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Quo Vadis Chemistry?

May 31, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 22

More than any other time in the history of the American Chemical Society, "Where is chemistry going?" is a question that our community must address. Although the answer may not be simple, we should identify problems and strengths in order to propose solutions.

The importance of chemistry cannot be denied. It is a discipline that has been properly termed the "central science." Chemistry has given us new drugs, new materials, new energy resources, and new and cleaner manufacturing techniques. Yet chemistry is becoming a less attractive career for many young people, and we are no longer attracting as many students as we once did (C&EN, March 29, page 48). A robust talent pool is essential to our country's future in terms of scientific leadership, economic competitiveness, and national security. The erosion of interest in chemistry is therefore a matter of national concern.

The recently publicized ACS strategic plan has three goals: to provide state-of-the-art chemical information, to serve as the premier professional organization for the practitioners of chemistry, and to enhance public appreciation of the chemical sciences and technology. These are undoubtedly worthy goals, but they will not necessarily increase interest in chemistry as a profession. ACS must make a focused effort to improve and enhance the attractiveness of chemistry as a career for our nation's best and brightest students.

A robust talent pool is essential to our country's future in terms of scientific leadership, economic competitiveness, and national security. The erosion of interest in chemistry is therefore a matter of national concern.

We can identify at least three reasons for the decline of interest in the field:

◾ The study of chemistry is becoming inaccessible to a larger portion of society.

◾ Recent layoffs, increased outsourc-ing, and the growing lack of employment security.

◾ The association in the public's mind of chemicals and chemistry with pollution, environmental damage, accidents, and health problems.

ACS should take the lead role in confronting these problems.

ACS has always been involved in chemical education at all levels. The Society Committee on Education conducts a variety of programs at the elementary, high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels, and numerous magazines, books, and videos have been developed.

However, one major problem that must be confronted is that hands-on experience has become more difficult as a result of both financial and safety concerns. Increasing numbers of high schools and community colleges have downsized or eliminated laboratory courses, which are the most appealing part of chemistry for many students.

Chemistry education should not be diluted or made easy for the sake of popularity. But chemistry must be made relevant. The establishment of additional programs to provide increased access to laboratory experiences in less affluent schools would be a valuable step. In addition, academic and industrial chemists should redouble their efforts to spark curiosity, excitement, and interest in the subject with seminars, demonstrations, and exhibits.

The Professional & Employment Guidelines are revised periodically, but they have not been sufficiently publicized, and many ACS members are not aware that they exist. The membership should be informed of the details of layoffs, outsourcing, and compensation. This monitoring is critical in evaluating the corporate citizenship of employers in the chemical industry and is one of the primary duties of the Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs. The membership should know the history of various employers when evaluating whether to join their organizations. Traditionally, scientists have been recognized as highly valuable assets. The society must ensure that these values are not lost.

ACS is clearly committed to the enhancement of public appreciation of the chemical sciences, and we should continue to support these efforts. However, negative publicity has been harmful. ACS needs an aggressive and comprehensive media and public relations strategy for combating media scares and hyperbole. At the same time, the society must become more active in disseminating the positive contributions and social benefits of chemistry. ACS should sponsor a campaign of public service ads to forge a more positive image in the public's mind. Perhaps no slogan summed it up as effectively as "Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry."

In closing, it is important to remember that the achievement of these goals by ACS relies upon the persistent work of its members. All of us must take active roles in supporting and strengthening our discipline. We all have opportunities to promote our science. We must convey to our neighbors and their children our excitement for our field. We must do our best to express to corporations and government agencies the valuable nature of our work. We must speak out against irrational and chemophobic rhetoric. When we read a one-sided newspaper story, we must send letters to the editor or ask for space to write a rebuttal. The excitement of and benefits brought about by chemistry must be made known to young people. We must strive to allow all children to have access to chemical education. Such strategies will allow our future researchers, our science, and our nation to prosper.

Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the ACS Board.


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