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New Frontiers and Opportunities for Chemistry

by H. N. Cheng, ACS president
June 5, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 21


A photo of H. N. Cheng.
Credit: Courtesy of H. N. Cheng
H. N. Cheng

One of the benefits of serving in the American Chemical Society presidential succession is the opportunity to listen to members, colleagues, and students. These groups, particularly students, are often curious about future opportunities in chemistry. Below, are four elements of these future opportunities.

New frontiers. During the 2011 International Year of Chemistry, Nature published an editorial, stating that “Chemistry is a mature field, but its exciting, productive, and influential days are far from over.” Indeed, chemistry covers a broad spectrum of activities: emerging areas and growth areas include biochemistry, nanotechnology, sustainability, advanced materials, catalysis, drug and agrochemical development, quantum computing, electronics, and computer applications. Many research topics in these areas are promising and innovative. Some of the foremost research in biochemistry is CRISPR, modified biologics, proteomics, epigenetics, bioinformatics, therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccine developments. Advanced materials such as metal-organic frameworks, supramolecular chemistry, smart materials, and biomaterials will likely stimulate further growth of our discipline.

Multidisciplinarity. The practice of chemistry is increasingly multidisciplinary. Many advances are being made at the interface between chemistry and other disciplines, such as biology, physics, medicine, and computer technology. Artificial intelligence and robotics are expected to play an increasing role in research planning, molecule design, retrosyntheses, and instrumentation. Molecular assembly techniques can develop customized materials. Biosensors are being used for health-care monitoring, pollution control, and food-quality control. Multidisciplinary approaches are essential to achieve a sustainable future, and the United Nations sustainable development goals clearly delineate the sustainability challenges that chemists must address by working with colleagues across disciplines.

We can maximize our impact by applying our creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills to new situations.

New opportunities. In the larger picture, the greatest opportunities in chemistry appear to be in new applications. Computer science, a vibrant research area by itself, has had real, transformative impacts in advertising, finance, industry, government, and education. Likewise, chemistry is a science that is central to a rapidly changing world. We must seek new applications, revitalize older applications, and build new businesses. We can maximize our impact by applying our creativity and problem-solving skills to new situations. The grand challenges of science and technology today—sustainability, renewable energy, clean air and water, food, climate change, and diseases—are complex and require innovative approaches and application development to help solve them.

This sentiment echoes the National Science Board’s Vision 2030 report, which proposes that the US remain globally competitive in fields “of the moment” and create a research environment that will yield the next revolutionary advancements. For the practice of science and engineering (S&E) to flourish, the enterprise must also show its value. That means demonstrating how S&E can help address real-world challenges.

Collaboration. It is well known that collaboration can speed the process of innovation and commercialization. ACS is a good catalyst for collaboration. Our technical divisions are the guardians of our science and technology, and our local sections and international chapters are where the chemistry is being practiced. Together, we can combine our creativity to innovate and enhance the chemistry enterprise.

I am working with the Committee on Science and with ACS staff to produce three “Frontier Fridays” webinars on cutting-edge research areas. The speakers are Zhenan Bao, of Stanford University, who presented on May 28; Amy Prieto, of Colorado State University, on June 11; and Sir Fraser Stoddart, of Northwestern University, on June 25. On the same theme, we are organizing a presidential symposium titled “New Frontiers and Opportunities for Chemistry” at the August national meeting.

In addition, I am also working with the Division of Small Chemical Businesses, the Division of Business Development and Management, and with ACS staff to create three webinars on innovation and entrepreneurship on July 21, July 28, and Aug. 11. Another presidential symposium, “Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Collaborations,” is being organized for the August national meeting with 44 speakers.

Chemistry is a dynamic and multifaceted discipline, and opportunities will abound in the future. We need to be alert to future market needs and applications for our talents. We should promote collaborations between academia, industry, and government to facilitate the translation of lab discovery to commercial products. Finally, we should spread the word about future opportunities, not only to our colleagues and students but also to the public, so they can understand the value of chemistry. Indeed, when we work together, we can be even more successful in championing and growing the chemistry enterprise. I invite you to share your ideas on fostering innovation and collaboration at

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



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