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The chemical sciences are key to the world’s biggest challenges

by Angela K. Wilson, ACS president-elect
December 5, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 44


Angela K. Wilson.
Credit: Harley J. Seeley
Angela K. Wilson

When I look back on 2020 and 2021, I am particularly proud to be a chemist. The impact that chemical scientists have made toward addressing COVID-19, as well as the continuous evolution we have had in translational research and the creation of new chemical businesses during these challenging times have been both impressive and inspirational. Before the pandemic, I met with a US legislator who indicated that science had become more like a special interest than a priority and more scientists needed to be making our case about the importance of investments in science. Shortly thereafter, science took center stage, and its importance became clear to much of the world, despite the unfortunate circumstances. We need to build on this moment and continue to communicate to the public and to US and world leaders about the importance of the chemical sciences and their impact on the environment, health, security, and the economy, as well as the need for investments in our discipline.

With much of the world considering United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it is clear that the chemical sciences are central to addressing many societal challenges, including energy, health, the environment, and clean drinking water. Indeed, our natural resources are scarce, as demonstrated by the limited abundance of many chemical elements in Earth’s crust. R&D is increasingly driven toward these considerations. Petroleum chemistry, which includes so many vital by-products for which there are currently no simple substitutions, continues to have a critical impact on our lives and the economy. We need to communicate this reality while continuing to push the frontiers of energy sources and storage.

In looking toward the future of chemistry, incredible advances in technology are upon us or are quickly emerging that have the potential to transform many dimensions of the field. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are quickly growing data-driven discovery and molecular and materials design. Quantum computing is on the horizon, with qubit systems becoming increasingly available. While technological challenges remain—some of which need to be solved by chemists—the promise of this new paradigm of computing is increasing steadily day by day. C&EN indicated in 2017 that computational chemistry is the “killer app” for quantum computing, and this new computing paradigm will have an impact on nearly every aspect of our careers and lives once it becomes a more widespread reality.

It is vital to ensure that the chemical sciences community is equipped to address both current and future challenges. Training opportunities in new areas of technology are important not only for chemistry students but for all chemists who wish or need to gain from the technology. And providing greater preparation for career opportunities—in areas such as entrepreneurship—can help spawn innovation and growth in the field. Giving chemical scientists who plan to pursue industrial careers greater insight into the reality and demands of their future careers is also important. For many chemical scientists, the day of their interview is the first day they ever set foot in an industrial or government setting, and their second day is the day that they start their employment. These areas all suggest that paradigm shifts in career preparation are needed.

Chemical sciences have immense potential to impact not only the world’s greatest challenges but also the frontiers of science.

To meet the science, technology, engineering, and math workforce demands of the future, we must also address what the National Science Board Vision 2030 report called the “missing millions”: the number of people from underrepresented groups in chemistry who are needed for the future workforce. There is strength in diversity, but the pipeline is leaky at all levels. We all need to make investments—often investments of time—to help encourage and support our younger chemists and potential chemists to ensure a vibrant future workforce. And we should consider how to better support chemists and potential chemists with disabilities—visible and hidden—to ensure that all career sectors have supportive pathways that extend beyond the programs offered by colleges and universities.

While we may continue to experience restrictions next year—including travel limitations, work from home, and masking—ACS continues to deliver networking, training, and educational programs virtually, providing important routes to engage with chemical scientists from across the globe.

As we look toward 2022, and as I look toward my year as president of the American Chemical Society, these are the topics on my mind. The ever-evolving and ever-growing chemical sciences have immense potential to impact not only the world’s greatest challenges but also the frontiers of science. I look forward to engaging with the chemistry community as we work together toward a vibrant future.

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



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