Polymer challenges of a different kind


  • Andrew J. Lovinger

    Corresponding author
    1. Polymers Program Director, Division of Materials Research, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 22230
    • Polymers Program Director, Division of Materials Research, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 22230
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Let me start by thanking the Editor of this special issue for the invitation to offer some thoughts on the “big questions” or “grand challenges” in the polymer-physics field. This is a timely and important activity, and I am very pleased and honored to join the other colleagues who will be providing their own viewpoints.

However, I regrettably cannot offer specific research challenges because that would not be congruent with my function as a representative of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF prides itself in being responsive to the scientific community, not prescriptive. We let the community tell us what is important and timely through the proposals that it chooses to submit and especially through the evaluation and advice of our peer reviewers. And on a broader basis, we proactively listen to the community through workshops that we or other organizations may sponsor,1 or through National Academy studies and National Research Council reports.2 For example, the recommendations of ref.1 were directly transitioned onto the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative of the NSF3 and became one of its cornerstones; areas of special opportunity identified in ref.1 (e.g., novel structures and materials, biological systems, processing/manufacturing, environmental aspects) are reflected in the individual themes of this major NSF priority area.

Moreover, if I were to suggest specific “big questions” in polymer research, there is the risk that they might be misconstrued as indirect NSF solicitations and result in a flood of proposals or in the misperception that areas not mentioned may be regarded by NSF as less important. So, what I would like to do instead is to offer some “grand challenges” of a different kind – much broader ones that affect the polymer field and polymer scientists centrally, but are not commonly considered.

1. Research balance. This is a most important aspect and a direct counterweight to the trend toward “hot topics” that occur all the time. Crystalline polymers, block copolymers, conducting polymers, electrooptic polymers, liquid crystalline polymers, engineering polymers, hybrid materials, and so forth have all been viewed by many as such “hot areas” at different times in the history of polymer research. Nowadays nano- and bio- are undoubtedly the major current ones. For example, if one looks at the most cited articles in polymer journals over the last decade, the chances are high that the word “nano” would be in the title or abstract.

Yet, it is very important to remember that we have to nurture the whole field and grow the entire frontier. And even though this set of articles is supposed to be focused specifically on polymer physics, let us never forget that it is polymer chemistry on which we all rely for the design and creation of the novel materials that will be the objects of our studies. Certainly, there are exciting special opportunities, doors that open up a whole new area, timely discoveries that catalyze intense research – and nano- and bio- deservedly fit within those categories and are already yielding wonderful fundamental discoveries and practical advances. But, we always need to make sure that the core and the foundations of the discipline remain strong, that important areas across the horizon are not neglected, and that the fundamentals from which the “hot areas” of the next generation will spring forth are well nurtured. Balance and a broad perspective are a challenge for all of us – from the doctoral student who is deciding in what area to make her mark, to the new faculty who may be tempted to jump on a current bandwagon to maximize his chances for tenure, to the department chair and dean as they decide in what areas to fill faculty openings, and yes, to the program director in a funding agency who needs to keep the health and future of the whole polymer enterprise in constant focus.

2. Interdisciplinary education. Everybody has undoubtedly noticed that research is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. The way this is usually accomplished is by bringing together experts from different fields to a research collaboration or a Center. However, the real challenge is to educate our students in as interdisciplinary a fashion as is achievable while still providing rigorous training in their chosen primary discipline. This is, of course, extremely difficult (that's why I view it as a “grand challenge”) – but it is essential especially for the research world of tomorrow. Anybody who has worked in industry knows that being “the” expert in a particular technique or class of materials is just a start. When the Company needs a new or improved product, it does not care whether it will come from, say, a polymeric, inorganic, or semiconducting material; what matters is a combination of factors such as performance, price, and manufacturability. If I am viewed only as “the polymer person” rather than as a broader research-problem solver, I will be losing out in career advancement and gaining in dispensability …

Another example is seen in so many papers from certain laboratories that always tackle a problem using a particular technique. Having the world's best hammer should not turn everything into a nail (to invoke a well-worn cliché). It is incumbent upon us to provide our students with a broad interdisciplinary foundation that will allow them to interact seamlessly with scientists and engineers of different specialties, to keep learning new areas at the periphery and, over time, to help guide the protean evolution of our field.

Nowhere is this more important than in the visibly acute lack of experts straddling the physical/biological/engineering interface. This interface is at the heart of the ongoing biomedical technological revolution – and polymers are key components in its present and future. Educating our polymer students so that they are conversant in the field of biomaterials (and, more broadly, with biological scientists) is both a major challenge and a great investment in their future and that of our discipline.

3. Outreach. Oh, sure, by now we know all about outreach, right? After all, NSF has been singing its praises and urging its grantees to practice it for years now. Well, you may be surprised—and this holds especially for us polymer scientists. I can hardly think of an aspect of our mission more important than getting kids excited about science or more satisfying than seeing the look on their faces when they figure out how something works! Bringing into science and technology people from groups that have not traditionally had such opportunities is a most worthy cause for all of us and for the health of our field. Getting the public to not fear science and technology, to appreciate its monumental contributions to our quality of life, to aspire toward scientific and engineering careers for their children, and to make their elected representatives aware of how important these fields are to the future of society in the 21st century should all be parts of our mission.

However, we as polymer scientists need to do a whole lot more. I am amazed to see time and time again how ignorant the public—and frequently even fellow scientists in other disciplines—are about polymers and their pervasiveness and importance in our lives. Just look around you: isn't mostly everything you see and touch made out of polymers? How many people are consciously aware of this? And how many people realize the central importance of polymers to high technology? Just think, for example, of polymers in medicine—from all kinds of medical instruments to materials for endoscopic, catheterization, and angioplastic procedures, to infection-control barriers, intravenous tubes, dressings, and sutures, to pills, drug-delivery vehicles, transdermal patches, and targeted antitumor agents, to implants anywhere in the body, tissue engineering, intraocular lenses, dental restorative materials, and so many other applications!

How many people understand that we ourselves are mostly made out of polymers—from the DNA and RNA in all our cells, to the proteins that constitute all our muscles, tissues, and organs, to the collagen in our bones, the keratin of our skin, hair, and nails, the fibrin that prevents us from bleeding to death, and on and on ad infinitum? What fraction of the population realizes that everything in the plant kingdom is based on polymers (primarily cellulose), as is everything in the animal kingdom (primarily proteins)? How many people are aware that everything we wear is made out of polymers, whether natural (e.g., wool, cotton, leather) or synthetic (polyesters, acrylics, polyamides, etc.)? And who realizes that mostly everything we eat consists of polymers? (i.e. all the complex carbohydrates and all the proteins that comprise the healthful constituents of our nutrition; only simple sugars, oils and fats and, of course, water and trace ingredients are not polymeric).

The sad reality is that even though we live in practically a virtual polymer universe, we don't have the slightest awareness of it. Even within the field of materials, we are the “stealth material”. Show people a bridge and ask them what it is made of: they will all say metal or steel. Show them a window, they will say glass. Show them a dish or some pottery, they will mention ceramic or clay. Now show them a potato, a steak, an egg, some fish, macaroni, bread, rice, salad, and vegetables, leaves, branches, and flowers, a plastic cup, bottle, or toy, a tire, a pillow, a sofa, a shirt, a shoe, a bulletproof vest, a newspaper, a book, a photograph, a rubber-band, a pen, an eyeglass lens, a toothbrush, a diaper, a bucket of paint, a piece of wood, a CD or DVD, a flexible circuit board, etc. Ask them what they have in common or what they are made of (ask even a scientist or engineer). Will you ever hear the word “polymer”? We all know the saying that some people see the forest while others see the trees; I see polymers in both cases, and until far more people can make the same association, I believe that we have our work cut out for us.

Here is another example. A journal of the American Institute of Physics recently announced the winner of the American Physical Society's “Polymer Prize in Nuclear Physics”.4 The fact that neither the science writer nor the editors who proofread the text seemed to find anything incongruous about this may just be another indication of how poorly understood polymers are even within the scientific community.

We therefore need to reach out and educate the public about the pervasiveness, diversity, and critical importance of polymers to every aspect of our lives. And we also must do the same on the topic of polymers in our environment. So many people are under the false impression that the manufacture of polymers depletes a large fraction of oil reserves (it is only about 4%, and the public is widely unaware of polymers made out of renewable natural resources). Similarly, if you ask most people about contributors to environmental pollution, plastics will be among their first answers. Discussions and demonstrations about all aspects of recycling, the increasing role of “green manufacturing” and biodegradability, and an understanding of the environmental and societal impacts of the substitution of other materials in place of polymers could play a big role in erasing these mis-perceptions. Each of us can personally do something in all of these types of outreach.

So, here you have some “big challenges”, but of a very different kind. As you think about all the wonderfully exciting opportunities in polymer research and about the big questions offered by the other contributors to this special issue, keeping also these broader challenges in mind might be beneficial to our field and to our profession.


The author thanks Dr. Freddy Khoury for his helpful comments, and Drs. Thomas Weber, Lance Haworth, and Judy Sunley for their reading and approval of the manuscript.