Science Wednesday: Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Chemical Safety for Sustainability

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Jeff Morris, PhD

All our lives we have been cautioned against trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The metaphor itself is constructed to make such an effort seem foolish and just a bit unsavory: forcing the hard edges of a square into the smooth curves of a circle evokes a certain violence and violation of geometric propriety. And the message behind the saying is clear: don’t try to join things that clearly don’t belong together.

However, fitting square pegs into round holes is just what we are doing in EPA’s Office of Research and Development: we are encouraging new collaborations between scientific disciplines to formulate innovative science questions to address chemical safety. We think this is a very good thing, but it does raise questions.

What, for instance, does cultural anthropology have to do with molecular design? Perhaps nothing; or perhaps quite a bit. A cultural anthropologist would be interested in how a society’s institutions shape the tools it creates and how it uses those tools. A chemist or engineer designs a chemical or material object with some intention in mind. (Design implies intent: nobody creates something for no reason). Once designed, how will society use the new chemical or material? Importantly for EPA, will it be used in a way that minimizes impact on, or perhaps even improves, the environment and human well-being? Neither the chemist nor the anthropologist alone can answer these questions. But perhaps the two of them, together with environmental scientists, can. Maybe a fit can be found for a square peg within a round hole.

Finding flex in the square peg/round hole metaphor doesn’t mean forcing fits that don’t make sense. In EPA’s Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program, sometimes we will need to just let chemists do their chemistry within their own disciplinary space. However, all the while we can be mindful that sometimes square edges can be rounded off and the walls of circles stretched, and bringing together very different scientific disciplines can lead to the shaping of innovative research questions that take science in new and rewarding directions. Since old ways of working within disciplinary boundaries have not always given us science and technology that has advanced environmental sustainability, perhaps it’s time to not take as given old sayings and metaphors, and see if we can’t fit a few square pegs into round holes.

About the author: Jeff Morris, PhD is the National Program Director for Nanotechnology in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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