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Shaping the Future with Chemistry What's in Store for Chemistry Graduates in Research and Industry.

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DOI: 10.1002/anie.200602160
Science and Industry
Shaping the Future with Chemistry: Whats in Store for
Chemistry Graduates in Research and Industry?
Jrgen Hambrecht*
educational system · innovation ·
research and development
kind of outlook do young
chemistry graduates have today? What
do they expect from industry? What
awaits them in the world of industry?
And what does the industry expect from
Its been thirty years since I myself
left the university to join BASFs research community with a PhD in my
pocket and plenty of ideas, but plenty of
questions on board too. It was an exciting time, and I still enjoy talking to
newcomers to our company about what
theyve seen and done, their prospects,
and their dreams for the future.
Chemistry is fascinating. In that
respect, its no different for young
scientists today than it was for me back
then. Chemistry is fascinating because it
makes many things possible that would
have been inconceivable not too long
ago. Pioneering inventions from the
world of chemistry are part and parcel
of contemporary everyday life. Just
imagine life without plastics, for instance. And the quality of life of future
generations depends to a huge extent on
innovations being developed in chemical labs today. To put it in a nutshell:
We can shape the future with chemistry.
The fascination of chemistry and the
opportunities it offers has remained
with me and inspired me to this day.
Much of this fascination was revealed to me by my own teacher and
PhD supervisor, Professor Eugen M-ller, who would have celebrated his 100th
birthday last November. He personified
a type of research scientist that you
[*] Dr. J. Hambrecht
BASF Aktiengesellschaft
67056 Ludwigshafen (Germany)
rarely see today. He was driven by a
relentless urge to discover, which took
him deep into the furthest realms and
most intricate twists of whatever research area he was currently involved in,
but he was at the same time a generalist
who upheld the Humboldt ideal.
Does the Future Belong to the
Generalists are getting increasingly
thin on the ground in todays scientific
community. The very term “generalist”
has almost a negative connotation: at
the end of the day, someone whos good
at almost everything is not good enough
at any one thing to be able to perform
outstanding work in a given area.—At
least, youd be forgiven for thinking so,
given the image people have of contemporary science: highly specialized expertise concentrated in a sharply circumscribed specialist area. Everyone neatly
tucked into their own little box.
Of course there are important reasons why we have this trend in science
today. Certainly the most obvious one is
that the body of knowledge in all
disciplines has grown enormously, and
specialization is the logical result. It
would be hard to find a person nowadays who comes even remotely close to
knowing everything there is to know
about a given area of his or her discipline, organic chemistry for example.
Another reason for the galloping
specialization is the phenomenon we all
call globalization: capital and knowledge have virtually unlimited mobility
and can go almost anywhere in the
world at almost any time. The world is
changing ever more rapidly as a result,
2006 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
with a commensurate increase in the
pace of science and business. Todays
new insight is tomorrows old hat. A
measure that promises competitive advantages now may soon be outbid by
international rivals. All this adds to the
pressure to perform, which in turn
promotes a desire to occupy an inviolable position in the competitive environment by acquiring excellence in a specialist niche. Most chemical companies
have gone this route; specialization is
their response to the consolidation pressures to which the industry is exposed.
The target is to ensure profitable growth
by enhancing efficiency and by achieving market leadership in well-defined
business areas.
There is no question about it, specialization is important and essential for
research excellence. Nevertheless, if you
concentrate all your attention on a
single, sharply defined area, you might
end up missing what may be a truly
defining moment: the chance to discover something really new.
If you concentrate on a single,
sharply defined area, you might
miss the chance to discover
something really new.
How Does Innovation Come
The history of science is full of
stories of genuinely new and pioneering
discoveries which came about when
scientists lifted their nose from their
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 5052 – 5056
Petri dish long enough to notice things
going on elsewhere. Serendipity played
a role in many new discoveries. Many of
the highest-impact innovations we know
of today started out as a failed experiment in terms of what the scientist was
originally trying to achieve. And that
would have been that, had the inventor
not opened his eyes and recognized the
opportunities opening up in an area
extraneous to what his work had actually been intended to accomplish.
The history of chemistry has a number of highly instructive anecdotes in
this regard. One of them has a direct
bearing on BASFs success story.[1]
150 years ago, a student called
William Henry Perkin in London set
out to synthesize the substance quinine,
which was in widespread use at the time
to treat fevers. Instead, oxidation of
impure aniline produced a purple solution. Most of Perkins fellow students
would probably have poured it down the
drain. Perkins curiosity was piqued,
however, and he used the solution to
try and dye a piece of silk—with success.
This moment marked the birth of the
dye industry. Synthetic dyes were far
and away cheaper than natural dyes, as
well as having better properties and a
more extensive color range. They revolutionized the entire textile industry.
BASF started out more than 140 years
ago with aniline dyes. Today it is the
worlds leading chemical company.
The history of chemistry abounds
with similar stories. Nylon and Teflon
were chance discoveries which went on
to conquer the globe. The famous repeelable “Post-It” notes entered the
world as the serendipitous outcome of
development work on a new superglue.
It took a brilliant idea for a potential use
of this actually unwanted by-product,
which was so far removed from the
concerned. A society can develop and
grow only through innovation. Economic growth, prosperity, and a better quality of life for the largest possible number
of people can come about and be maintained only through innovation.
That is why it is more important than
ever for scientists and the business
community to move up closer, talk more
to each other, and share ideas. In a world
It is more important than ever
for scientists and the business
community to move closer
together and share ideas.
originally intended outcome, and an
effective marketing concept to bring
about the overwhelming success we all
know about. All these stories show that
the ostensible detours and dead ends
encountered in a research project may
unearth huge potential, provided, of
course, there are creative, open minds
around who recognize and realize that
Opening Up the Ivory Tower
A scientific discovery on its own is
not enough to produce innovation or
progress. True innovation occurs only
when you apply what has been discovered in the lab, when you—so to
speak—translate science into useful everyday applications. This translation
work takes place at the science–business
interface. The importance of this accomplishment is frequently underrated, especially at our universities.
And yet, innovations are the be-all
and end-all as far as our future is
Jrgen Hambrecht, born 1946, earned his PhD (1975) in organic
chemistry with Eugen Mller at the Eberhard-Karls-Universit't Tbingen. He joimed BASF in 1976 as a research chemist in the Polymers
Laboratory and subsequently held various leading positions in hte
company. In 1997 he was appointed to the Board of Executive
Directors and became Chairman in May 2003. From 2003 to 2005 he
was President of the German Chemical Industry Association. Since
2003 he has been Vice President of the Federation of German
Industries, and from July 2006 he his the Chairman of the Asia-Pacific
Committee of German Business.
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 5052 – 5056
that is evolving ever more rapidly, the
connections and interactions we have to
cope with are increasingly complex. We
are facing vital issues such as securing
our global energy supply and feeding a
rapidly growing population on this planet. Isolated specialists cooped up in their
ivory towers wont find the answers to
all these issues. What we need are open
minds—minds that recognize how and
where disciplines mesh with each other.
Minds that come up with new, better
solutions as a result. We need diversity.
By this I mean diversity of expertise, and
I also mean diversity of cultural background.
Cultural diversity in the strict sense
is about a mix of nationalities, religious
affiliations, and social traditions. Increasing internationalization in research
and industry is throwing people together
who are from very different cultural and
educational backgrounds. They have to
be able to get on together; indeed, they
have to complement each other in terms
of the strengths each one has to contribute. For this reason alone, open-mindedness is an absolute prerequisite for
success in science and industry.
Apart from these more general cultural differences, each specialist discipline also has its particular culture.
Chemists, biologists, engineers, and IT
experts all have their own specialist
language and a world view shaped by
their particular discipline. If youve ever
taken part in an interdisciplinary project, youll know how many misunderstandings can arise from cultural differ-
2006 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
ences of these kinds. And yet, not only
international collaboration, but cooperation between disciplines is more essential than ever in todays world. The first
European Chemical Congress, scheduled to take place in Budapest in August
this year, recognizes this fact, and its an
event were all very excited about.
Networked Thinking, Lifelong
All research areas that have produced new technologies with major
future potential arose at the interface
between multiple disciplines. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, new materials
development, exploration of new energies and raw material sources, you name
it—success in any of these areas depends
on whether project team members from
very different specialist backgrounds
can communicate, work together, and
add to each others strengths.
In science and industry we also need
minds and leadership personalities with
enough vision to give guidance, provide
direction, and weave the individual
strands into a coherent pattern. We need
personalities who define direction courageously and yet responsibly, but without limiting the thought and research
curiosity of the individual. And we need
excellent leadership talents now more
than ever.
I believe it is absolutely essential for
a successful future to promote interdisciplinary, networked thought—in every
type of education and training and at
every stage. Starting at school, intensifying at university, and continuing after
Now more than ever, graduates must
be willing and able to continuously
update and expand their acquired expertise. And now more than ever, any
graduate who has just completed training can expect at least once in his or her
life to have to acquire an entirely new
qualification unrelated to his or her
original trade. This situation applied in
the past and continues to apply in the
present as far as my own professional
biography is concerned. The area of
research I was first interested in was
polymeric by-products of low-molecular-weight organic synthesis processes.[2]
My scientific curiosity, expressed in the
topic of my PhD thesis, brought me
straight into the polymer chemistry
division when I joined BASF. Later on,
I was involved with very different issues:
purchasing and business administration,
for instance, and above all management
and leadership. Lifelong learning is a
must in this day and age. This applies in
all professions and disciplines, both for
providers of routine services and for
highly specialized experts. It applies in
particular to all those who intend to or
have already assumed leadership responsibilities.
Lifelong learning is a must in
this day and age.
Movement in the Education
The following part deals specifically
with changes in the German education
system. The concerns and aims are of
relevance to all societies. How does the
German education system prepare
young people to meet all these requirements? I think it probably does a much
better job than people give it credit for,
despite the public moaning that seems to
be reaching another crescendo at the
moment. It is right and proper to point
out negative trends and deficiencies: the
increasing gap between educational
elites and people from educationally
remote socioeconomic strata, poor integration of migrants, lack of promotion of
special talents, university courses that
are too long and too inefficient, brain
drain to other countries. Measures to
2006 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
promote self-initiative and entrepreneurship also leave a lot to be desired
in Germany. Theres plenty of room for
improvement and reform. Nevertheless,
it is counterproductive to slam the German educational system as an unmitigated disaster.
While recognizing that there is plenty than deserves criticism, we must not
forget that things have definitely started
to change for the better in the German
education system. For instance, there is
an increased awareness and appreciation of the fact that good education
starts early. Children are born with a
keen desire to learn and discover, and
we need to build on these instincts early
on. Industry and business are starting to
recognize their responsibilities in this
regard and many companies are helping
to improve the education of children in
this country by sponsoring projects on
their own or in cooperation with the
public sector. One example of the industrys growing commitment is the
Knowledge Factory,[3] a platform combining the activities of a large number of
German businesses in a bid to promote
education and entrepreneurship. Effective models of cooperation between the
private sector and public-sector education institutions are textbook examples
of ways to make school a better preparation for life.
Reforms of tertiary education are
also up and running. After decades of
the notorious complaints about mass
universities, inefficient teaching, poor
scientific excellence, and loss of international reputation, profound changes are
apparent wherever you look. There has
been extensive and long-standing public
debate on the pros and cons of introducing Bachelor and Master degrees, elite
universities, and the forming of excellence clusters. The Association of Donors for the Promotion of Science (Stifterverband f-r die Deutsche Wissenschaft[4]) was a major catalyst here. Our
tertiary education institutions are now
taking action, and this is a very welcome
The Bachelor/Master system has a
number of advantages over the conventional German degree system (comprising a two-year “Vordiplom” (intermediate diploma) which is not an academic
qualification but a necessary requirement to commence the three-year “DipAngew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 5052 – 5056
lom”/Master), especially for those
studying chemistry. As well as facilitating international comparability and
hence offering students better opportunities to gain valuable experience
abroad during their course of studies,
the Bachelor system is better geared
toward accommodating students individual abilities and career plans. For
instance, a student who stops studying
after three years in our conventional
degree system, for whatever reason, is
simply a dropout with no qualifications.
In contrast, a student who leaves after
the same number of years with a Bachelor degree has a bona fide professional
qualification. And all those who wish to
obtain further qualifications, either
through specialization in the same subject, or by obtaining related university
or non-university training, or indeed by
switching to a different area for a good
reason, can do so under potentially
better circumstances.
Good bye, Humboldt?
The prospect of adapting to the
Anglo–American university system has
prompted moaning and lamentation in
many quarters. Critics say the Anglo–
American model will make university
education too much like school, promote a one-sided, stereotyped focus on
a particular discipline, and leave little or
no room for the development of individual, personal strengths. They say
Germany is turning its back on the
Humboldt idea of education, which
was once a role model emulated everywhere in the world. Since I made my
admiration of the virtues of the generalist like Humboldt very clear at the
outset of this Essay, Id like to say a
few brief words on this topic now.
In my research work, as a leader of a
globally operating corporation, and also
in my private life, Ive always seen the
truth of a very fundamental principle
confirmed: there are no patent remedies. It would be foolish to believe the
introduction of the Anglo–American
system is going to be a cure-all with a
built-in guarantee of improving our
tertiary education in Germany. Whether
any system succeeds crucially depends
on how it is put into practice in the nittygritty and how well it is applied in a
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 5052 – 5056
specific individual case. If students do
not benefit from appropriate guidance
and continue to receive a poor level of
individual supervision from their tutors
and lecturers, a Bachelor system will
change nothing for the better. If interfacing with other disciplines is not
encouraged, for example on the basis
of a wider range of options for combining subjects, and if interdisciplinary
dialogue does not become an integral
part of routine operations and curricula
at our institutions of tertiary education,
then these institutes will not be better
equipped to meet the challenges of the
future, no matter what system is employed. If more energy and resources
are channeled into a bureaucratic evaluation process than in identifying and
promoting young talents, then the quality of our science will not improve.
That is why I believe it is wrong to
polarize between the Anglo–American
system and the Humboldt ideal. In any
case, Humboldts spirit as good as departed from our German universities
years ago. I firmly believe that the
introduction of Bachelor and Master
degree programs opens up many opportunities to change our tertiary education
system for the better.
Talking to Each Other
The incentive and motivation of our
young people toward further personal
and professional development ultimately depends not on a particular university
system or on how stringently knowledge
and performance are evaluated. Rather,
it depends primarily on the dedication
and example set by competent, credible,
and empathic teachers. I for my part
know no better source of inspiration
than personal interaction with a counterpart who provides intellectual and
personal stimulation. Facilitating and
promoting this should be a cornerstone
of the efforts to reform tertiary education in Germany.
Now, and even more so in the future,
we need people in industry, in politics,
and everywhere in society who are not
only at the cutting edge in their particular field, but who are mature and stable
personalities with social skills and the
willingness and ability to shoulder responsibility. It is therefore a fundamen-
tal task of our educational institutions to
challenge and encourage our young
people in their personal development.
It is important now more than ever, in
particular for the elites of the future, to
exhibit not only professional expertise,
but also to contribute open-mindedness,
an ability to listen, empathy, and willingness to engage in true dialogue.
Because leadership primarily means
The elite require not only professional expertise, but must
also contribute open-mindedness to engage in true dialogue.
Because leadership primarily
means communication.
Innovation and Responsibility
At this juncture Id like to broach an
issue that has to do with poor communication and a lack of openness toward
areas beyond the confines of a specialist
discipline. Increasing specialization in
the sciences has resulted in a growing
level of wordlessness and alienation
from the public. In the chemical industry
in particular we have long been guilty of
showing too little of ourselves to the socalled “man in the street”. We have
failed to communicate the immense
benefit of chemistry. People tend to be
wary or indeed afraid of what they dont
know and dont understand. That is
what has given the chemical industry a
bad name, and nothing endures as
tenaciously as a poor reputation. Our
industry has been working for many
years to restore this lost faith.[5] Incidentally, this is an area to which universities
and university teaching staff could add
much more.
Fear of, and hostility to technology
are the poorest advisors imaginable
when it comes to shaping our future.
However, public debate all too often
tends to favor those who devote all their
efforts to exposing the risks of innovative developments whilst blocking out
their opportunities. Of course we have
to identify and minimize potential risks
in order to prevent damage to human
2006 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
health and the environment. This precautionary principle[6] is a paramount
concern of the chemical research community and industry in particular. Nevertheless, it would be nonsense to demand one hundred percent exclusion of
even the remotest risk, for to do so is a
basic scientific impossibility. To compound matters, this kind of nonsensical
misinterpretation is a complete reversion of the laudable precautionary principle. Preventing opportunities is every
bit as irresponsible as closing your eyes
in the face of real threats. Those who
misuse the precautionary principle as a
zero-risk principle not only risk paralysis and stagnation of todays societies
but are also ruining the chances of
future generations to achieve a better
quality of life.
The well-being of future generations
depends on our willingness and ability to
produce greater innovation. The European Union, and Germany as part of
that union, will be able to keep pace
internationally as a location of science
and business only if we excel in research
and development. The European Councils “Lisbon Strategy” set the target of
raising European research and development investment to 3 % of the European
Unions gross domestic product by 2010.
To achieve this target, it is not enough to
set aside the necessary financial resources; we also have to rekindle peoples
interest in and love of innovation and
I would therefore like to close by
appealing to all parties with a special
responsibility toward the public, whether they are in research and teaching, in
universities or industry, in politics or
interest groups: We are ambassadors of
progress. It is up to all of us to reach out
to the public, encourage open dialogue,
convincingly plead the case of science
and technology and their social benefits,
and enlist the support of the largest
possible number of people in the mission of shaping our future together.
2006 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
[1] Die BASF. Eine Unternehmensgeschichte
(Ed.: W. Abelshauser), C. H. Beck, M-nchen, 2002.
[2] “Notiz zur Umsetzung von 3,4-Diphenyl1,2-cyclobutendion mit Grignard-Verbindungen”: J. Hambrecht, H. Straub, E.
M-ller, Chem. Ber. 1975, 107, 3962 –
3965; “Diin-Reaktion 42. Komplexchemische Synthese substituierter 1,4-Naphthochinone und isoheterokondensierter
Benzochinone”: J. Hambrecht, E. M-ller,
Justus Liebigs Ann. Chem. 1977, 387 –
[4] Stifterverband f-r die Deutsche Wissenschaft, Vitaler Austausch, Bericht 05 – 06,
Mai 2006.
[5] See, for example, the image campaign of
VCI “Chemie. Element unseres Lebens.”;
[6] See United Nations General Assembly,
Report of the United Nations Conference
on Environment and Development, A/
CONF. 151/26 (Vol.I), August 12, 1992;
Commission of the European Communities, Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle, Brussels, February 2, 2000.
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 5052 – 5056
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