Neckers explores science-government relationship


Jessica WhiteStaff Writer

German chemist Gerhard Schrader was thrilled with his discovery in 1936: an insecticide able to destroy farm pests and protect crops. Years later, Schrader’s research into nerve agents would be used to murder millions of European Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other innocent civilians. When the Nazi government became involved, the scientific discovery turned into a deadly political weapon.

Government doesn’t always bring out the worst in science, but it greatly influences the real-world effects of hours spent in the laboratory. In recent years, research by American chemist Douglas Neckers has led to the United States military’s development of blood stimulants that look and act like real blood. About 70 percent of deaths in combat are caused by blood loss in the first 30 minutes after injury, Neckers said, so the fake blood tricks the body until that person can get to a clinic.

Neckers, CEO of photochemical science business Spectra Group, Ltd., will discuss the relationship between science and government at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture is titled “Curiosity Didn’t Kill This Cat: Why Science Must be an American President’s Imperative.”

Neckers said he didn’t always understand or appreciate his field’s reliance on political leaders, but the case of Schrader and the nerve gas opened his eyes. He realized that the people who worked for IG Farben, one of the biggest producers of the pesticide used in gas chambers, were organic chemists just like him.

“With chemists like Schrader, it’s the curiosity that drives the research, and development and initiative of anybody who becomes a professional scientist,” Neckers said. “The next experiment has information that in your heart you need to know. What happened afterwards was the result of government interaction.”

Neckers is a distinguished research professor emeritus and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is a member on the board of directors at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown and he has written or co-written 10 books, more than 400 scientific articles and more than 60 patents. Neckers is also a lifelong Chautauquan who grew up in Chautauqua County, left to travel the world and returned in recent years with his wife, who grew up in Bemus Point.

He usually speaks to technical audiences, but Neckers said he is excited to lecture at Chautauqua, because the audience has an opportunity to make a difference in science and leadership education.

“Where does the leadership come from?” he said. “Scientists have a role to play, but so do citizens. We can start right here in Chautauqua.”

Not only is it important for seasoned Chautauquans to continue learning, but Neckers said it is crucial to encourage more college students to spend a summer at what he sees as the greatest liberal arts experience in the country.

“Even if you sweep the floors in the Amphitheater, man, what you can learn,” he said. “It’s a place that’s pregnant with thought; it’s a place that’s pregnant with opportunity. So let’s get more undergraduates at this place and let them learn from it, because they’re the leadership of the future.”