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Chemistry At A Crossroads

Reigniting our commitment to science and technology: Education, collaboration, and innovation!

by Catherine T. (Katie) Hunt, ACS President
January 1, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 1

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

I am honored to have this opportunity to share with you my thoughts about the future of the American Chemical Society, and to thank you for making ACS what it is today: a strong and successful advocate for the chemical sciences from education to legislation, an important hub of technical activities from meetings to publications and from divisions to websites, and a growing pool of resources from networks to workshops.

These remain essential elements for our continued success as a scientific society, but they are not enough.

A Crossroads

I am not what I was 20 years ago and neither is the broader chemical enterprise. In late 2005, voters thought leaders saw the U.S. as the current economic front-runner; when these leaders were questioned further, it became clear they saw that the U.S. was on a path to cede this advantage to China by 2030. China and India are advancing rapidly in the number of science and engineering patents granted, the number and quality of students graduated, and the levels of R&D funding committed and invested.

Chemistry is at a crossroads. You need only read Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat"—or simply look around you—to see that globalization is upon us and there is no turning back. The challenge is how to stay strong in an increasingly global marketplace. One key to maintaining competitiveness lies in improving our nation's science and technology capabilities. In fact, 86% of U.S. voters agreed that to do this, we must increase the number of workers with a background in science and math, according to a 2005 report from the Business Roundtable.

My father, who was a chemist, always said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" I started at Rohm and Haas in 1984 as a bench chemist in analytical research; today, I am the leader of its Technology Partnerships group. I have weathered restructuring initiatives by proactively looking for new opportunities and, in short, reinventing myself in ways that take advantage of my strong chemical training. It's time to reignite our commitment to science and technology; time to reinvent the chemical enterprise—and ACS can lead the way!

I firmly believe that the keys to success in this endeavor are education, collaboration, and innovation: Education to engage legislators, the media, the public, and the next generation; Collaboration to build a vibrant and vocal technical community; and Innovation to re-create our companies, our universities, and ourselves.


Engaging Students, Filling the Pipeline. Today's students are our future scientists, technologists, and policymakers. Now, more than ever, we need to engage the next generation in the exciting and challenging field of science. My 15-year-old son frequently says, "Mom, you would have everyone believe that everything is based on chemistry!" And I smile and say, "So, you've been listening."

I don't have to tell you that "in the highly competitive, global economy of the 21st century, mathematics and science are no longer pursuits for the few. They are requirements for all." ("A Commitment to America's Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education," Business-Higher Education Forum, 2005.) In short, "the future well-being of our nation and people, depends...on how well we educate [the next generation] in mathematics and science specifically." ("Before It's Too Late: A Report to the Nation from the National Commission on Mathematics & Science Teaching for the 21st Century," Commission Chair John Glenn, 2000.)

It is time for us to actively promote science and technology on the local and national stage, from championing research investment to building technology partnerships, and from mentoring students to promoting science fairs.

Engaging Legislators, Ensuring the Future. Tomorrow's workforce will be created by today's students. And students follow the money. That money—government funding and career paychecks—is being diverted from the physical sciences. If we scientists do not speak up and focus the spotlight on this substantive scientific and societal issue, then others who are less knowledgeable and more self-serving will fill the void.

One of the best ways for ACS members to make their voices heard by our elected officials is through the ACS Legislative Action Network (LAN). The network is a simple yet effective way for members to quickly mobilize on ACS priority issues and communicate them to members of Congress, the White House, and state houses, where appropriate.

I strongly encourage you to join the LAN and to become an "advocate for science." After all, ACS was chartered by Congress in 1937 to share sound scientific knowledge with a broad constituency including Congress and the executive branch.

There was never a better or more critical time for us as scientists, technologists, and educators to contact our legislators to respectfully urge them to increase the research investment in our nation's premier science agencies: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards & Technology. These agencies are critical to spurring long-term economic growth, job creation, and a technically literate workforce, and it is up to us as a collective scientific community to demonstrate why research funding needs to be a priority for our nation-now.

For the longer term, consider joining your local section's government affairs committee. If your local section doesn't have a government affairs committee, take the initiative and start one. As the late former House speaker Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local"; thus one of the most effective ways to reach out to your elected officials is through visits to the local offices of your U.S. senators and representatives. They are always glad to hear from you, and more important, you demonstrate that folks back home care about science and technology. For details about how to create a government affairs committee or conduct grassroots outreach, contact the ACS Office of Legislative & Government Affairs.

Reaching Out
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Hunt gives a demonstration for children at Camp Invention, a weeklong summer program, at Wissahickon High School, in Ambler, Pa.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Hunt gives a demonstration for children at Camp Invention, a weeklong summer program, at Wissahickon High School, in Ambler, Pa.


Building Strong Partnerships. We can best leverage our science and technology education and advocacy efforts by reaching out to other professional societies and forming strategic partnerships and coalitions.

Drawing upon my current participation in the ACS LAN and similar networks in other organizations, I am joining forces with leaders from academia and industry to advocate for better support for science and technology. This advocacy takes many forms, including visiting federal agencies, finalizing and implementing priority science and technology policy statements, and meeting with congressional staff. Last September, ACS joined forces with the Council for Chemical Research to cosponsor a congressional briefing, "Measure for Measure: Chemical R&D Powers the U.S. Innovation Engine." This Capitol Hill briefing was standing-room only, and one staffer remarked, "If only all the scientific societies cooperated this way."

Speaking With One Voice. Last January, in partnership with other scientific societies, ACS LAN members sent more than 1,000 letters to President George W. Bush requesting that he highlight the importance of science and technology in his State of the Union address. It worked. President Bush put forward the American Competitiveness Initiative. Just imagine if the more than 158,000 ACS members wrote their legislators regularly in support of the science legislation posted on the LAN website. Now imagine further that our sister societies engaged similarly. Our important message would surely be heard-loud and clear.

Bringing Chemistry Alive. Just as no single company, university, or scientific society should go it alone, neither should you nor should your local section, division, or student affiliates group. That said, the way to reach our children is through highly qualified, highly motivated, and innovative science teachers. I urge you to think outside your usual circle of collaborators. Ohio State University analytical chemistry professor Susan V. Olesik established an organization called Wonders of Our World (WOW), by starting small; today, WOW has more than 500 volunteers. WOW pairs college students with local scientists to support schoolteachers and bring chemistry alive in elementary school classrooms (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 26). Currently, WOW serves more than 100 elementary school teachers and nearly 2,500 K-5 students.

As local sections or individuals, consider partnering with your local libraries to conduct chemistry demonstrations. This might be done in collaboration with the ACS Division of Chemical Information or Division of Chemical Education. There are wonderful resources on the ACS website you will want to check out, such as Kids & Chemistry at In addition, there are excellent sessions to attend at regional and national meetings. Feel free to share your favorite program or venue with me via e-mail at

Becoming a Familiar Face. By taking on a task of your own choosing—joining the chemistry demonstration circuit, signing on as a speaker, writing your legislators, or bringing in new members—you will be giving science and technology a stronger voice on Capitol Hill and presenting a familiar face to the public. In short, joining together will increase our visibility, build our confidence, and enhance the public's opinion of our profession and its understanding of the value the chemical enterprise brings to society.

Credit: Katie Hunt
Hunt's husband, Wes, and son, James, take a break while hiking on Mount Rainier.
Credit: Katie Hunt
Hunt's husband, Wes, and son, James, take a break while hiking on Mount Rainier.


Re-creating our Companies, our Universities, and Ourselves. Investing in the physical sciences is an investment in the future! Incremental improvements are important, but we cannot "tweak" ourselves to greatness. Sustainable growth will be driven through ongoing investment in cutting-edge, step-out innovation.

Convinced of this, I set out to build from the ground up a technology partnership team at Rohm and Haas. Our ongoing collaborations were—and continue to be—aimed at accelerating the pace of discovery. This is achieved by bringing together world-class scientists, partnering with government agencies, focusing on mastering the fundamentals, and delivering viable commercial products.

As ACS president, I will work to promote this type of entrepreneurial step-out research. I believe such an effort is critical to our playing a leadership role as the largest scientific society in the world.

Learning Organizations. In "The Fifth Discipline," Peter M. Senge states that the common characteristic of innovative companies is their ability to learn. In 2000, he expanded this to include "Schools that Learn." According to Senge, learning organizations are characterized by people who "continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together." Working across industry, academe, and national labs, in partnership with foundations and government agencies, continues to be a learning experience. What will it take to make ACS a learning organization?


Let's learn together. Experiment with a different communication medium, like wikis or blogs, to brainstorm ideas or drum up interest in new programs. Try podcasting to memorialize your favorite Student Affiliates ACS (SAACS) adviser or webcasting to share and explore a new multidisciplinary effort—you fill in the blank. And when you are ready for funding, consider writing an ACS Innovative Activities Grant proposal.

Extraordinary Leaders. It's a clich?, but it's true. Today's students are tomorrow's scientists, technologists, and policymakers. Not only do we need to give them the math and science skills to be successful, we need to teach them leadership skills through training and mentorship. From their ranks will come our future leaders, and we will need leaders at all levels in our organizations: from teachers to professors to college presidents, from technicians to senior scientists to chief executive officers, and from interns to staffers to members of Congress.

In a recent pilot for the ACS Leadership Development System, I learned that extraordinary leaders combine three things: alignment (clear priorities, organizational focus, and teamwork); competency (skills to get the job done); and passion (seemingly unbounded energy and enthusiasm). When you see a successful national or regional meeting, local section, or student affiliates group, look for all three of these leadership characteristics shining through. From members young and old, one can find a clear energy and enthusiasm for the science, an uncanny alignment in positively communicating chemistry, and an innate ability to reach out to the community. These are wonderful collaborations and true partnerships.

Extraordinary Collaborations. So, how do you fit into this vision? Beautifully! ACS is an extraordinary example of collaboration between students and their advisers; between SAACS and local teachers and schools (they've been doing chemistry demonstrations for years); and between members across sections, states, and countries around the world (organizing their own scientific meetings complete with keynote speakers and poster sessions), to name just a few. All of these forums test our commitment, build our confidence, and ultimately develop professional leadership skills.

Every opportunity that I've had to interact with ACS members, affiliates, and sister societies has touched my heart and renewed my faith in the future. I especially admire the Women Chemists Committee, the Younger Chemists Committee, and student affiliate members for their active participation in their local, national, and international ACS groups. I have every confidence that their ACS experience will better prepare them for the exciting and challenging experiences that lie ahead.

Communicating Innovation: Thematic Programming. The future requires that we work together to address substantive societal issues. To catalyze the process, I have selected presidential themes for the 2007 national meetings: "Sustainability of Energy, Food & Water," for the spring meeting in Chicago, and "Material Innovations: From Nanotech to Biotech & Beyond," for the fall meeting in Boston.

The spring meeting in March 2007 will feature presidential sessions including "Sustainability: A World View," on Sunday, and "Pressing Challenges & Technology Opportunities for a Sustainable Future" and "Educating for Sustainability," both on Monday. These themes are well-aligned with both the ACS strategic plan and the new initiative of ACS divisions and secretariats on thematic programming for national meetings.

When successfully executed, thematic programming will not only nucleate ideas, foster community, and accelerate innovation, but it will be essential to effectively communicate chemistry to a broader audience. How? We expect that these topics will better enable us to speak with one voice to our membership, the media, and the general public. Stay tuned for exciting updates on the Web.

What's'The Ask'?

As I was growing up, my mother always said, "Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you." My graduate adviser used to say, "You don't ask; you don't get!" And a former manager at Rohm and Haas always said, "Katie, if I'm always saying yes, you are not asking for enough." So I am asking you to work with me to reignite our commitment to science and technology, focusing on education, collaboration, and innovation: education to engage the next generation, collaboration to build a vibrant and vocal technical community, and innovation to provide the resources to re-create our companies, our universities, and ourselves.

At a time when chemistry has so much to offer, I am pleased and honored to step to the plate as president of the American Chemical Society. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your dedication, commitment, and camaraderie. I look forward to working with all of you to make our ACS vision a reality: Improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry!

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