I had an interesting email in response to my post on returning from the SciFoo meeting. I have to say, there weren't too many chemists at that one - not that it's a representative slice of science, to be sure. (Theoretical physicists and computer science people were definitely over-represented, although they were fun to talk to).
But perhaps there's another reason? I'll let my correspondent take it from here:
I worry a lot about organic chemistry, about the state of the discipline. I worry about the relative lack of grand challenges, and that most academic work is highly incremental and, worse, almost entirely the result of screening rather than design. There is still so little predictive power (at least in academia) in drug or catalyst discovery. I have a theory that the reason we're so brutal with each other in paper and grant refereeing is because we're essentially dogs under the table fighting for scraps.
There are big exceptions, which make me excited to be a scientist. There's usually something in Nature Chemistry that has the wow factor, for example. They're just so rare. . .
He went on to point out that other fields have results that can wow a general audience more easily, which can make it harder for even excellent work in chemistry to get as high a profile. As for that point, there may be something to it. High-energy physics and cosmology would, you'd think, be abstract enough to drive away the crowds, but they touch on such near-theological questions that interest remains high. (Why do you think that the press persists in calling the Higgs boson the "God particle"?) And biology, for its part, always can call on the familiarity of everyone with living creatures, possible relevance to medical advances, and the sheer fame of DNA. All these fields have lower-profile areas, or ones that are harder to explain, but they always have the big marquee topics to bring in the crowds.
Chemistry's big period for that sort of thing was. . .well, quite a while ago. We're at one remove from both the Big Overarching Questions at the physics end and the Medical Breakthroughs at the biology end, so our big results tend to get noticed according to how they relate to something else. If (for example) chemists achieved some breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis, it would probably be seen by the public as either physics or biology, depending on the inorganic/organic proportions involved.
But what about the first point: are we really running out of big questions to answer in this field? It's easy to think so (and sometimes I do myself), but I'm not so sure. Off the top of my head, I can think of several gigantic advances that chemistry could help to deliver (and hasn't yet). Room-temperature organic superconductors. That artificial photosynthesis I mentioned, to turn the world's excess carbon dioxide into organic feedstocks. Industrial spider-silk production. Small molecules to slow the aging process. A cheap way to lay down diamond layers on surfaces. And I haven't even mentioned the whole nanotechnology field, which is going to have to depend on plenty of chemistry if it's ever to work at all.
Now, it's true that looking through a typical chemistry journal, you will not necessarily find much on any of these topics, or much to make your pulse race at all. But that's true in the journals in even the most exciting fields. Most stuff is incremental, even when it's worthwhile, and not all of it is even that. And it's also true that of the big chemistry challenges out there, that not all of them are going to need organic synthesis to solve them. But many will, and we should be encouraging the people who feel up to taking them on to do so. Not all of them do. . .