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Comment: We need to change the way we do chemical research

by Matthew A. Fisher, chair, ACS Committee on Science
September 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 32


Matthew A. Fisher
Credit: Courtesy of Matthew A. Fisher
Matthew A. Fisher

A quarter of the US gross domestic product comes from sectors reliant on the US chemical economy, according to the recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report The Importance of Chemical Research to the U.S. Economy. In addition, chemical patents represent 14% of all corporate patents between 2000 and 2020, but they account for 23% of the value of these patents in the same period. The report notes, “For centuries, chemistry has played a central role in producing a body of scientific knowledge leading to products, processes, and technologies that have transformed health, energy, food and water production, and many other critical components of human well-being.” But the report also highlights some not-so-​glorious observations of the field. Specifically, it recommends changing the way chemical research is carried out in the US to address challenges facing the sector and to maintain a high standing in the international landscape.

Many of these recommended changes are linked to the need to reduce the chemistry enterprise’s environmental footprint. We must find ways to do chemistry that continue to improve humanity’s quality of life while mitigating negative impacts on the environment. An important part of this process will be transitioning from a linear material economy, in which the final outcome for materials is disposal, to a circular material economy, in which we convert goods at the end of their lives into resources for other uses. Working more sustainably will require the chemistry enterprise to adopt a much wider use of strategies from green chemistry, including designing for energy and material efficiency and finding new catalysts for chemical reactions.

Together, we can work toward moving the chemistry enterprise forward so that it can have the greatest impact on people’s lives both in the US and worldwide.

Another challenge highlighted in the report is the need to learn how to manage extremely large chemical datasets so that they are easy to use and share with others. Making chemical data accessible to other researchers overwhelmingly benefits the advancement of science. We also need to develop approaches for sharing negative results in the same way that the outcomes of successful experiments are shared, so that others can build on those results. In addition, technological advances must continue apace to provide the measurement, automation, computation, and catalysis tools needed to solve real-world problems, such as those outlined in the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Chemistry curricula should be adapted to ensure that we train a diverse workforce to be our next generation of chemical researchers—a necessity if we are to meet the future needs of the chemistry enterprise. And we must secure sufficient funding to achieve all the above. Some other countries, including China, have seen larger investments in their chemistry enterprise in recent years and, as a result, have achieved more rapid advances in chemical research than the US.

The National Academies report contains recommendations for actions by academic, industrial, and government sectors of the chemistry enterprise. The National Academies won’t be providing guidance and follow-up to ensure the implementation of the report’s recommendations. That is not the role of the National Academies as laid out in their charters. Organizations like the American Chemical Society will need to work with a range of agencies (such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the US Department of Energy) as well as with private foundations to ensure that appropriate time, effort, and funds are put forward to make the report’s recommendations a reality.

The ACS Committee on Science discussed the National Academies report during its meeting at ACS Fall 2023 in San Francisco. One question we considered was what ACS could do to support, encourage, and motivate action on the report recommendations. Several of the current ACS strategic initiatives relate directly to these recommendations: the Campaign for a Sustainable Future, Fostering a Skilled Technical Workforce, and Accelerating Digital Research Data Products. Each of these initiatives targets an important aspect identified by the report as an area for improvement and change. Other ideas that came up in our discussion were taking new approaches to programming at ACS meetings to highlight the critical emerging areas identified in the report, finding fresh ways to encourage K–12 students to become part of the chemical workforce, and having ACS take a leadership role in the development of new ways to store, manage, and share data.

I encourage ACS members to read The Importance of Chemical Research to the U.S. Economy. Download the report for free at If you have an idea to contribute to the conversation, please contact us at Together, we can work toward moving the chemistry enterprise forward so that it can have the greatest impact on people’s lives both in the US and worldwide.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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