Let's Put An End to `Chemophobia'

Chemistry is one of the oldest sciences, with a distinguished history of intellectual and practical achievement. Chemists consider it the "central science,"

By Ronald Breslow | March 22, 1993

Chemistry is one of the oldest sciences, with a distinguished history of intellectual and practical achievement. Chemists consider it the "central science," interacting with physics as well as with biology, with engineering, and with materials science. The names of some subfields tell this story: physical chemistry and chemical physics, biochemistry and chemical biology, medicinal chemistry, neurochemistry, petroleum chemistry, polymer chemistry, agricultural chemistry.

Chemistry courses in colleges traditionally are among the largest, in part because chemical training is needed not only for future chemists, but also for doctors, pharmacists, biologists, engineers, and nurses. Trained chemists are in demand in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries--industries in which the United States is highly competitive--and in many other fields.

Despite all this, chemistry suffers from an image problem. It is not always seen to be the science where the action is. In some quarters, chemophobia has also led to a negative stereotype and a tendency to credit other fields with the advances that chemistry makes. For instance, many groups are formulating plans to improve pre-college science education, and chemistry sometimes plays a small role in these plans.

Too few people realize, to cite another example, how modern medicines usually arise. Every pharmaceutical company has a large group of medicinal chemists designing and synthesizing new molecules with the hope that they will be useful drugs. The ideas are often based on what others have learned about the detailed chemical structures of important biological molecules, such as hormones and enzymes, or natural medicinal compounds. Medicinal chemists combine these clues with their own knowledge of how to create new chemical structures and produce a candidate molecule for evaluation as a drug. Based on the results, further new molecules are then created to improve the properties.

This activity takes advantage of information about the general question that most chemists address: What is the relationship between the chemical structure of a substance and its properties? The properties may well be useful, while predicting properties from a knowledge of chemical structure poses very fundamental scientific questions. The field attracts both those with practical interests and those who want to uncover basic scientific principles.

The origin of the general problem may in part be chemophobia, the fear of "chemicals" induced by some well-publicized chemical pollution problems. However, in examples such as the opening of the atmospheric ozone layer, it is well to remember that the problem was discovered by chemists who were studying basic chemical reactions, and its solution is being designed by chemists. What is needed is not fear, but good science.

For society as a whole, chemophobia must not be allowed to overshadow the contributions that chemistry can continue to make to human welfare. Carefully and thoughtfully applied, chemical discoveries can continue to advance medicine, agriculture, and other practical fields. At the same time, chemical researchers have the exquisite satisfaction of uncovering some of nature's most exciting secrets. The field needs and deserves support commensurate with its potential contributions. It also needs and deserves the interest of students attracted by the possibility of making fundamental discoveries that have the extra potential of contributing to human welfare.

Ronald Breslow is S.I. Mitchill Professor of Chemistry and University Professor in the department of chemistry at Columbia University, New York.

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