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Ensuring The Future: ACS And The Chemical Enterprise

by E. Ann Nalley, ACS President
January 2, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 1

Credit: Photo by Peter Cutts
Credit: Photo by Peter Cutts

A year has passed since I chose "Ensuring The Future: ACS And The Chemical Enterprise" as the theme for my presidential year. I selected this theme to build on "Chemistry Enterprise 2015," a project undertaken in 2005 by President William F. Carroll to understand the vectors driving the chemistry enterprise today and how the enterprise will change in the next 10 years. This choice seemed to be the logical next step. If we accept the project's predictions, how can we ensure that we continue on the right course for the future? And if we do not accept them, then what are the next steps? While we cannot change the past, we can learn from it. And we are creating our future!

Although I would like to say that I can set the American Chemical Society and the chemical enterprise on a course toward a positive future, I am not naÏve enough to believe that the whole chemical enterprise can be changed in one year. Therefore, I have three focal points for action and activities this year.

Communicating the value and relationship of basic and applied research. Why is it important to communicate the value of basic and applied research, and to whom should we communicate it? The world today is very different from the world of only 10 or 15 years ago. Advances in science and engineering and technological change that lead to innovation are the driving forces of the economy. We recognize that the capacity to create and use new knowledge is the key to our future prosperity.

Innovation is the result of basic research. In the past 25 years, we have seen a decreased emphasis on the part of industry to conduct basic research. Industry is driven by the need for rapid turnaround and profit margins. It falls to the university research system to conduct the basic research while engendering in its students the skills for fostering the capacity to conduct research, risk taking, imagination, and a tolerance for unfamiliar and uncertain territory.

Decisions to fund basic research are often made at the polls and not with regard to need. In the last U.S. presidential race, both candidates indicated they strongly endorsed federal support for basic research. Both recognized the critical role basic research fills in sustaining the U.S. economy. Election of either candidate was a win-win situation. There are only so many federal dollars, however, and public sentiment drives the federal budget. The war in Iraq and the devastating effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will place severe limits on funding allocations for basic research.

It becomes increasingly important for scientists to communicate to the public and to our legislators the value of basic research and the role it plays in connecting directly to practical inventions for maintaining economic leadership, creating good jobs, improving health, and protecting the environment while meeting our energy needs. We need to quadruple the number of ACS members who belong to our Legislative Action Network (LAN), and all ACS members must become spokespersons for communicating the value of basic research.

In 1997, I organized a symposium for the spring national meeting in San Francisco entitled, "Doing More with Less: Educating Future Professionals in Chemistry." The symposium explored the role of university research in educating future professionals in chemistry and the declining federal support for basic research. Symposium speakers concluded that the cost of conducting research in university settings was rapidly increasing and that federal support was not keeping pace with the escalating costs either of sophisticated instrumentation and chemicals or of support for graduate students and postdocs to conduct the research. Unfortunately, this situation has only worsened with time, and the success rate for funding federally supported research proposals averages only about 11%. Unless federal funding keeps pace with rising costs of conducting basic research, the U.S. will not continue to lead the world in innovation.

Emphasizing the importance of good science and mathematics education at all levels. The ACS Strategic Plan has three key components: science, the public, and the professional. If I could design a logo for the plan, I would draw a circle labeled chemical education with three triangles–science, public, and professional–extending from it. Chemical education is central to all three. A good educational system from kindergarten through graduate school is crucial for good science. An outstanding chemical education system–one that starts with educating future citizens and goes beyond the classroom–is essential for an educated public, who are central to funding U.S. scientific research and technological development. Last, but certainly not least, the chemical professional relies heavily on an outstanding educational system. The heart of chemical education is the teacher, professor, and researcher.

Good science education beginning at the elementary level not only will plant the seed for future scientists and engineers but also play a key role in educating the general public on the value of federal support for basic research and science education. This country cannot afford to wait for another Sputnik to shock the average citizen and our government into believing that our country is in a technology battle with other nations. The only way we can win is to place greater emphasis on the need for funding technical and scientific educational programs as well as basic research.

As a result of Sputnik and public pressure for education reform in the 1950s, federal programs were set up to recruit high school students to become science and engineering majors, to train and retrain more science teachers, and to develop and introduce innovative ways of teaching science and mathematics. Out of this education reform were born groups that specialized in the development of educational materials. Professional development workshops were begun and were federally supported until the late 1990s. Senior scientists, mathematicians, and engineers worked with teachers and other educators in this reform.

Reports in the late 1970s stated that the reformed curricular programs had broad impact: New programs were being used extensively, and commercial textbooks incorporated new approaches to teaching science. In the academic year 1976–77, for example, almost 60% of school districts reported using at least one program in elementary schools. Reviews of the effects of reformed science curricula on student performance indicated that the programs were successful. Achievement scores on science exams conducted in the Sputnik era were higher than the scores of students who had studied the traditional curricula.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" concludes that we have a rapidly growing crisis in science education as well as support for basic research. This congressionally requested report–written by a 20-member committee that includes university presidents, chief executive officers, Nobel Prize winners, and former presidential appointees–lists 20 indicators of decisive action needed to conserve the U.S.'s position of economic and scientific preeminence. Some of the indicators regarding education are very disturbing:

Less than one-third of U.S. fourth- and eighth-grade students performed at or above a level called "proficient" in mathematics. "Proficiency" was considered the ability to exhibit competence with challenging subject matter. Alarmingly, about one-third of the fourth-graders and one-fifth of the eighth-graders lacked the competence to perform basic mathematical computations.

U.S. twelfth-graders recently performed below the international average for 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in mathematics and science.

In 1999, only 41% of U.S. eighth-grade students received instruction from a mathematics teacher who specialized in mathematics, considerably lower than the international average of 71%.

In Germany, 36% of undergraduates receive their degrees in science and engineering. In China, the figure is 59%, and in Japan, 66%. In the U.S., the corresponding figure is 32%.

In 2004, China graduated about 500,000 engineers; India, 200,000; and the U.S., 70,000.

These indicators alert us to the fact that not only are we are not adequately educating our students in basic science and mathematics, but this neglect is affecting their career choices for the future.

The report makes four recommendations:

  • Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education;
  • Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term basic research;
  • Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the U.S. and abroad;
  • And ensure that the U.S. is the premier place in the world for innovation.

We must work to support these recommendations to ensure the economic vitality of our nation.

Recognizing that the most important asset ACS has is its members. As important decisions are made to ensure that we operate within the society's budget, we must maintain a high quality of programs and services to ensure that the ACS membership receives top value on its investments. We must continue to identify resources to support the volunteer activities of this society. Without the volunteer services of our members, many of the activities of ACS would not be possible.

Even a partial listing of the volunteer services performed by our members is staggering: They serve as officers for local sections, divisions, and the Board of Directors; implement the outreach activities of National Chemistry Week and similar events; and act as jurors on awards committees, reviewers for publications and grant applications, and members of the many task forces and committees at the local, regional, and national levels. Volunteers also participate in LAN; organize and arrange programming for local, regional, and national meetings; and undertake the seemingly countless other volunteer activities that make ACS the strong organization it is today. I have asked staff to identify the value of volunteer services provided by our members and how this collective effort contributes to the overall value of the society.

I am seeking ways to involve more members in ACS activities by strengthening our divisions and local sections–vital arms of the society. The financial allotments to local sections and divisions enable them to carry out their important volunteer services. A Board-Council Policy Committee task force is studying our current governance system in an effort to improve its effectiveness and to allow for greater involvement of our members in governance operations.

I am initiating a vigorous campaign to recognize the value of volunteer services to the mission and activities of the society. I will be taking every opportunity to recognize volunteers by creating new awards for volunteer service and extending to local and regional levels the recognition that our volunteer members have received nationally. I am requesting that each local section honor a member for their volunteer service and that the organizing committee for each regional meeting identify a volunteer as a recipient of a new award for volunteer service at the regional level. At all regional and national meetings during 2006, special efforts will be made to recognize, celebrate, and support volunteer service.

The final report from "Chemistry Enterprise 2015" is being studied, and challenges for the chemistry enterprise and ACS are being identified and will be the focus of activities of task forces and advisory groups throughout 2006. Many of these challenges are evident as we hear about the closure of manufacturing and R&D sites in the U.S. Clearly, if this continues, we will face unemployment issues for our members during the year. ACS will continually search for more effective ways to deal with challenges facing our publications areas. The ACS Membership Division will be challenged by changing trends in the perceived value of professional memberships, especially as chemists and chemical engineers redefine themselves in areas not traditionally associated with chemistry, so-called multidisciplinary fields.

I welcome your input, suggestions, and advice during my presidential year. Please contact me at There is strength in numbers, and it will take a unified effort to chart a course for a bright future for ACS and the chemical enterprise.


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