Make Chemistry More Attractive

Make Chemistry More Attractive

Author: Vera Köster

Dr. Thomas Geelhaar, Merck KG, Darmstadt, Germany, became President of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh; German Chemical Society) in January 2014 for a two-year term. Besides improving cooperation between industry and academia, Geelhaar has a strong focus on working towards better acceptance of chemistry in society through increased scientific communication.
Dr. Vera Koester talked with him for ChemViews magazine about his plans.

Since January 1 you are the new President of the GDCh, one of the largest chemical science societies. What are your goals for your presidency?

I think if you have two years to address topics you must focus. I looked at chemistry as science and industry, especially in Germany, and looked as well at chemistry in the context of the other natural sciences. From that, I feel that we have, especially regarding the topic of chemistry and society, the necessity to explain, not only in our community, in a better way what we are doing, how we are doing research, and what our results are. But we have to improve the way we have been doing this, so far.

I looked at the organization of our society. We have, as you know, 31,000 members and 27 different groups each focusing on an aspect, be it organic chemistry, inorganic chamistry, or another area, but we have no activity related to chemistry and society. Surprisingly, this discussion is starting in the German Physical Society (DPG) at the same time, independently of us. So I suggested that during the next two years I will focus on this topic.

It means you’re starting a new working group that focuses on chemistry and society. Can you be a bit more specific about what this working group will do?

If you have a large community like the German Chemical Society you address something like this, as I did, in the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, our monthly magazine, and in other publications like Chemie in Unserer Zeit. About 30 colleagues responded to this and we have held the very first meeting and decided on the following preliminary, major goals: We designed, basically, five broader topics that should be addressed. These five topics cover more or less something which I would say could be the agenda for my two years of presidency.

So what are these five topics?

The first topic we have called “Chemistry is …”. This is an area that you from are already active in, as well as the GDCh public relations, the journal Chemie in Unserer Zeit, and others. Here we describe in a way that is also understandable for our society, what is good about chemistry, how something is working, why we describe something, etc. The aim is to broaden the reach within society. We would like to try to find out how we can build on what we already have, which is very good, and how we can bring this to the next level.
At the same time, we want to start a dialog with the community about chemistry, about industry, about issues we had in the past like nuclear energy and green biotech, as an industry or as a science, and reflect also on current issues like nanotechnology or the discussion about fracking. At the moment, even we as a chemical community, be it from the scientific side or from the industry side, are not describing what we know in a language that people in our community can understand. That’s one aspect, and the first part of the working group.

The second topic is called “Fascination”. We as chemists tend to be a little bit cautious about how we describe things. If you talk to physicists, they have no problem to call the next particle in their standard zoo the God Particle; or the biologists, they also use clearer and nicer words that are fascinating not only for their community but also for society. It is interesting, you can easily find a book called Fascinating Physics nowadays, e.g., the German “Faszinierende Physik” or “Faszination Physik”. But where is the corresponding book Fascinating Chemistry? – I have it at home: “7000 Years of Chemistry” from Otto Krätz. It is fascinating chemistry! But you see the difference: We as chemists are proud of our history, but physics and biology are able to fascinate students at school or university and others with their science in a much better way than we can. Why is this? Is it our language? Is it our tendency to stay inside our certain silos within chemistry?
In this group we want to look at these questions and find out whether we are open to certain areas outside of our own community. Are we open not only to interdisciplinary outreach, to what we are doing with physicists and biologists and so on, but also to the so-called transdisciplinary field?
This is similar to what we described for group one, but on a different level. We would like to address this under the headline “Fascinating Chemistry – Are we Using the Right Language?”.

The third topic is to communicate science in the future in a slightly different way, especially with respect to new technologies and especially under the, let’s say, perception that technology is widely accepted nowadays.
If we have a new technology – let’s take the example of nanotechnology again – we have to talk about chances and risks and not only describe it in terms of selling science.
The November/December study of the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR; Federal Institute for Risk Assessment) found that, both in media as well as in public, investigations on nanotechnology are perceived more from the positive aspects and more from the chances than the risks. If I discuss this study in the community, they are surprised by this. They did not expect that the people out there would like to have more details but have no negative opinions so far.
So let’s try to use this latest research, involving social sciences, involving academies, and so on, to approach the public differently in the future for the next generation of topics, such as yellow biotechnology or artificial photosynthesis.

We looked at this in the second and the first group. Therefore, we also want to reflect this third aspect in group one and group two. So there are different colleagues approaching this in different ways.

And the fourth topic?

The forth topic is related to the great challenges of our world. When focusing on the great challenges in the past, chemistry focused on the art of synthesis, catalysis, developing capabilities in inorganic or organic chemistry, and the latest advances be it for medicinal chemistry or for agrochemistry or materials science – so our core topics. The next important level is to look into the disciplines of biology and physics. Where is chemistry going in terms of biochemistry/life science? This is for me the largest trend at the moment, where most of the activities are directed to. The second largest trend is directed to materials sciences.
We need to consider, where we are coming from and direct the interdisciplinary approach between chemistry and physics, physical chemistry, nanotechnology, materials science to where we are going to, for example, to sustain our wealth.

On the other hand we are standing before three major challenges, that is, the question of shortage of resources, the question of the future of our energy supply, and our response to climate change. We should describe how we can approach these great challenges, in chemistry, not only from the small questions of doing another synthesis in a more efficient or sustainable way, but address these topics on a higher level, in terms of sustainable chemistry, sustainable development of not only our country but on the global scale. What are we contributing to the sustainable development in general?
For this fourth topic we feel that interdisciplinary activities with biology and physics are on a much, much higher level. The task is also to build a bridge between chemistry and earth sciences.

Here, we need to look at our general conferences in chemistry and see how activities and discussions of the topics, resources, energy, climate, and sustainable development, can be moved to a similar level as the topics of the third group, life sciences, materials sciences, in chemistry. To have a sustainable development I would like to see that after two years this topic is a little bit higher on the agenda than now.
But this is more than a nice exercise for two years and then it is done. Therefore, we have a fifth group: it focuses on education.

What does it mean if we have all these nice thoughts and activities? We have to play this back into the first group, where we say we have to communicate in a better way. But we also have to look whether this is included in education at schools, universities, in dual education in industry, and also outside.
What we think about and develop in these four groups should be discussed and included in the activities of the part of the German Chemical Society related to education in school, university, and outside.
Therefore, I see these five groups as forming a circle where we decide what we develop, find out what big challenges should be investigated, and whether this is taught.
I think, the methods of chemistry education are still the same as in the past. And again the other disciplines moved further and decided that they don’t want to continue teaching encyclopedic and historic facts to our next generation of students. I think biology and geosciences have already made a transition to new concepts. We need to think about what this means for chemistry.

So, that’s the agenda.

That sounds a lot and is very interesting indeed.
So do I understand you correctly that, for example, the third group develops the large idea on what to communicate about a new technology including maybe how to integrate this in everyday life, and this then is going back to the first group who is thinking of how to best do this and to the fifth group who will develop ideas on how to best include this into education material?

We said that we have to make close interactions between the groups so that we are not moving in different directions. I think, as you said, the key point will be to first develop or identify concrete activities and then reflect that as soon as possible into the standard communication and into education to make step-by-step changes. With this we also plan certain activities, for example, to increase dialogue, to use our biannual conference, the next one will be in Dresden, to address a topic, and use other activities that are running. For example, the German Museum (Deutsches Museum) in Munich is planning an exhibition called Anthropocene. The atmospheric chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen introduced this term to describe the idea of a new geological era starting around 1800 that is shaped by the deep interventions of humans into nature as biological and geological agents. We have to find out what the contributions of each area of science and technology are to such a discussion.

In 2015 we have the UNESCO Year of Light. We are already starting to discuss how we can make, maybe together with the other disciplines, transparent how chemistry is thinking, but not only as a science in a silo, but also to motivate, to make it vivid, for example, with OLEDs, or colorful pigments.

You said that the Physical Society is having a similar trend and focusing more on communication to the public?

I heard this from our colleagues. They have, for example, created the Physics Highlights. This is a follow up to the International Year of Chemistry or Physics, which we had. They also have every year a one-week conference in another city where they mobilize 10,000 people to join in an initiative with which they aim to make the physics part of natural science more visible to the public. We don’t have something like that. They also have a special activity every October: After the Nobel Prize committee has announced the latest Nobel Prize winners, the physics community meets and creates a press release. In chemistry, we tend to be a little more cautious and more down to earth and stay more within our community.

So are there other societies, in Germany or maybe internationally, that we can learn from or cooperate with?

I think the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK has done a very good activity in 2009 when they focused on the ten highlights for the future of chemistry. We did a similar approach a few years ago in the German Chemical Society when we addressed about 25 major research topics. But this came from inside our community and the topics included, for example, graphene as an exciting development. The ten highlights for the future of chemistry focused on challenges, like energy, that come from societal challenges. It is easier to start like this and then describe what our contribution is rather than came from the other side and say look here, our latest advances in catalysis or whatever are … then you are limited to a smaller community to talk to.

Are there any plans to talk with other societies or exchange best practice?

I’m very excited to meet with the European community in Istanbul at this years’ EuCheMS meeting. I am also very excited that in Istanbul two of our six tracks will be “Chemistry and Society” and “Resources and the Environment”. That means these two topics are covered on the European agenda. I think it is a good opportunity to discuss this on a European level because these are not national or local issues to discuss, but global issues.

On the UN level, there are activities such as the recently established Scientific Advisory Board for Global Challenges through the UN secretary and from there to every country. They are giving recommendations from every discipline on how to contribute to the development of topics like energy and climate. On a European level we can bring in our recommendations much easier than on an individual country level.

So where do you see the position of the GDCh in Europe or internationally?

In Europe, as we all know, we are the second largest community and I am very confident that with our strong experience and excellence in basic research and our very good preconditions with university research and also with that of other institutes, such as the Max Planck Institutes, we can demonstrate what is the forefront of, let’s take energy research and other topics. On the other hand, we definitely have our success with the chemical industry, which is also a very good base. Therefore, I think the German Chemical Society plays a very important part on the European level.

When did you become a member of the GDCh?

That is a very good question because, as you might have seen, I am a physical chemist and if you are a physical chemist your institute normally asks you to become a member of the Physical German community, which is the Bunsen Gesellschaft. I was a member for many years there and, frankly speaking, I only joined the German Chemical Society when I was proposed to come onto the board; in other words, in 2007. So I am not new to chemistry but new to the German Chemical Society.

Why is working for the GDCh important for you?

I think it is very exciting because, on the one hand, we have a very broad community from every aspect of chemistry. And on the other hand, we have the many exciting and bright ideas of the young chemists as well as the activities of the senior chemists.

Moreover, it is a community which is very open to take up new topics. Two years ago we focused on equal opportunities, four years ago we had energy research high on our agenda.

Can you say a bit about your career path?

I have been with Merck for 30 years now. Before that, I did my Ph.D. in physical chemistry in Mainz. I joined Merck in 1984 and worked 20 years in the field of liquid crystals in research. I was head of a marketing division in Japan and since seven years I am Chief Technology Officer looking into future topics and technologies and into activities like representation in societies like the German Chemical Society but also the Industry Association of the Chemical Industry of Germany (VCI). So now I am no longer involved in actual research myself but more from recommendations what could be future topics for the company and also for public-private partnerships.

And a last question. What do you do in your spare time?

We are living in the beautiful area called Taunus close to Frankfurt. It is a mountain area and every weekend my wife and I go hiking in the clean and fresh air and enjoying the nature there.

Thomas Geelhaar, born 1957, studied chemistry at the University of Mainz, Germany, from 1975 to 1981 and received his Ph.D. in 1983 in physical chemistry. In 1984, he began his career at Merck as a laboratory manager in liquid crystal research. Since then he has held several leadership positions in the Liquid Crystals Division. Today Geelhaar is Senior Vice President, Chief Technology Officer Chemicals, and the spokesperson for chemistry research at Merck.
Since January 2014 he is the President of the GDCh.

Image © GDCh

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