The Sceptical Chymist | Speakly Frankly: Commentary comments

Published in Chemistry

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Frank Leibfarth is a graduate student trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter @Frank_Leibfarth.

The International Year of Chemistry is upon us and, as these Commentaries in Nature Chemistry illustrate, our year of celebration is doubling as a year for re-evaluation. The past two decades have brought rapid changes that have and will continue to profoundly affect how we conduct science.

Unrelenting globalization,’ as Keith J. Watson puts it, has made the world flat, giving us access to almost infinite amounts of information. Business — and thus social, political, resource, and economic instability — is magnified on an international scale, yet we are having trouble effectively training the next generation of chemists to deal with the necessary multifaceted, cognitive challenges to keep pace. These more recent issues just pile on top of the long-standing problems of our discipline including gender inequality, a finite supply of resources, and our inability to communicate with the public. Such fundamental subjects are all addressed in the Commentaries, but I assert that a common thread for beginning to solve many of these problems starts with scientists taking matters into their own hands.

The internet, globalization, and social media have made the world ‘pluralistic, participatory, and social,’ as Matthew R. Hartings and Declan Fahy astutely observe, but has chemistry kept up? This seems to be a central theme in many of these Commentaries. Industry is trying to — Connelly, Vuong, and Murcko tell us how, and Watson gives sound advice for chemists looking to keep up. Our educational system has not, but David K. Smith provides a path to rethink our pedagogy. Scientific communication is getting there, looking to modernize so it can inspire and educate a complex and diverse audience. Chemistry in the developing world is in a precarious position, with C. N. R. Rao wondering ‘whether there will ever be reasonable contributions to chemical research from poor underdeveloped countries…’

So where does this all leave us? I must agree with Smith, in that the defining feature of this new age is our incredible access to information. We have quickly shifted from an age where a select few had access to some information to one in which everyone has access to almost all information, but we have not figured out how to use this for the greater good of chemistry. If social media can catalyse revolution in the Middle East and riots in the UK, why are we not using it to share ideas among scientists about the best way to harness the sun’s energy or make a more effective chemotherapy agent?

Science is missing out on one of the fundamental attributes of the information era — its immediacy. We write grants to make better water purification membranes, but we are working in the developed world, where we find out if a grant is funded in 6-8 months and may publish a paper years later. Why are we not in a constant conversation with scientists from the developing world, asking them exactly what they need, sifting through the massive amount of available information collaboratively, and using our combined cognitive skills to find the needle we are looking for in the haystack? Furthermore, when we do discover something, shouldn’t we make sure to communicate it back through those same inclusive outlets, explaining it in an accessible manner for anyone who may be interested? This is not difficult in 2011.

I am not suggesting we do away with the peer-review process or journal publishing. These serve our community well. In the name of embracing our ‘pluralistic, participatory, and social’ future, however, non-traditional media outlets will only enhance our vision of collaborative, inclusive, and highly progressive science. Alternate communication methods, such as web-based content, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube, let people know not only what you are thinking, but how you are thinking about it and why it is important. As Hartings alluded to, journalists and members of the media are no longer the gatekeepers to our interfacing with members of our own discipline and the public. Just as Kevin Smith skipped the Hollywood studio system to release his award winning film or Marc Maron gave up on comedy clubs in favour of podcasts, so too can scientists make our case to the public without waiting for traditional news outlets to do it for us.

As a young scientist, I think I speak for my generation when I say that I am intimidated by the diversity and magnitude of the challenges contained in these Commentaries, but I am constantly hopeful when I see people from other disciplines and walks of life succeeding outside of the traditional avenues. We can do it too, but we do not and should not wait for the traditional gatekeepers to do it for us. Globalization and the information age have put the power in our hands, now we just need to figure out how to use it.

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