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A Chemist's Carol

January 17, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 3

There is no doubt that the chemistry enterprise in the U.S. is changing rapidly, and this concerns many of our members. With change comes opportunity, but it is difficult to take advantage of change without understanding what it might bring.

To help with this understanding, I've designed one of my major presidential projects, Enterprise 2015, as a visioning exercise of the state of chemistry in the U.S. 10 years from now. Enterprise 2015 will proceed in three steps, and its success will depend on the engagement of ACS members in the process.

The first step involves analyzing the current situation and the forces driving the enterprise. I am working closely with the chemistry community and an outside consultant to bring this together. In step two, we will seek to envision the possible consequences of those forces as they act on the various parts of our discipline--industry, academe, and government. In step three, we will distill the many views of the future into a single document that will provide a glimpse of where we, the members of ACS, think our field is going.

This ACS Comment is written to announce the availability of the Situation Analysis paper. To generate this paper, we interviewed 30 leaders of industry, academe, and government and asked them whether they perceived that their area of the discipline was changing, and if so, to describe the vectors driving that change. The document, written to include all those points of view, is available at the project website,

It's a short paper--easily read in a few minutes. The observations of our interviewees are organized under five overarching topics: the shape of the enterprise; economic issues; science and technology; education, workforce, and career; and government policy. There are common themes that run through all these topics as well: multidisciplinarity, cost, and globalization, among others. We hope the paper will provoke thought and discussion about where our students and scientists will come from and where our schools, our businesses, and our careers are headed.

While I recognize this comparison comes a bit late for the season, the steps of this exercise are analogous to the story in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." As you no doubt remember, in this story the selfish curmudgeon Scrooge is visited in his dreams by four spirits. The first is that of his dead business partner, who introduces him sequentially to the three spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come. The vision progresses from one of a familiar memory to a present with evident issues to a disquieting future that includes Scrooge's own death, alone and unmourned.

But the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come showed only how things would be if they continued on their current trajectory. Scrooge realized his opportunity and intervened in the present to better his future and that of those around him.

The process of Enterprise 2015 follows a similar path. Many of us of a certain age remember "Chemistry Past" comfortably located within the four corners of organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical. "Multidisciplinary" meant organometallic and maybe biochemistry. The chemical industry in the U.S. was expanding, and building a plant was never a wrong decision--it was just a matter of timing. This is where we've been.

But in "Chemistry Present" we see change. Industry and universities in other countries are developing rapidly. Fewer students come to the U.S. to study. Companies we recognize as American build new facilities in the Middle East or the Asia-Pacific region but not here. Government funding for research is uncertain. We perceive that things are going in unfamiliar directions. The Situation Analysis summarizes the present state of the field.

Starting with the Situation Analysis, we can either chart a smooth trajectory for the next 10 years or hypothesize events that might radically alter current paths. Biology is now a dominant theme in chemistry, but will the promise of biotechnology be realized? Will $100-per-barrel oil shift the national emphasis to energy research and renewable feedstocks? In that case, would our freshwater supply be a boon to an agriculture-based chemical economy? Will developing countries maintain stable governments and meteoric growth?

The collected views of members--individually or in discussion groups organized from now through the spring national meeting in San Diego--will be collated into our vision of the next 10 years. This is the work of the "Spirit of Chemistry Yet To Come"--to envision the future as it would be without intervention.

Enterprise 2015 will make up an important part of the programming at the fall national meeting in Washington, D.C. We will have a symposium showcasing the vision of our members and that of experts on key nonchemical topics--all culminating in a town meeting. We also have planned a number of supporting symposia dealing with education, chemical safety and security, globalization, the history of other times of change in the chemistry enterprise, and other important topics that will help round out our visioning exercise.

In the end, with an idea of what the future will bring, we will be able to intervene to change circumstances or our personal approaches to them. Your participation is essential. Please take the time to read the paper and send an e-mail with your thoughts on Chemistry Yet To Come to me at




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