Trade Secret

Nobel laureate Alan MacDiarmid reveals a creative way scientists fund their research.

By Erica Stefanovich | October 18, 2009
Alan MacDiarmid in 2000

Alan MacDiarmid in 2000 at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now Science History Institute).

Science History Institute/Douglas Lockard

In an era of increased competition for funding it is useful to look at one’s predecessors for inspiration. How did they make their award-winning breakthroughs?

Alan MacDiarmid had a theory—and some experience with groundbreaking research discoveries. In 2000, along with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa, MacDiarmid won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of conductive polymers. Projected to make possible everything from five-millimeter-thick televisions to electronic paper, organic conductive polymers are poised to revolutionize modern technology.

Before his death in 2007, the Chemical Heritage Foundation was fortunate enough to interview MacDiarmid. Nearing the end of his career, his oral history displays remarkable candor. While in the past much has been made of his chance interactions with Shirakawa and Heeger—along with a fateful misinterpretation owing to a language barrier—one alarmingly honest confession in this oral history truly stands out. MacDiarmid claims none of his work on conductive polymers would have been possible had he not participated in what he dubbed “moonlighting.”

The work MacDiarmid started with Heeger and Shirakawa wasn’t moonlighting, according to a strict definition of the word, as there was no actual payment for the additional work—but it points to an important secret about how major scientific work is accomplished. Nothing is funded without preliminary data. One cannot receive a grant without basic proof that the science behind it is valid. But how does a researcher fund that proof? By using resources and staff already paid for by funding for other science.

Though hush-hush within the scientific community, MacDiarmid was quick to admit this trade secret. The original admission came during an interview of the 2000 Nobel laureates for the BBC. Some of his colleagues were initially embarrassed, but MacDiarmid recalls, “It turned out in the next 20 minutes of conversation that most people, if not all, said that most of their seminal work was done on moonlighting.”

MacDiarmid intimately understood the funding mechanisms within which he worked. Having risen to prominence during the boom years of the Space Race, he had developed strong relationships with funders who believed in his ability to achieve success.

Men like MacDiarmid and Heeger were especially poised for this audacious type of work. Both had well-established labs at the University of Pennsylvania by the mid-1970s. In 2005, when speaking of his attempt to convince MacDiarmid to work on organic polymers during his own CHF oral history, Heeger marveled over how lucky he was. “Here’s a guy who’s got a successful program, and because I’m lusting after poly(sulfur nitride), I’m going to convince him to drop what he’s doing,” Heeger says. Few scientists would have turned away from successful research to work on something radically different. Without MacDiarmid’s innate curiosity, and his connection to Shirakawa, this wonderful collaboration may never have happened.

Their monetary deceit was necessary. Despite his connection with Kenneth Wynne of the Office of Naval Research, MacDiarmid’s new research was not exactly met with excitement. He told Wynne about a silvery polymer that Shirakawa had shown him in Japan, and Wynne’s response was, “Do you expect me to give you a new grant because it’s something that’s silvery?” MacDiarmid wrote a proposal and continued working before any funding was allotted, as the possibilities were too exciting for him to pause and worry about where the money would come from.

It is strange to admit that so much of modern science relies on an illicit act. It is clandestine work done with resources garnered from such conservative outlets as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the National Institutes of Health that truly revolutionize science. Before publishing their groundbreaking findings in 1977, Heeger, MacDiarmid, and Shirakawa were already respected contributors in their fields, but even they couldn’t fund a project without the burden of proof.

MacDiarmid’s forthrightness is rare. Heeger’s 2006 interview with CHF reveals that though he knew the money came from somewhere, he wasn’t overly concerned about the source. He does recall meetings with MacDiarmid and the interdisciplinary coffee breaks that led to their discovery. And why shouldn’t he? It is not the funding we celebrate, but the research that came of it.

For now, scientists’ clandestine research rolls on, funding siphoned from one project to the next with no end in sight. With increased competition for funding comes a greater need to provide a basis for research. The current economic climate has increased competition and made the major funding agencies even more conservative, so moonlighting will continue. In the end, as MacDiarmid would say, it is only the science that matters.