Who could have predicted that I would serve as president of the American Chemical Society in 2020 almost exactly in synchronization with the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic? It was a very eventful year that changed the lives of most people in the world and continues to provide us all with multiple challenges and uncertainties. We are constantly chasing new mutant strains and preparing new vaccines and therapeutic agents against them in a race that seems impossible to predict or fully control, because we are at the mercy of a tiny entity that kills human beings—without willful intent but very efficiently. Our lives have drastically changed: many of us wear masks and wash our hands frequently to minimize the chances of infection, work from home to avoid human contact, and have learned how to communicate reasonably efficiently using multiple virtual platforms. How much longer is this going to last? We don’t really know. Will we have to learn how to live with it on an annual basis like we do with the flu? It seems likely.
My last official ACS trip in 2020 was to Israel, where I gave the opening plenary lecture at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Israel Chemical Society in Jerusalem on Feb. 18. The next time I attended an in-person meeting on behalf of ACS was 18 months later at the Rocky Mountain Regional Meeting in late October 2021. I managed to give many virtual lectures nationally and internationally in 2020–21 after becoming proficient in using Zoom, but I admit that I am not a fan of these. The lack of personal contact limits the extent of the interactions and stifles the possibilities of establishing collaborations, especially new ones. In my view, virtual meetings are effective at communicating mostly published or soon-to-be-published results that can be easily read online at your leisure. After holding research group meetings online for about a year, returning to face-to-face discussions in 2021 was like a totally new and rewarding experience, with strong interactions and productive exchanges that did not happen through a 2D screen.
Will things ever return to “normal,” whatever the word means? I think it is evident that we will return to a different order of things, perhaps a hybrid world where the integration of all platforms, in-person and virtual, will be seamless and conducive to better communication and even to higher productivity. I envision an evolution from 2D to 3D communication platforms that are at least as good as in-person contacts—perhaps even augmented in some ways.
I want to end this Comment by saying that 2020 was a year of fundamental changes, some specifically resulting from racial unrest. Particularly significant was the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by White Minneapolis police officers. The killing initiated dramatic protests across the globe, marking the beginning of a new era in racial awareness and activism against all forms of racism and discrimination in general. ACS took a very strong position to condemn this murder and, perhaps more importantly, it started a very intentional and active communication strategy with its leadership teams that have led to true changes in how the society approaches issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR). DEIR is now included among the core values of ACS, and in December 2020, the ACS Board approved the addition of a fifth goal for the society, “Embrace and Advance Inclusion in Chemistry.” Goal 5 states, “Promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect; identify and dismantle barriers to success; and create a welcoming and supportive environment so that all ACS members, employees, and volunteers can thrive.” These additions and changes are now an integral part of the fiber of ACS and are being strengthened by the creation and launch of a new ACS Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Respect, which is headed by a new vice president who reports directly to the CEO. These initiatives and changes clearly say that ACS is strongly committed to DEIR and is on its way to providing an inclusive environment in the society to welcome all our talented members without exceptions. It’s a shame that these changes had to derive from tragic happenings in 2020, but I am thankful that we have progressed because of them.
The ACS of the future will provide an environment where all its members have a sense of belonging across every level of the society, prepare and hold leaders accountable for DEIR performance, provide rewards and recognitions that reflect inclusivity and involvement of new members, and ensure that communications are transparent, accessible, and consistent.
My presidential year was full of challenges and difficult situations, but some of the outcomes, such as our new collective commitment to DEIR, were well worth the effort. ACS is now a society ready for the 21st century, and we hope that our large membership works together so that we can reach new heights.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.