Münster (upm/nor).
David MacMillan is a pioneer of photocatalysis with visible light. He will receive an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy for his outstanding research in this field.<address>© Corinne Strauss</address>
David MacMillan is a pioneer of photocatalysis with visible light. He will receive an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy for his outstanding research in this field.
© Corinne Strauss

"I love the creativity of my work"

Nobel laureate David MacMillan on the honorary doctorate, scepticism towards chemistry and the US elections

In recognition of his outstanding research in the field of catalysis and molecular chemistry, the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Münster will be awarding David MacMillan (56) an honorary doctorate on 11 June. Together with his colleague Benjamin List, the Scottish-born chemist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2021. Norbert Robers spoke with David MacMillan, who is currently working as a professor at Princeton University in the USA, about the award, the reputation of chemistry and about the upcoming football match between Germany and Scotland on 14 June.


Your list of awards is long: a Nobel Prize, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, to name just two. What does the honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Münster mean to you?

Honestly, it’s special for me. First: Germany is the birthplace of modern chemistry. Second: The chemistry department at the University of Münster is among the top departments in the world. In my area, organic catalysis, some of the worldwide superstars like Frank Glorius, Armido Studer and Ryan Gilmour are working in Münster. As a scientist, you never feel good enough – that’s why this is a great honour for me to get this award.

What role does Münster play in your field?

I have named just three of your superstars. But it’s more than that. The whole department is well known for its great achievements. When I’m talking about my work with my US colleagues, we often come back to what has been achieved in Münster. I travel a lot to visit colleagues – but I mean it honestly when I say that I am really looking forward to my visit in Münster.

You originally had completely different career plans. As a teenager, you wanted to play in a band like your friends. Instead, you now stand at the podium in lecture halls. That’s quite far away from your original goal, isn't it?

It is and it’s not. Recently I had to give a speech in North Carolina – to 25,000 people. It’s fantastic to get so many people laughing and caring about your work and about science. As a researcher, I love the creativity, the innovations and the impact of my work. So all this isn’t so different from playing in a band and getting the response from the audience.

How do you explain the importance of catalysis to people who don’t understand chemistry as well as you do?

First of all, I’m happy that Germany has a much better appreciation for chemistry than almost every other country in the world. Everything you see is the product of a chemical reaction. Catalysis is just a way of making chemical reactions possible or to accelerate them. For example, we couldn’t have eight billion people on earth without catalysis. The impact of catalysis is just everywhere, and it’s enormous – think about sustainability, climate change and renewable energy. All of that is based on catalysis.

Let me return to something you said earlier: You think that chemistry has a better reputation in Germany than anywhere else in the world?

Yes, definitely. Because the word ‘chemistry’ has huge negative connotations for the rest of the world. It’s a problem of communication. When you think of physics, you think of black holes or Albert Einstein. When you think of biology or medicine, you think of ways to improve the human experience. But when you think of chemistry, you often think of chimneys belching toxic smoke, pollution or oil spills in the ocean. Chemistry has a very bad reputation in people’s minds – and not for very good reasons. Germans understand why the chemical industry has been so important to the world and especially to German society for many decades. They have an appreciation of the underlying value of chemistry. It’s fantastic and it’s clever. My job is trying to communicate to the rest of the world how to think about chemistry the right way. That’s why catalysis is so important, because most people understand that with catalysis you can do things that are not so easy. Catalysis has a very positive connotation.

If I may, I’d like to talk a little about politics. The whole world is eagerly awaiting the presidential elections on 5 November in the USA. What are your feelings and expectations ahead of Election Day?

I don’t want to get too deep into politics. Since winning the Nobel Prize, I’ve had the opportunity of meeting lots of interesting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, including politicians. On the whole, I’ve enjoyed meeting people from other walks of life more than politicians. Ultimately you have to live with what has happened in a democracy, you have to respect the will of the people.

Sorry, but I’d like to follow up: Donald Trump or Joe Biden as the next president? Which one is better for science?

Under President Trump, the amount of money allocated to the basic sciences actually increased. For a special reason: I suppose that Trump and his administration simply didn’t understand what was going on – it was not part of his agenda. At the same time, scepticism against science massively increased. And that’s what worries me more than anything else. Since then, a lot of people undervalue what academia is doing for society. This is an extremely dangerous scenario. We have to stop this tendency of disrespecting and mistrusting science – not only in the US, but worldwide. Scientists are trying their best to improve society; all scientists are working very hard for that. Scientists are part of the working class who are trying to help others climb to the top of the mountain. Nevertheless, a lot of people tell me that science is dispensable which is a terrible viewpoint.

Finally, let’s talk about the most important minor matter in the world: soccer. On 14 June Germany will be playing against Scotland in Munich. I hear you have tickets and will be there in person. Can you still sleep at all?

I know that the result won’t be good for Scotland. But anyway, it will be a magical opportunity for me to go to Munich and see the opening match of the European championship – it’s a huge privilege. I’ve been soccer-crazy as long as I can remember. On the one hand, I don’t really care about the score. On the other hand, most Scottish people would do anything or even give their lives for a success in soccer. And to be honest, I would even give up my Nobel Prize for Scotland to make a World Cup final …

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