2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Did the 'Right' Science Get Its Due?

As president of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, I applaud the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Some might wonder about the world's most prestigious chemistry prize being awarded for research in biology and medicine. Drama and controversy often accompany selection of Nobel Prize winners. But in the past, controversy usually involved questions on whether the Nobel selection committees gave credit to the right people. The 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry may be raising questions about whether the right science got its due.

Robert J. Lefkowitz, of Duke University, and Brian K. Kobilka, of Stanford, are M.D.s, medical doctors, not the Ph.D.s who mainly populate the corridors of chemistry. Although medical doctors, both new Nobel laureates do have strong chemistry connections. Lefkowitz, for instance, is a professor of medicine and biochemistry. Kobilka's undergraduate degree is in both biology and chemistry and Lefkowitz's undergrad is in chemistry. They have published more than 30 research research papers in ACS' suite of more than 40 peer-reviewed scientific journals, and all of those articles are being made available without charge for the next week. The topic of the prize -- G protein-coupled receptors -- also has received extensive coverage in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly that is a mainstay for chemists, policymakers, and others around the world. One was a cover story.

Chemistry was the most important science for Alfred Nobel's famous research -- the invention of dynamite, an explosive safer than nitroglycerin that preserved life and limb for the workers who built bridges, roads and the infrastructure of modern society. In Nobel's day and, indeed, until well into the 20th century, chemistry was chemistry. Biology was biology. Medicine was medicine. Chemists developed the medications that doctors used to treat disease. But to a large extent, there were more-or-less distinct boundaries between scientific research in biology-medicine and chemistry.

But the chemistry of today is no longer the chemistry of Alfred Nobel's time, or even of a few decades ago. Things have changed. The traditional borders between chemistry and other fields -- especially biology -- are blurring. And I think the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was a fantastic development, a dramatic illustration of how chemistry has become so central to other fields of science. There have been others. Remember the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry? It was biology at heart -- for research on how structures called ribosomes translate the genetic code in DNA into the proteins of life. Biology's overlap into these prizes should not be surprising. After all, living things are chemical systems, the most complicated chemical systems imaginable. And life stripped to its most basics is a series of chemical reactions. Chemistry permeates all the sciences. It's importance is so all-pervasive that chemistry not only has broken down traditional barriers in science, but even risks losing its own identity.

The 2012 Nobel Prize relates directly to chemistry and chemistry's role in all science, especially the biological sciences. Thousands of pharmaceutical chemists, for instance, rely on this work every day in the quest to develop new medicines. Fully half of our prescription drugs have connections to G protein-coupled receptors and more are in the works. Biology and chemistry -- the molecular sciences -- have walked hand-in-hand since life first appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago. And they are marching together into the 21st century for the benefit of humanity, promising to solve some of the great global challenges. These challenges include population growth, limited natural resources, malnutrition, disease, climate change, violence and war, and the denial of basic human rights -- especially the right to benefit from scientific and technological progress.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to G-coupled protein receptors. The correct name for this research is actually G protein-coupled receptors.