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Boletín de la Sociedad Chilena de Química

versión impresa ISSN 0366-1644

Bol. Soc. Chil. Quím. v.44 n.4 Concepción dic. 1999

http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0366-16441999000400001 

CHALLENGES TO RESEARCH UNIVERSITIES IN CHEMISTRY AT
THE END OF THE 20TH CENTURY

ERNEST L. ELIEL (eliel@email.unc.edu)
H. HOLDEN THORP (holden@unc.edu)
Department of Chemistry
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3290, USA

This editorial is based on talks one of us (ELE) gave in Canada, in the USA, in Argentina and in Chile. We realize that not everything said here will apply to all four countries; readers will have to take their pick.

Introduction. With few exceptions, research universities offer undergraduate as well as graduate education in chemistry. Moreover, at the undergraduate level in US universities, Chemistry Departments serve not only future professional chemists but also premedical and pre-pharmacy students, numerous biology majors, and, in some departments, chemical engineers. Thus we must look at undergraduate as well as graduate operations.

We begin with what we consider the overall objectives of a chemistry department: 1) To educate undergraduates to become informed citizens who can find remunerative employment in a global environment, 2) To advance the frontiers of knowledge and to disseminate the results of research, and 3) To educate and train graduate students so that they can be leaders in the development of chemical science in universities, in industry, and in government. Here we make a statement that will come as a shock to some: The future of the chemical sciences (and of chemical societies) 30 years from now depends on the number of bachelors (licenciados) in chemistry we turn out today. The reason is shown in Figure 1: Chemists with an undergraduate degree can and do go into a wide variety of other fields - some more and some less related to the core area of chemistry. And as time passes, it is likely that the circle of these subjects will ever widen, since many of the areas of biomedical science, for example, today involve molecular aspects, i.e. chemistry and physics. And it is also true that "Once a chemist, always a chemist" - of the ca. 200 members of the American Chemical Society in our university, only about 100 are in the chemistry department; the rest range from biochemistry, pharmacy and environmental science to physiology, genetics and immunology.

Undergraduate study. Here are what we consider a university's objectives at the undergraduate level: 1) To teach all students the importance of chemistry in everyday life (from pharmaceuticals to environmental protection) as a matter of responsible and informed citizenship. 2) To maintain and stimulate the interest of those students who have a deeper interest in the chemical sciences, and 3) To offer courses that fathom chemistry in depth - but without excesive specialization - for those who major in chemistry.

We encounter two obstacles. At least in the USA, high school preparation in mathematics, physics, and chemistry varies widely by region and school district; some entering students even in very good undergraduate departments are inadequately prepared, in part due to the shortage of properly qualified mathematics and science teachers. Also, students' interest varies widely - from those truly excited about the subject to those who consider chemistry courses simply as hurdles to be overcome for admission to medical or pharmacy school. While these factors are essentially outside of othe university's control, another - challenges to the classical lecturing system - is not. Students are addicted to television and the computer, are sometimes adverse to extensive reading, and may be unresponsive to the spoken word augmented only by writing on the blackboard. They expect the teacher to make full use of modern media such as Powerpoint and videotapes (that allow manipulation of molecular models and illustrations of chemical reactions, some too dangerous ever to be shown in a demonstration). In addition, computers in the hands of students - now required in a number of US colleges and universities - allow interactive communication between students and professors ranging from supplemental instruction and help programs, to learning through problems communicated to the students for solving on their own time, to problems that require obtaining information from the web, to "virtual office hours" where the students ask and the professor answers questions by e-mail. (The questions and answers can then be posted for all students in the course).

The desire for more modern and powerful teaching methods - especially at the first - and second-year level- presents a serious dilemma: In a research university, professors are engaged in research. This entails personal study and reading of the literature, both in the investigator's specialized research area and more broadly; teaching, including preparation of class material; planning of research and obtaining funds to carry it out; persuading graduate students to participate in the research and mentoring them once they have signed on; disseminating the results in lectures, at meetings, and in publications in high-quality journals and the associated organizational problems that all this entails. In addition one expects a faculty member to participate in departmental, university and professional affairs and perhaps even in public relations (such as explaning aspects of chemistry to the public).

Thus one of the serious problems for all faculties is lack of time; and it is often undergraduate teaching (and sometimes mentoring of graduate students) that is shortchanged. We see here the need for a division of labor in the faculty: Even a research university should have one or two members among its chemistry faculty whose major task is to keep up with state-of-the art teaching (and, one hopes, to make publishable methodological contributions of their own)- not only to use it in their own teaching but also to make it available to other faculty who teach undergraduate courses. Among these courses should be one of chemistry for non-scientists, including elementary school teachers.

For the benefit of non-US readers, we mention here that the American Chemical Society has an approval process for undergraduate chemistry departments through its Committee on Professional Training (CPT). Some 600 departments are currently approved. Approval involves requirements of adequate personnel, adequate infrastructure (library, laboratories, safety, etc.), and certain curricular requirements. Details are beyond the scope of this editorial but can be obtained from the secretary of CPT, Ms. Cathy A. Nelson at ACS1)

Graduate Study. Graduate study and investigation are the core of a research university. The USA has the reputation for providing perhaps the best atmosphere for graduate study in science and to be on top of the world in many areas of scientific research. Thus many foreign students come to the USA for graduate work (and a substantial fraction of them stay!). Graduate education in the USA emphasizes critical analysis and problem solving through research; these are skills that are likely to be broadly applicable in a professional's career. There is, however, a continuous struggle in graduate education between depth in the area of the dissertation and intellectual and scientific breadth. This is epitomized by two, somehat contradictory points of view: Wilhelm von Humboldt (1810) stated "The (teacher) does not exist for the sake of the (student). They are both at the university for the sake of science and scholarship". (2) A rather different opinion was expressed by Keith Pravitt rather more recently: "...the main economically useful output of obasic research is not discoveries or ideas that subsequently must be exploited, but rather the expertise necessary for solving complex and multidisciplinary problems". (3) Perhaps one can bridge these two opinions by citing Friedrich Schiller's statement about science (1797): "Science to some is the Godess, majestic and lofty - to others she is a productive cow that supplies them with butter"4).

Another way to illustrate the struggle is to recite some of the complaints - no doubt frequently justified - made by industrial employers of chemists. Most complaints relate to the area of communication: 1) Many Ph.D.'s lack the ability to write clear, well organized, and understandable reports. 2) They also lack the ability to communicate orally with diverse audiences, especially those outside the immediate area of their own research. This deficiency - plus a common lack of experience of working in teams - impedes the interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approach that is now required to solve many of the "messy" chemically related problems faced by Industry (and increasingly also by Academe). 3) Most Ph.D.'s lack appreciation of economic and market forces.

Some remedies have been suggested. One is more coursework, possibly including a master's degree as a stepping stone to the doctorate. But this is contrary to the desire to keep the time required for the Ph.D. within reasonable bounds, say 5 years. (Some universities, such as ours and Columbia, have a 5-year limit for graduate student support, which forces graduate students to "keep at it" and also obliges both the students and their preceptors to keep in mind from the start that the thesis project has to be completed in finite time and may have to be changed if this begins to look unfeasible). A possible answer is to concentrate "ancillary material" (such as professional ethics, economic and business understanding, communications) into one modular course. Good mentoring also mitigates the problems: a conscientious research advisor should have students write regular research reports and critique them incisively for organization and language as well as content. The advisor should also have the student try out all oral presentations (whether for departmental seminars, for papers at meetings, or for job interviews) in researcch group meetings with critique by the entire group and a second-round repetition when the first presentation is unsatisfactory. All graduate students should present departmental or divisional seminars and at least one original research proposal of their own, which should be honed until it is acceptable or else replaced by a better one. The matter work is harder to address; in some universities a short stint in another research group is required (especially in cross-disciplinary projects); another possibility is to have the student work in industry for a short time in the course of his or her graduate career.

Yet, we want to emphasize, the most important aspect of obtaining the Ph.D. degree is research. This is not only because the results of good research advance knowledge. Above all, through research, the Ph.D. candidate learns how to formulate a problem and how to go about solving it. The ability so acquired is essential for a professional career.

Research. As already mentioned, research is at the heart of what in the USA is called a "university" (as distinct from a "college" that offers undergraduate study only). Research requires financial support; in the USA the bulk of this support goes to the senior investigator (who doubles as graduate student advisor). This support comes from a variety of government agencies: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DOD) and several others, as well as from private funds: the Petroleum Research Fund of ACS (PRF) and (for outstanding beginning investigators) Research Corporation, the Dreyfus Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. While the multiplicity of funding sources is clearly an advantage, none of them tend to be flush with money; moreover NIH, DOE and DOD are "mission oriented agencies" and funding applications to these agencies must be related to their respective missions. (Incidentally, PRF and NIH occasionally support non-US investigators). The agencies also supply infrastructure support through instrument grants to entire departments or sub-groups thereof, but these grants almost invariably require scarce departmental matching funds.

Academic-industrial relations. As the supply of federal support for research has decreased relative to demand, academic researchers have begun to rely more heavily on funding from industry for their research. At the same time, a greater emphasis on short-term revenues in the private sector has prompted a need for industry to dismantle or reduce long-range in-house research and to "outsource" early-stage discoveries to universities. As a result of the Federal Bayh-Dole Act, universities are now permitted to patent discoveries made with federal funding and to license these discoveries to new or existing companies in return for royalties, milestone payments, and research support. In addition, many academic researchers and their universities are now starting small companies based on such patented discoveries; these companies are generally funded by venture capital. One of us (HHT) has started such an enterprise based on a fundamental research discovery; this company now employs over 25 people in Research Triangle Park, NC and provides generous support for the basic research aspects of the project at the university.

It is vital that university investigators understand that industrial support and start-up companies are not a panacea for academic funding woes. University investigators must realize that peer-reviewed papers and well-trained graduate students do not contribute to the bottom line of the company. In favorable circumstances, the company is supportive of these activities and understands the long-term benefits; however, market forces can change that outlook through no fault of the company management. Thus, the investigator must maintain a very strong commitment to university activities, which is best executed through continued acquisition of research dollors that are not commercially encumbered. Therefore, foundation and government support of research can become even more important than before the commercial relationship was established. Many agencies are under pressure to show commercial relevance of funded research, which can facilitate acquisition of external support for such relationships and ameliorate the above concern to some extent. Nevertheless, investigators must view industrial relationships as expanding the total base of research support rather than replacing it. Inadequte attention to this point may result in conversion of the university to a low-cost venue for high-risk industrial research and will negate the university's role in the advancement of the frontiers of knowledge. And even though we believe that basic and applied research can and should advantageously coexist at a university and that both -if of high quality- can equally contribute to a graduate student's education, constant vigilane is required to prevent a university department from being converted into a service laboratory.

Thus, these academic-industrial relations have both negative and positive consequences. The positive aspects are accelerated technology transfer, leveraging of federal investment in science into boosting the private sector, and a heightened awareness by students of the technical and business issues surrounding the development of commercial technologies. There are numerous conficts of interest surrounding these relationships that can generally be managed with full disclosure and guarantees concerning timely publication of results (with only a modest delay for patent applications) and no inhibition of oral communication among graduate students or of completion of a student's dissertation. Conflict-of-time issues may actually be more serious for academic researchers; they stem from the company's expectations for help with technical matters, patenting, and fund-raising. Guidelines for these conflicts are generally in place at most institutions. Because graduate students do and should expect extensive access to the research advisor, investigators must consider carefully their availability and make their research group a high priority in allocating their time. Again, these points emphasize that academic-industrial relationships, as with any form of growth, increase the demands on the investigator to finance, publicize, and execute research of high quality.

Conclusions. There are many challenges in chemistry education today. Here we have described numerous problems that we perceive to require attention. While we can conceive of a number of potential solutions, we offer no "magic bullet". In general, the needs of students have increased, and the demands on faculty time and ingenuity have increased concomitantly. Thus the only solutions are increased creativity and commitment on the part of faculty, which will require special synergies within departments to provide a balanced effort between graduates and undergraduates, research and teaching, and basic and applied research. Universities must embrace these balances and reward effort accordingly. As with all change in higher education, transformations will occur gradually. We think that is best because there is much good to be preserved in the present system, and drastic changes could endanger positive features that were hard-earned over many years. So, while we have spent much time describing problems, we are optimistic that the discipline of chemistry and the individuals that practice it have the skills to solve them and to continue both the education of future chemists and the creation of chemical knowledge.

References

1. A copy is being placed in the offices of the SCQ.         [ Links ]

2. Humboldt, W. von, "Schriften zur Politik" as cited and translated by Clark, B.R., "The Research Foundations of Graduate Education", Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.         [ Links ]

3. Pavitt, K. "Try Business Class Worldwide", Times Higher Education Supplement, London, November 18, 1994.         [ Links ]

4. Carus, P. "Goethe and Shiller's Xenions", 2nd ed., The Open Count Publishing Co., Chicago, 1915, p. 132.         [ Links ]

XXIII JORNADAS CHILENAS DE QUIMICA

J. GUILLERMO CONTRERAS K.
Presidente
Sociedad Chilena de Química

Hoy al linaugurar las XXIII Jornadas Chilenas de Química, me invaden sentimientos encontrados. Por un lado, la alegría de volver a juntarnos los químicos del país después de dos años para intercambiar nuevas experiencias e ideas, a la vez que establecer nuevos lazos de cooperación y lograr así que nuestro trabajo sea cada día más fructífero y creciente.

Es también especialmente grata esta ocasión teniendo presente que han pasado exactamente 20 años desde aquellas jornadas del año 79 que tantos gratos recuerdos nos traen a quienes tuvimos la suerte de asistir.

Por otro lado, tenemos que lamentar profundamente la ausencia de uno de los más destacados socios y colaboradores de nuestra sociedad, me refiero al Dr. Guido Canessa Castelleto, Editor del Boletín de la Sociedad Chilena de Química por más de 20 años y a quién debemos el alto nivel de nuestra principal publicación. En efecto, hasta hoy nuestro Boletín sigue siendo la revista de más alto índice de impacto de toda Iberoamérica. Guido Canessa fue el responsable, en gran medida, del reconocimiento que tiene nuestra revista en el ambiente científico internacional. La entrega más allá de sus fuerzas físicas y el amor con que Guido desarrolló su labor de editor, comprometen nuestros agradecimientos eternamente. Es por esto que deseo pedir a usteds me acompañen a guardar un minuto de silencia en memoria del que fuera un destacado miembro de nuestra Sociedad, gran colaborador y mejor amigo.

UN MINUTO DE SILENCIO

GRACIAS

Nos parece que estas Jornadas marcarán un hito importante en la historia de la Sociedad Chilena de Química ya que el número de trabajos presentados ha superado a todas las jornadas anteriores, lo que ratifica en forma categórica el interés de los miembros de esta Sociedad por participar en uno de los quehaceres más importantes de ella. Es así como en esta ocasión se recibieron más de 400 trabajos en las distintas áreas de la Química y que serán presentados en exposiciones orales y posters. Cabe destacar también que se han programado cinco conferencias invitadas a cargo de distinguidos investigadores extranjeros. Agradecemos desde ya la participación de los profesores:

Enerst L. Ellierl : University of North Caroline (U.S.A.)

Willian Rees : Georgia Institute of Technology (U.S.A.)

John Daly : National Institute of Health (US.A.)

Brian Vincent : University of Bristol (England)

Celio Pasquini : Universidad Estatal de Campinas (Brasil)

Como ya es tradiiconal, en estas jornadas, se realizarán 1) la reunión del Comité Editorial del Boletín de la Sociedad, 2) la III Reunión Anual del Directorio General, 3) reuniones de las divisiones y 4) la asamblea general de socios.

Me permito hacer uso de esta ocasión para plantear, con fines de debate, toma de posiciones y eventual acción futura, algunos hehos ue nos preocupan.

Aunque de acuerdo al Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), Chile produce más artículos científicos internacionales por habitante que Argentina, Brasil y México, creemos que es necesario mejorar significativamente los índices actuales de productividad científica. Con este fín, pensamos que es recomendable revisar la situación actual de nuestra disciplina, tanto en el ambiente científico nacional como en el internacional. Para lograr un desarrollo sostenido y creciente de la químicas, es necesario:

1. Conocer y evaluar en forma real el desarrollo científico y tecnológico.

2. Informar de este análisis a las autoridades del país.

3. Proponer iniciativas y políticas necesarias para alcanzar un crecimiento real y acorde a nuestro desarrollo nacional.

4. Evitar la disgregación de organismos estatales que están involucrados en ciencia y tecnología, que causa duplicaciones, gastos innecesarios, y un pobre aprovechamiento de los recursos.

Creemos que lo anteriormente expuesto, nos permitirá posicionar la química como una disciplina fundamental en el desarrollo intelectual y económico del país. Es por esto que se hace necesario:

1. Definir áres prioritarias de investigación.

2. Integrar esfuerzos de universidades, institutos y organismos gubernamentales como una forma de alcanzar el crecimiento antes mencionado.

3. Controlar el funcionamiento del sistema general de ciencia y tecnología con el objeto de conocer periódicamente los avances en esta materia.

4. Conocer quiénes, en la comunidad científica, están capacitados para generar respuestas rápidas frente a eventuales y urgentes necesidades.

Estas jornadas son también especiales en el sentido que vamos a cumplir un mandato del Directorio General de la Sociedad designando socio honorario al Profesor Enerst L. Eliel Ex-Presidente de la American Chemical Society y gran artífice de las excelentes relaciones entre la A.C.S. y la Sociedad Chilena de Química.

Deseo expresar además, en nombre del Comité Ejecutivo de las XXIII Jornadas Chilenas de Química, el reconocimiento a nuestros auspiciadores. En forma muy especial a Merck-Chile que nos ha acompañado en las jornadas por largos años y a la Universidad Austral de Chile por el valioso apoyo en la realización de estas jornadas.

Estimados colegas, y distinguidos profesores invitados, en nombre de la Sociedad Chilena de Química y el mío propio, reciban todos ustedes una cordial bienvenida y deseos de éxito, esperando que tengan una grata estadía en esta hermosa ciudad durante el desarrollo de estas jornadas.

Finalmente, nuestro mejor deseo es que al finalizar este milenio, aprovechemos el significado que tiene la llegada de uno nuevo lo que nos permita promover cambios de actitud, generar acuerdos que contribuyan al desarrollo de las personas y consolidar el concepto de amistad.