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Focus on Practical Applications Is Stifling Innovation, Say 80% of Surveyed Chemistry Professionals

Survey also shows a majority believe that expertise in working with digital tools is critical to career advancement

by Elsevier
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Chemistry is suffering due to its reputation for not being as innovative as other sciences, such as biology and physics, according to a survey of 186 industry professionals, carried out by Elsevier’s Reaxys team. 78 percent of chemists said the fact that other scientific fields have more ‘newsworthy’ breakthroughs is a contributing factor in potential chemists choosing to enter other disciplines, and 80 percent suggested that the overemphasis placed on research that has practical applications is stifling innovation in the field. 

Other key findings include:      

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  • More than three quarters (76%) of chemists believe there is either a long-standing or growing problem in terms of attracting new talent, because innovation in medical research is more associated with biology than chemistry.
  • With scientific breakthroughs increasingly happening at the boundaries between disciplines, just over a fifth (21%) of chemists believe there are insufficient opportunities to collaborate with researchers in other fields. 

“These findings highlight that one of the most conflicting challenges chemists face is the demand to deliver practical applications while at the same time achieving breakthrough discoveries that raise the bar for society. Scientific innovation inherently needs the space to explore, collaborate, and seek multidisciplinary partners—but the speed at which innovations become practically impactful is still often insufficient to the demands of stakeholders from a business and funding perspective,” commented Tim Hoctor, vice president of professional services at Elsevier. “The question is, how should current and future chemists adapt and be trained for this environment? In addition, many chemists seem to believe that there is a lack of recognition for chemistry innovation, which is negatively impacting the field’s reputation. The industry as a whole needs to do more to highlight the role chemistry plays in our lives—from improving the batteries in our phones, to providing clean drinking water and combating climate change—in order to attract the top talent.” 

In order to attract this top talent and facilitate exciting chemistry innovation—data, digital tools and new technologies, will have a vital influence. Indeed, the research found that technology is increasingly playing a critical role in climbing the industry ladder, with an overwhelming majority (84%) of chemists stating that being ‘technologically savvy’ is either ‘crucial’ or ‘very important’ to career progression. However, despite this broad consensus, opinion was divided as to what being ‘technically savvy’ meant in practice. When asked about specific skills required to succeed as a modern chemist, only 26 percent said that access to deep dive data analysis tools counted as a key requirement, 12 percent mentioned familiarity with machine learning and 22 percent argued for access to computational chemistry power. These answers may suggest that modern chemists need to become more specialized than before, and gain experience in emerging technologies as the field advances. 

“The role of the chemist is adapting to the digital age,” continued Hoctor. “The chemists graduating today are digital natives that expect to be able to access information wherever and whenever they need it, in a format that works for their needs. A key part of transforming the reputation of the chemistry community and presenting it as more innovative is ensuring these expectations are met. Institutions and businesses need to make sure they are providing chemists entering the industry with the right tools for the job.”