Making molecules matter
By Cathleen Crudden
Last May, I left the 95th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Calgary full of enthusiasm for my coming year as CSC president. In particular, I was invigorated by the enthusiasm for the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s increasing role as an advocate for science.
Advocacy is a complicated subject. We were lucky in Calgary to have Howard Alper, the current chair of the Government of Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council, NSERC president Suzanne Fortier and University of California, San Diego chancellor Marye Anne Fox, provide advice on how best to advocate for science.
In my role as president of the CSC, increasing our efforts at advocacy is at the top of the list of things I plan to accomplish. So when I finally boarded the plane home from the conference, I was energized for the coming year, but also a touch tired after a week of activities. When Rebecca — a talkative 40-something waitress — sat down beside me, I saw my chances of catching up on sleep evaporating. Eventually Rebecca asked me what I did. When I told her I was a chemist, she asked what I “actually” did. So I told her I was an organic chemist, and worked on a class of molecules that have right- and left-handed forms. I talked about how these molecules have a big impact on a variety of industries, including the pharmaceutical industry, but how most people don’t appreciate the impact that handedness has on the properties of a molecule. Before I got further, she asked: “What’s a molecule?” Switching gears, I talked about atoms and how they’re arranged in groups to make molecules, and how chemists can actually control this, including even how atoms are arranged in space. A great example is CHCH OH (ethanol, which we both agreed is a very respectable and tasty molecule) and its isomer CH OCH , which has exactly the same number and type of atoms, just arranged differently. Rebecca was surprised to hear that this new molecule had completely different properties and was not at all something you would want in a drink, even if it wasn’t a gas at room temperature.
From there, we moved into the discussion of research funding, and I used the example of green energy. Undoubtedly part of our energy future will involve solar, wind and other alternative energy choices, Rebecca agreed. However, if we don’t invest now to support early stages of research in these areas, Canada will be buying such technologies in the future, rather than selling them. Surely that’s not where we want to be as an advanced nation.
Of course it gets more complicated when one realizes that predicting tomorrow’s great discoveries is not a trivial matter. Take NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) spectroscopy for example. When this technique was first invented, it was thought to be a toy for physicists. But now, this is one of the most important tools in chemistry that allows us to look at molecular structure. Perhaps more importantly, NMR forms the basis of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), something that changes the lives of multitudes of Canadians every day. The laser, the telephone, digital cameras: these are all examples of incredibly useful inventions that came out of basic research.
Funding science is tricky business. Yes, it’s very important to fund research that will make an impact on people’s lives in the near term. We can all understand the value of things like energy, health, information technology and green chemistry. But equally important is funding research for which the objectives may not be immediately obvious, because predicting the future is also a difficult task.
Luckily investing in the future isn’t. NSERC and the other granting councils have a great track record of funding research excellence in all its iterations from basic to applied, and money given to them to fund Canadian research goes extremely far. So continued investment in NSERC, CIHR and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is a great way to support the future of science and the future of Canada.
Most importantly, scientists must take the time to advocate for science. What I learned on my plane ride from Calgary is that being an advocate doesn’t just mean talking to politicians and policy makers. It also means talking to people like Rebecca, and taking the time to convince Canadians who don’t necessarily work in the sciences of the importance of what we do with their tax dollars. If we’re successful, research funding can be a priority for all of us.
Cathleen Crudden is the 2012-2013 President of the Canadian Society for Chemistry and a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Queen’s University. To find out more about the CSC’s advocacy initiatives go to www.cheminst.ca.
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