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The Centrality Of Chemistry: Our Challenges And Opportunities

Let's celebrate and communicate the centrality of chemistryand advocate for science education

by Bruce Bursten, ACS President
January 7, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 1


EVERY YEAR AT THIS TIME, the new president of ACS is asked to reflect on what she or he hopes to accomplish during the coming year. I am deeply honored to have the privilege of serving as president in 2008. Like my immediate predecessors—Katie Hunt, Ann Nalley, Bill Carroll, and Chuck Casey—I realize that a year is a short time in which to make a difference in a field as rich and varied as chemistry and in a society as complex and multifaceted as our ACS. But it is my hope that during this year, we will be able to work together to make a difference in the future of chemistry. And that is my hope not only as ACS president but also as a world citizen who passionately believes that chemistry is essential to solving some of our most vexing current problems in society and ensuring the future of humanity.

During this year, I will focus our efforts in two arenas that affect all areas of the chemical enterprise, namely communication and education. These are hardly original themes for ACS presidents; in fact, they build quite intentionally on Immediate Past-President Hunt's focus on education, collaboration, and innovation. It is my hope that by building on the excellent efforts of our past presidents, and with your support and that of the ACS Board of Directors, we can produce strong initiatives that are sustainable over several years and, therefore, through several presidential terms. I will be collaborating closely with Hunt and the newest member of our leadership, President-Elect Tom Lane, so that our efforts in starting new activities gain the necessary momentum to have the desired impact.

CELEBRATING OUR CENTRALITY. I often ask audiences to whom I speak whether we as chemists are too modest. It is always an amusing happenstance when one of us in academic chemistry talks about modesty—after all, we are not viewed by ourselves or others as a particularly modest or self-effacing group. Yet I wonder whether we do enough to celebrate our accomplishments among ourselves and, more important, with the rest of the world.

Two years ago, ACS adopted a new Vision Statement: "Improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry." I very much like that statement, which is refreshingly different from typical organizational vision statements. Rather than focusing on the vision of ACS as a business entity, it focuses on the accomplishments of its constituent members. Our Vision Statement is a constant reminder that ACS exists because of us, the membership, and what we do collectively to advance the efforts of chemistry and professionals in the chemical sciences.

We believe that chemistry is a transformative enterprise that is central to improving human life. But do others know that? I become concerned about the sometimes invisible centrality of chemistry: The role of chemistry is often taken for granted in discussions of new science and technological advances that are built fundamentally from chemistry. As an example, a popular magazine had a special issue on newsstands in the latter half of 2007 on the "Rise of Nanotech." Even though more than half of the articles in this issue were written by chemists, the word chemistry does not appear on the cover. Physics appears. As do DNA and drugs. Nanotechnology is one of many hot fields that has been built by chemists. But it is not often sold that way. In fact, whether we are talking about magazines, federal legislation, or college degrees, does chemistry sell? And are we doing enough to explain to others why they should buy?

Making the transformative power of chemistry accessible to our various stakeholders is not a new challenge, and it is one that has been addressed continuously by ACS and others. Ronald Breslow, our ACS president in 1996 and Priestley Medalist in 1999, made this charge one of his primary agenda items during his term. Breslow wrote a lovely book, "Chemistry Today and Tomorrow: The Central, Useful, and Creative Science," intended to inform laypersons of the centrality of chemistry to their everyday lives. We should all heed his advice to present a strong, positive message about chemistry to our friends, neighbors, legislators, and others, especially those whose only recollection of chemistry might be a bad experience from their high school days.

Our colleagues at the American Chemistry Council launched their delightful public relations campaign, "essential2," to highlight the extraordinary impact that chemistry has on the lives of everyone. ACC recently launched its latest series of TV ads. If you haven't seen them, I encourage you to check them out on the ACC website ( They will make you feel even better about being a chemist.

Credit: courtesy of Bruce Bursten
Bursten with his daughter, Julia.
Credit: courtesy of Bruce Bursten
Bursten with his daughter, Julia.

One of my goals as president is to make our society even more effective at communicating the beauty, value, and centrality of chemistry. Unlike ACC, we can't afford to run television ads. But we do have the strength of more than 160,000 member advocates who are getting the message out and will continue to do so.

We have several methods by which we celebrate the successes of chemists among ourselves. The National Historic Chemical Landmarks and the Heroes of Chemistry programs are ACS initiatives that honor transformative accomplishments that have shaped American chemistry. They are marvelous celebrations of the power of chemistry and of chemists. But in my opinion, they have not yet garnered enough visibility either within ACS membership or especially outside of our ranks. One of my goals is to launch a more concerted communication effort to get out the positive message about these terrific applications of chemistry that affect the lives of all.

The ACS National Awards program is one of the most internally visible ways in which we celebrate the achievements of our members, and by most measures it is successful. Even so, we can improve this program to enhance its impact. Too many of our awards suffer from a shortage of nominations. We need to examine areas in which we are missing the opportunity to celebrate excellence, and we need to expand the diversity of the nominees for the awards. And we need to strongly consider eliminating or recasting awards that are no longer relevant. Finally, we need to examine our communication strategy for our awards to make certain that these points of pride for our members are more effectively communicated outside of our membership.

Our efforts in communication for advocacy have been extremely effective, and we need to continue those successes. The ACS Office of Legislative & Government Affairs (OLGA) works capably—and often, as they must, quietly—to advance the causes of our membership in Washington, D.C., and beyond. The Legislative Action Network (LAN), of which many (but not enough!) of you are members, is a model of how we can distribute centralized advocacy to the local level. I am very pleased that in 2008 we will expand our organized advocacy efforts via establishment of a State Government Affairs program, which will be piloted in five states. This new program will enhance our efforts to have a positive impact at the state level, with a special emphasis on K-12 science education.

I will continue the efforts of my predecessors in working closely with OLGA and the Board Committee on Public Affairs & Public Relations to continue to advance our advocacy and communication efforts. In my opinion, one of the most important roles that the president has within ACS is to advocate for our membership and our interests, especially to stakeholders outside of our society.

CELEBRATING OUR VITALITY. Is chemistry a mature or an emerging discipline? The answer to this question is decidedly yes. Chemistry is certainly a mature discipline that continues to build on a rich past of basic research and technological advances. We are superb bootstrappers who know how to leverage discovery into new processes and products and, ultimately, more new discovery. But is chemistry mature to the point of being less interesting or relevant than younger fields of science? Is chemistry no longer sexy? I believe that the answer to those questions is a decisive no. The basic science that will solve the problems that our world faces is centered in chemistry-in many cases, chemistry that we haven't yet discovered. We are, in so many ways, a young prodigious science with so much potential ahead of us. Society needs us to develop that potential.

Our 2007 Priestley Medalist, George Whitesides, presented a marvelous talk this past fall at the German Chemical Society meeting entitled "Rethinking What Chemistry Does." The primary premise of Whitesides' presentation is one that aligns with my above comments: The most important problems facing society, and the most interesting problems in science, belong to chemistry. To the question of whether chemistry is scientifically mature, he poses some "simple" challenges to our science: Can we simulate behavior in solution? Can we engineer function into materials? Can we model environmental chemistry? Can we control excited states? Can we build a cell? These are all grand challenges for which chemistry is at the core and which will provide exciting and demanding research opportunities for future generations of chemists.

The heart of what we do is our science, whether it is in an academic, industrial, or some other setting. One of my goals as president will be to highlight the relevance of our science at our ACS national meetings. In my opinion, we have no bigger problem to address these days than energy and all that energy science impacts, including the environment and social change. I encourage you to educate yourself about our basic research needs in chemistry, and you can do so by viewing some of the excellent presentations available at the Department of Energy Office of Science's Basic Energy Sciences website (


In spring 2008 we will have a special opportunity to focus on these energy-related issues as we make the first return visit of the ACS national meeting to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. This ACS meeting will be special for many reasons. First, it will be held in conjunction with the national meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. AIChE, which was founded in 1908 by a group of chemical engineers who left ACS to start their own organization, is celebrating its centennial, and we are delighted that its members are sharing the celebration with us. In New Orleans we will have joint ACS-AIChE presidential programming in the broad areas of energy and the environment. It promises to be an exciting time that will highlight the manifold areas in which chemistry needs to take the lead in basic energy research for our country and the world.

I truly believe that the most exciting days in basic research in chemistry are yet to come. We have the tools and we have the building blocks. We need to think broadly, grandly, and sometimes differently about how to apply the chemistry we know to address daunting and socially important challenges. We need to advocate for the resources necessary to undertake long-term curiosity-driven research that has the potential to have more than an incremental impact on chemistry and on the world. Of course, there is one more component that is needed if we are going to continue to extend the centrality of our science: We will need well-trained, imaginative chemists who can think the great future thoughts in chemistry. Will we have them?

EDUCATION: THE KEY TO OUR FUTURE. I don't know anyone who doesn't like the superb new ad campaign by Dow Chemical Co., "The Human Element." Dow has done a masterful job of putting a human face to chemistry and of showing how progress in chemistry depends critically on the people involved in our enterprise. The education arena is where we develop the new human elements who will make the next advances with the chemical elements. In many ways, the survival of our discipline depends on our ability to engage students in the wonder of chemistry, to excite students about their career paths, and to develop the next generation of researchers.

Every new ACS president in recent memory has stated that science education needs to remain a priority of our society and that we need to do a better job of what we are doing in education. It will not surprise you that I am happy to bang the same drum: Chemical education, and particularly K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, will be a top priority of ACS during my time as ACS president.


As we know, many states are experiencing a shortage of well-qualified math and science teachers, particularly in the physical sciences, meaning that the near-term outlook for significantly increasing the population of science majors in our universities is not promising. We in science broadly, and chemistry more specifically, need to cultivate our next generation actively rather than simply harvest the talent that happens to show up in class. How can we ensure that chemistry becomes central to a good portion of the best and brightest of that next generation and the generations after that? How can we instill the excitement and importance of our craft while giving our students the critical thinking skills needed to address the big problems central to our science?

Fortunately, some of the issues in science education have hit the radar screen of the federal government, thanks in large part to the National Academy of Sciences report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." That document is largely responsible for the recently passed America Competes Act, which promises to infuse new funding into the physical sciences. Nevertheless, the tougher sell is convincing our stakeholders, the U.S. citizenry, that science education is a critical investment-and ACS must be a leading partner in such efforts. We must use the prominent voice of ACS to translate our concerns into actions at all levels of the science education enterprise, from elementary school students and teachers to the legislators who prioritize funding for basic and applied research.

We can do more in the short term, and I am committed to getting some of these initiatives in motion during my time as president. Many of us are involved in local endeavors that have made a positive impact on K-12 STEM education, and we are proud that we have been able to enhance science education in our communities. These efforts underscore one of the grand challenges we have as educators: How do we take effective local undertakings, which happen in so many of our regions, and cohesively make them effective on a national scale? We in ACS need to work together to make our local efforts have national impact. I look forward to working with you to make ACS more effective in this local-to-national challenge in STEM education.

In addition, we will do more using the internal and volunteer resources of ACS. I have charged the Society Committee on Education and the Committee on Professional Training to work together on education programming at our national meetings in 2008 and in aligning their efforts on educational issues. I also believe we need to partner more effectively with other organizations that have similar goals of improving science education, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Association of State Universities & Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Bursten with Carol Edelstein at the Heroes of Chemistry event at the Boston ACS national meeting.
Bursten with Carol Edelstein at the Heroes of Chemistry event at the Boston ACS national meeting.

I am particularly excited about a new initiative at NASULGC called the Science & Mathematics Teacher Imperative (SMTI). The SMTI project is designed to address issues in K-12 STEM education by encouraging our universities to increase the number and quality of middle- and secondary-school math and science teachers that they prepare. I am eager to engage ACS as a partner with NASULGC and the SMTI project. As this project moves forward, and if the promise of the America Competes Act comes to funding fruition, there will be many new opportunities for our membership to become involved in ways that can tangibly enhance the future generations of science teachers and science students. It promises to be exciting and meaningful.

SOME FINAL COMMENTS AND THANKS. Obviously, other issues are important to our members, such as employment, globalization, and the changing landscape of research. These are critical issues that concern our membership greatly. Some of these are time-critical, and the ACS Board of Directors will address them expeditiously. Nevertheless, I think that communication and education are the foundations of progress for our society, and I hope that our efforts in other areas will be built on these dual pillars.

As a closing thought, I ask you to think broadly about the future of chemistry. We need to avoid or break down the barriers that sometimes exist in chemistry and ACS, whether they are between academia and industry, between the subdisciplines of chemistry, between local sections and divisions, between regions of the country, or between nations. If we are to progress as a society, we must be aware of these "silo effects" and try to eliminate them for the good of chemistry. Chemistry is, after all, at the center of it all!

Finally, I would like to thank the two most important people in my life—my daughter, Julia, and Carol Edelstein—who stand by me in all that I do. I am also very grateful for the support provided by my colleagues at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and especially those in the College of Arts & Sciences, whose lives will be directly and indirectly affected by ACS during this year. I also want to thank my primary mentors in my development as a chemist: the late Virgil Goedken of the University of Chicago; Richard Fenske of the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and the late F. Albert Cotton of Texas A&M University, who was the 1998 Priestley Medalist. Chemistry lost a giant when Al Cotton passed away in 2007. He truly understood and celebrated the centrality of chemistry.

And of course, I thank you, the members of the American Chemical Society, who have elected me to represent you as best I can. I am honored to have the opportunity to work with you to achieve our goals. We will succeed.

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