fuels and play a critical role in the development of safe methods for dealing
with radioactive wastes. A steady decline in the number of university programs in nuclear chemistry
and in the graduates they produce poses a signifcant challenge for the ongoing health of the feld.
Chemists and chemical engineers are actively pursuing a viable hydrogen fuel cell, a specifc
type of electrochemical cell in which the reactants are hydrogen and air that are continuously supplied
from outside of the cell. Hydrogen fuel cells were frst used in the space program, but they are being
developed for land applications, including portable electronics, vehicles, and back-up emergency
power systems. Several problems remain to be solved, including speeding up the rate of the reaction
at the electrodes and making lightweight cylinders that will hold high-pressure hydrogen. If chemists
are successful in overcoming these problems and appropriate ways are found to generate and store
hydrogen, we could potentially usher in the so-called “hydrogen economy.”
National and Personal Security
Chemistry has long played a direct role in personal security applications. Police are protected
with strong bulletproof vests made of modern synthetic materials, fremen rely on clothing coated
with temperature-resistant polymers, our homes are equipped with smoke detectors, and water
purifcation and chemical testing assures clean water and food. Chemistry has aided the military
through radar, synthetic antimalarials, weapons, and other developments.
The September 11 attack on our country has directed tremendous attention to the ways that
science and technology could be mobilized for personal security and homeland defense and has shaped
new directions in chemistry and chemical engineering. The future will require a better understanding
of the actions and time scales of both chemical and biological weapons and an increased focus on
detection capabilities. Sensors and other fast analytical techniques must be developed. Chemists can
also contribute to developing protective gear for frst responders and new approaches for delivering
drugs and vaccines.
Part of the root cause of terrorism is the tremendous gap in the standard of living between
industrialized and developing countries. Chemists and chemical engineers could help mitigate this
difference by applying technology to improve energy, information infrastructure, and medicine and
public health infrastructure as well as food, water shelter and clothing in poorer nations.
Sidebar 5
Fuel Effciency
In 1947, chemist Vladimir Haensel
dramatically improved the process by
which gasoline is produced from crude
oil by using platinum as a catalyst for
the refning process, despite the fact that
platinum was expensive and hard to get.
Ultimately, his method more efficiently
produced gasoline that was a remarkably
higher-grade fuel. The result was reduced
U.S. reliance on foreign oil, broadening
of the world’s long-term energy outlook,
reduced pollution due to combustion, and
lower transportation costs.
Chemists and chemical engineers
have continued to advance and improve
energy sources, pursuing research in
nuclear, solar and alternative sources of
energy such as the hydrogen fuel cell.
Public Perception of Chemistry
Chemists and chemistry as a science enjoy a fairly favorable public perception. In a recent survey of 1,012
U.S. adults commissioned by the American Chemical Society (ACS), chemistry as a career option was ranked
third on a list of eight scientifc professions, and chemists scored high as visionary, innovative, and results
oriented. Also, 59% of those surveyed said that chemicals made their lives better. On the other hand, only 43%
of the respondents had a favorable opinion of the chemical industry. It was ranked lowest among a list of 10
industries, and only 1 in 10 felt very well informed about the role of chemicals in improving human health.
An ongoing challenge for the chemical sciences is to help the public understand its contribution to
applications such as medicine, energy solutions, and microcomputing. When a drug is released, for example, a
drug company should more actively recognize the underlying chemistry that made the drug possible. Chemists
should make better efforts to describe their work in nontechnical terms so that it is more accessible to the public
and the media.
Research and Education
U.S. prosperity depends on high technology, and much of that depends on chemical expertise. For most
of the past decade, the chemical industry has been one of the few U.S. manufacturing industries with a positive
balance of trade. In fact, the chemical process industries are as much as one-third of the entire U.S. manufacturing
sector in terms of value added.
Good chemistry pays off. A recent study carried out by the Council for Chemical Research fnds that, on
average, every dollar invested in chemical R&D today produces $2 in corporate operating income over six
years—an average annual return of 17% after taxes. The study also reported a strong linkage of industrial patents
to publicly funded academic research. The chemical industry has a big stake in the health of the chemistry and
chemical engineering felds.
U.S. companies swiftly use the new leads from basic research in U.S. universities, in part because they have
good contacts and in part because they hire students or even faculty who have played a role in creating basic
knowledge. However, support of the research itself is mainly the function of the federal government and to a
lesser extent of private foundations. A review of federal funding for the physical sciences shows that, although
there has been a steady increase in funding since the 1970’s, support for chemistry has lagged considerably
behind the overall trend. Support for chemical engineering has actually decreased.
The challenges are so great, and the demand for talent so large, that it is important to attract the best and
brightest students to the feld. Graduate enrollments in chemistry and chemical engineering have declined slightly
over the last decade, despite the need for them. Those already in the feld will need to be active ambassadors,
recruiting students and describing the rewards of life on the “molecular frontier.”
Educators must convey the excitement of the chemical sciences to students, especially those in introductory
courses. Education must become increasingly multidisciplinary if it is to keep up with the same trend in the feld.
The federal government has a clear stake in supporting enhanced education and training of chemical scientists
and the recruitment of U.S. students. The government could also provide important support by endorsing the
challenges and goals that this book describes.
The Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century: Ronald Breslow, Columbia University
(Co-Chair), Matthew V. Tirrell, University of California, Santa Barbara (Co-Chair), Jacqueline K. Barton, CalTech, Mark
A. Barteau, University of Delaware, Carolyn R. Bertozzi, University of California, Berkeley, Robert A. Brown, MIT,
Alice P. Gast, MIT, Ignacio E. Grossmann, Carnegie Mellon University, James M. Meyer, E.I. du Pont de Nemours &
Co., Royce W. Murray, University of North Carolina, Paul J. Reider, Amgen, Inc., William R. Roush, University of
Michigan, Michael L. Shuler, Cornell University, Jeffrey J. Siirola, Eastman Chemical Company, George M. Whitesides,
Harvard University, Peter G. Wolynes, University of California, San Diego, Richard N. Zare, Stanford University.
For more information: Contact the National Academies’ Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology
(BCST) at (202) 334-2156. Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and the Chemical
Sciences is available from the National Academies Press, 500 5th Street, Washington, DC, 20001; (800)
624-6242 or at
Permission granted to reproduce this report brief in its entirety, with no additions or alterations.
Copyright 2003 by the National Academies