Chemistry should, however, be able to sell its merits more easily than a scientific branch like physics, simply because the link between basic research and practical innovations is much more visible.
“Physicists look at the stars and the theoretical laws of the universe. Chemists look at molecules and the characteristics you can deduce from them,” explains Jean-Marie Solvay. “But fundamental research is important for both. Someone who discovers a new material doesn’t do that with the idea at the back of their mind of building a lighter or stronger aircraft.”
One of those people is Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn from Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg. Lehn also sits on the jury for the Chemistry of the Future Solvay Prize. “It may sound harsh, but for me the social importance of my discoveries is secondary to the discovering itself. Without fundamental research you gain no knowledge, and hence no applications. I focus on the former – you can only do so much.”
Professor Lehn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1987, together with Donald Cram and Charles Pedersen. They discovered that the three-dimensional shape of molecules is crucial to their chemical and biological functions. Hormones and enzymes, for instance, can link to cells, like keys that fit a lock. The scientists also developed synthetic molecules that mimic the behaviour of enzymes. Among other things, that makes it possible to develop tailor-made medication. “The fact that I’m not developing all this myself doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the applications resulting from my discoveries.”