Professor Vincenzo Barone, physical chemist, Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, Italy, is the new president of the Società Chimica Italiana (SCI). He started his presidency on January 1, 2011.
Here he talks about his new position, the SCI, politics, young chemists and the International Year of Chemistry to Dr. Vera Köster, Editor-in-Chief of ChemViews Magazine.
Tell us a bit about your path to the SCI presidency, please.
I have been involved with SCI for a long time. This is not surprising, I guess, since SCI traditionally represents an important reference point for people working in chemistry in Italy.
Initially, my participation was mostly limited to the scientific activities of SCI. More recently, I have been coordinator of the Inter-Divisional Group of Computational Chemistry, and then president of the Division of Physical Chemistry. In 2009, I was president of the organizing committee of the national congress of SCI. My candidacy for president was announced on that occasion.
What made you decide to accept the position?
I knew that the presidency of SCI would be a demanding job, and now that I have been in charge for a few weeks I can definitely confirm this. However, over the years I have developed several ideas for actions and strategies to promote the role of SCI and, more generally, the role of chemistry in Italy. I have exchanged views on this with a lot of colleagues which led me to decide to take on the challenge and to add my contribution.
One of the things that gives me confidence is the fact that I know I can count on the collaboration of many, many members of the society. They are willing to provide ideas, enthusiasm, work, support, and — why not — criticism, at any rate; active collaboration to shape and implement the decisions and the activities of SCI.
What is the SCI’s role in your opinion?
SCI is the largest non-medical scientific society in Italy. All aspects of the chemical disciplines in Italy are represented in SCI. Additionally, SCI tries to reflect and give voice to the different issues that have impact on the role of chemistry. Thus, in general terms, SCI promotes study and research as well as progress in and popularization of all areas of chemistry.
If SCI can do this with success, this then confers weight to its position, even in sectors that may seem far from the realm of chemical research. Therefore, it is crucial that SCI continues to provide important contributions to projects that aim at excellence in chemical sciences.
How do you plan to do this?
There are several levels that enter into play here: SCI can provide inspiration and orientation to research, e.g., by selecting specific “hot” topics that are particularly promising for the Italian chemical community. At the same time, SCI can offer visibility to important, but highly specialized areas, which are at present suffering from scarce attention by the scientific community, and help them to survive during one of the toughest periods for scientific research in Italy.
Perhaps one of the most effective means to convey our message to the general public, to scientists and professionals from other disciplines, to industrial milieus, and, of course, to political decision-makers, is by stressing the role of chemistry in specific “hot” areas. Here, chemistry emerges with peculiar clarity: topics such as energy, environmental issues, new materials, safety regulations, medical and pharmaceutical applications, are just a few of the themes that I have in mind in this context. We must be able to explain in clear terms that chemical disciplines provide a fundamental and essential contribution to a knowledge-based society.
Does politics need more scientists?
Well, I would be tempted to invert the phrase, and say that scientists need more politics. I mean, one cannot expect that scientists and, more importantly, scientifically sound perspectives, will be adequately represented at the political level unless our community is willing to invest a fair bit of effort to get there. As a matter of fact, political involvement and, conversely, political representation are particularly acute issues for the Italian chemical community.
From a personal viewpoint, even if I cannot give any figures, I am convinced that the number of fellow chemists that are actively involved at the political level is low. Perhaps this reflects the perception of a gulf between the personal abilities that characterize our professional/scientific activity, and those that are more typically required of politicians.
The lack of direct involvement of chemists in politics is one of the reasons why the role and the importance of chemistry is regularly underestimated by the political decision-makers. There is not much we can do to alter this numerical imbalence. It is, therefore, much more important to find other means to effectively represent and defend the cultural positions and political requests that emerge from the chemical community. Here, as I mentioned, SCI can play a direct and incisive role.
At an even more general level, I think we can learn an important lesson from the ways other scientific communities have adapted to boost the political influence. They nominate — at an informal but nonetheless clear level — a few members as their spokespersons and public representatives. This confers to the community a more unitary and, therefore, stronger external image, allowing for a more incisive political action.
Of course, the developement of any specific political position reflects a constant dialogue. Since then only the final decision is presented externally, these private discussions cannot be used to create divisions that weaken the overall weight of the community.
What are your goals for the presidency?
As I said, one must realize that SCI is a large organization. It operates in many different directions, concerning all aspects of chemistry, not only in Italy, but in its international relationships, primarily in the European area. There are, therefore, many activities, and it would be difficult and unfair to place them in any order of relative importance. As a matter of fact, one of the key goals of my presidency will be to allow all of them to meet their specific objectives as far as possible.
Can you give an example?
Yes, to be more concrete, I will mention educational aspects as an example. This is especially important since we are now in the process of a profound reorganization of scientific formation, both at the high-school level, and in university courses. Moreover, in chemistry, and more generally in science, high-quality education and high-quality research go hand in hand. As a scientific society, SCI can contribute to both sides of this binomial, promoting a positive synergy between chemical research and the teaching of chemical disciplines.
However, interactions at the governmental and political level are also crucial. SCI must aim at representing and defending the interests and the views of chemistry at the educational, scientific, and professional levels. These are fronts where SCI has always been present, and I think everyone will acknowledge the huge efforts put in by the previous presidents of SCI, efforts that in many cases have met with successes. Of course, I have the firm intention to follow and go further along the trail they have blazed.
Promote chemistry to the general public …
One of the most important actions — and one which is institutionally appropriate for a scientific society like SCI — is to grant public recognition to those initiatives, groups, scientists, that reach excellence in any field of chemistry. When I say this, I specifically have young researchers in mind. With the current standing of chemical research in Italy, they must face huge difficulties to follow and accomplish a scientific vocation. Any means to recognize their efforts, and to provide additional motivation, is crucial if we believe that high-quality research in Italy must have a future at all. Here, SCI will do whatever is in its powers, obviously with a specific focus on chemistry.
However, I have every reason to believe that the issue is not limited to chemical disciplines. It is, therefore, strategic to strengthen our interactions with other scientific societies that operate in fields contiguous to chemistry, ranging from physics, engineering, informatics to biology and pharmaceutical and medical sciences.
So you belive interdisciplinary cooperations are important?
Constructive collaboration with other disciplines is an asset in a much more general sense. Let me stress this in a different context: the historical and artistic importance of Italian cultural heritage is second to none. Chemistry is one of the important players on this scene, since it can provide contributions ranging from scientific studies, to preservation, conservation, and to the more general management of these invaluable treasures. However, I am convinced that adoption of a more markedly interdisciplinary approach to the problem can bring about a substantial increase of the importance of chemical disciplines in the field of cultural heritage, in Italy as well as in other European countries.
Does the SCI have many connections with other scientific societies?
The SCI has long-standing interactions with several scientific societies both in Italy — e.g., SIF (Italian Society of Physics), SIB (Italian Society of Biology), UMI (Unione Matematica Italiana) — and abroad. SCI is a member of ChemPubSoc Europe and so interacts with essentially all the national chemical societies in Europe, as well as those of Korea, Japan, USA, just to cite a few. With some of them we maintain permanent programs, e.g., exchanging conferences and other activities; with others, interactions occur on more specific occasions.
Both historical and geographical reasons converge to make Italy an ideal bridging point for scientific, educational and, more general, cultural activities that interconnect Europe with the whole Mediterranean area.
How do you get people to engage with the SCI?
Membership to SCI is open to all people that cultivate an interest in chemistry, on recommendation by two members. The annual fee is quite reasonable, and in practice can be recovered completely attending one of the many congresses organized by the society, since members enjoy reduced participation fees. An important signal, from the practical as well as ideological viewpoint is the fact, that we grant one or two years of free membership to all young colleagues who have just received their degrees in a chemistry-related discipline, provided the final grade is above a certain threshold.
Also, SCI is structured in territorial sections, thematic divisions, and inter-divisional groups. The role of younger members is emphasized in a specific inter-divisional group. All these structures are, within limits, autonomous. As a matter of fact, either individually or jointly, they manage most of the activities of the society. This capillary articulation is also instrumental in encouraging the personal involvement of members at the level of management and organization, at least initially.
Our contacts with other organizations may also represent a reason that attracts people to enrol in the society and to participate in its activities.
What does the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC 2011) mean to you?
The International Year of Chemistry represents a unique occasion and a special challenge for SCI: For the whole year, all chemistry-related activities are under special focus, and have a much better chance to reach the wider public and to make a significant impact.
Moreover, for us 2011 is a special year also because Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of national unification. Among the Italian scientists that participated in the organization of the newly born Italian state, chemists were at the forefront. A few years later, the Gazzetta Chimica Italiana was founded. This was to become the official journal of the Italian Chemical Society up to the late 1990s, when amalgamation with many other chemical journals owned by national chemical societies gave rise to a number of high-quality European journals including Chemistry – A European Journal as well as ChemViews, this online magazine. The SCI was one of the initiators of this transition, a fact that reflects the traditional propensity of Italy to advocate and participate in European and transnational initiatives.
What activities is the SCI planning for the IYC 2011?
The planned activities for the IYC include scientific and educational events as well as those to popularize chemistry. Among others, let me mention the Scientific Opening at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa on February 11, the National Congress in Lecce during September, and the Closure in Rome. The last event will involve researchers, opinion makers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and will try to define a strategy for an improved synergy among these partners for the future. You may find more information at www.chimica2011.it
Or at www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/1435503/.html
Thank you very much for your time for this interview.
Professor Vincenzo Barone obtained his degree in chemistry in 1976 at the University of Naples where he became full professor of physical chemistry in 1994. Since 2009 he has been professor of theoretical and computational chemistry at the Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa and president of the computer centre of SNS. He spent several periods as a post-doc or invited professor at the Universities of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Grenoble, Paris, Montreal, Berkley, and Barcelona.
Among others, he has been president of the physical chemistry division of the ICS, member of the editorial boards including Spectrochimica Acta A and PCCP, and is author of more than 500 papers in international journals.
His research interests span several fields of theoretical and computational chemistry, including:
- Density functional theory (development and validation of new functionals; validation of the DFT theory for spectroscopic parameters);
- Solvation theory (improvement of the Polarisable Continuum Model; implementation of the GLOB model for ab-initio dynamics with non periodic boundary conditions);
- Computational spectroscopy (new basis sets for ESR parameters; integrated approaches for line-shapes; effective Hamiltonians for treating large amplitude nuclear motions; anharmonic contributions; vibronic effects in electronic spectra; photoluminescence of nanostructures; photophysics of DNA).