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Movers And Shakers

From The Shoulder

by Tom Barton
January 6, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 1

Barton at his desk.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

I am deeply honored to undertake the duties of ACS president for 2014 and feel extremely privileged to represent your interests as members of the American Chemical Society and to serve as an advocate for the progress and growth of our science. The reason I ran for this job is simple: I want to give something back to the profession that’s given so much to me. (Of course, there was also the fact that I had just retired and realized that if I did not find something important and time-consuming to do, I was going to go crazy!) I’ve had a great life, and chemistry has been much of the reason for it.

Those of you who know me are aware that I believe in being candid and direct, and you can expect me to work in that manner as your elected representative. On the other hand (and there’s always an other hand!), one should be cautioned not to expect too much from an ACS president, for, as I was told before taking office, “Presidents don’t make ACS policy, the board does.” This, however, certainly does not mean that nothing can be accomplished, but given the limited tenure of the position, one needs to focus on a very limited set of problems or situations that are in need of attention, and then employ the bully pulpit to put them in the limelight.

As I told the ACS Council last year, I do not plan to launch yet another “Presidential Task Force on Whatever.” We’ve had plenty of those, many of which have added greatly to better understanding and progress on various areas of interest to our profession. In a letter to the council, I explained my reasoning relative to task forces as follows: “I have not thought of anything needing a level of focus sufficient to warrant the terrific drain on the time of both staff and external experts. These things need to be saved for significant special needs that have not been subjected to previous focused reviews.”

Meet Tom Barton

Tom Barton certainly did not plan to become a chemist. In 1958, he entered college as a journalism/prelaw student on a split music scholarship—half voice, half clarinet. In peeved response to a condescending adviser, he chose to take a course in chemistry and found out that he enjoyed it. Although he gave up the clarinet sometime after college, he still loves to sing, but these days the audience for his deep bass voice is pretty much restricted to his church and his two kitties, Frito Lay and Taco Bell. His other pastimes include golf, fishing, motorcycling, flying (private license with instrument rating), sailing (on land, ice, and “soft” water), and languages, to mention but a few. A friend once said of him, “Barton doesn’t have hobbies, he has passions.”

He and wife, Betty, went to Ames, Iowa, in 1967 with a vision of getting an international reputation, getting tenure, and getting out. They are still there, although they spend their winters in places like Mérida, Mexico; Bangkok; and Granada, Nicaragua—or at least they did before his election to the ACS presidential succession!

That is not meant to imply that I don’t have very specific goals in mind for the coming year. I plan to focus on four areas: education, energy, environment, and the public image of chemistry. Symposia already are under development for each of these areas at this year’s two ACS national meetings.

In Dallas, I will host two presidential symposia. One will be about K–12 chemistry teacher training, specifically the involvement of college and university chemistry departments in the training of high school chemistry teachers. I believe we need stringent requirements for educational accomplishments in chemistry before a person is allowed to teach it. I also believe that college and university chemistry departments need to be intimately involved in the training of the teachers of chemistry in U.S. secondary education. The other symposium is tentatively entitled “A World Without Chemistry.” It will address the contributions of chemistry to such things as energy, transportation, environment, health, and agriculture and will ultimately produce a library of PowerPoint slides and related textual materials from which any ACS member can construct a talk for nonscientific audiences to convey the message that chemistry is an essential, enabling science that represents an incredible investment opportunity.

In San Francisco, presidential symposia will focus on “fracking” and on the photocatalytic cleavage of water to hydrogen and oxygen. The latter, in my opinion, is the most likely ultimate solution to the world’s energy needs. More on those two symposia in a moment.

U.S. Science Education: There’s Good News And Bad News

First, the good news: In my opinion, the undergraduate and graduate education systems in the U.S. are doing okay. Some might disagree with me, but the fact that people from around the world continue to want to get into our colleges and universities gives rise to my optimistic assessment.

On a less positive note, however, the quality of K–12 science education is a major area of concern to me and many others. Numerous contributing factors have caused us to be in the shape we’re in: lack of parental interest in quality education, school years that are too short, ineffectiveness of government (state and federal) education programs, political intrusion, and teacher unions that focus far more on seniority than on performance are a few that come easily to mind. These factors are difficult to address. Both the problems and the potential solutions can be controversial, and discussions are quite likely to ignite some sparks. Nonetheless, these are conversations we need to have.

Of course there are some things that one has no real hope of changing. For example, if I could change only one thing about U.S. schools, it would be to get rid of interscholastic sports. Football would therefore be a club sport not associated with the school, as is the case in much of the world. Students would not be misled into believing that it was important who triumphed on Friday night. What do you think my chances are?

ACS has some excellent education programs. I plan to spend much of my time in the next two years working with ACS staff and the other people responsible for these existing programs to help enhance them and move them forward in whatever way I can. Toward that end, Dr. Mary Kirchhoff—ACS director of education—and I have organized a session just before the American Chemistry Council’s November meeting to discuss what the U.S. chemical industry would like to see changed or added to the chemical education of our country’s youth. We really want to involve and hear from our industry.

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Parental Influence On Education

My passion for education was shaped to some extent by the fact that both my parents were teachers. They had a deep appreciation for the importance of a good education and were committed to making sure my sister and I understood and shared this feeling. Their commitment apparently worked, as my sister and I both went on to become teachers.

Improving K–12 science education is greatly dependent on the value and emphasis parents put on this issue. I recall talking with a former Ph.D. student of mine who lived in what I considered a very nice home in California. He told me that he and his wife had just sold their home and bought a very similar one only a couple of miles away for twice as much money. When I asked him what possessed them to make such a costly move, his reply was simple: “This house is in a much better school district.” It was worth that much to them to get their kids into a higher-quality school. Certainly not all parents can afford to make such a move, but the point is that the emphasis on the importance of quality science ­education needs to begin in the home.

A commonly utilized indicator of the “educational friendliness” of a home is the number of books in it. That was certainly true in my case. I remember one summer when my mother went door-to-door in the little town of Wharton, Texas, until she had finally sold five sets of World Book Encyclopedias. After five sets, she got a free set for our home. Almost every day, I would escape to my tree house with A–C or M–O, or some other volume, until I had read every word of the entire set at least once. I can’t begin to estimate the impact such things can have on one’s intellectual growth.

Make Your Voice Heard

Of course, I do not advocate that we try to turn all our students into scientists. But we do need to get them to the point where they have a fundamental knowledge and appreciation of science and technology—enough so that they can make better-informed decisions about critically important issues like the environment, energy, climate change, and genetically modified plants. Unfortunately, we currently seem to have an ever-increasing technological world with an ever-decreasing level of technological literacy. This is not sustainable for our nation.

I urge all ACS membersto take any opportunity to communicate to their legislators and the governing bodies that control education that they should make K–12 science education a top priority. ACS has an excellent legislative network, Act4Chemistry, that makes it easy for you to get involved as an advocate at whatever level of commitment works for you. Add your voice to the more than 15,000 other ACS members who are sharing their thoughts, knowledge, and passion with government officials on a variety of science-related issues. It just might make a difference.

Availability Of Jobs For Chemists

In 2011, unemployment among ACS members reached 4.7%, the highest point recorded since ACS began compiling data in 1972 on the employment status of its members. In the most recent survey, done in 2013, the picture had improved slightly, with unemployment among members falling to 3.5%.

Despite this modestly encouraging news, job seekers at ACS Career Fairs, held at each national meeting, still find the number of available positions to be minuscule compared with the number of applicants. For example, at last year’s ACS national meeting in New Orleans, 131 job listings were posted, but there were 807 candidates for those openings—slightly more than a 6:1 ratio. Of those 807 people looking for work, 590 (73%) hold advanced degrees.

The response to this invariably seems to be that we need to generate more jobs for chemists in the U.S., and of course this is a logical and laudable goal. However, another view that should be equally obvious is the possibility that we are training too many advanced-degree chemists, especially at the Ph.D. level. That’s an elephant-in-the-room viewpoint that needs to be addressed.

Because the overwhelming majority of chemists are employed in industry, I believe it behooves ACS to expend considerable effort to learn what it is that industrial chemists need from us. I have a concern that chemists in industry may view the society as more of an academic endeavor. That actually is not the case, and we must put in some serious effort to make sure that it is not reasonably perceived to be the case. Any thoughts on how to achieve this would be much appreciated.

Energy And The Environment

As I noted earlier, energy and the environment are two areas to which I want to bring attention during the coming year. At the August ACS national meeting in San Francisco, one of my two presidential symposia will feature presentations on the photocatalytic cleavage of water to hydrogen and oxygen. If we can come up with a catalyst that will utilize sunlight to accomplish the conversion of H2O to H2 and O2, we are well on the way to solving the world’s energy problems. Few things are more important. I’m happy to report that one of the world’s leading scientists in this area, Professor Daniel Nocera of Harvard, has partnered with me to put together what I’m sure will be an outstanding symposium.

The other presidential symposium on tap for San Francisco is about “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing—the fracturing of rock by pressurized liquids to release trapped gas and/or petroleum. This method of mining has in recent years become very controversial. Proponents point out the vast reserves of much-needed natural resources to be had through fracking. Critics say the technology presents dangers to the environment, human health, and geologic stability. I want to present a balanced view with a focus on the chemical problems as people may see them, along with a discussion of possible chemical solutions; that is, how chemistry can be a solution rather than part of a problem. No doubt there are legitimate questions and positions on both sides of the fracking issue.

Actually, there will be a couple of days of talks relating to fracking in San Francisco. The presidential symposium will be held on one afternoon, and it will be open to the public, which means folks don’t have to be registered for the meeting in order to attend. I expect the auditorium will be packed.


Public Appreciation

Earlier I mentioned that one of my focus areas is the public image of chemistry. I suspect just about every ACS president has said we need to be active in telling others about the benefits that chemistry offers. And they were right. We need to celebrate our successes. Keep in front of the public that chemistry can help solve problems. The education of the nonscientific public on the fundamental importance of chemistry is essential. The ACS Chemistry Ambassadors program is a great resource to help you learn how to talk simply with laypeople—neighbors, friends, family, reporters, etcetera—about chemistry and why you’re proud to be a chemist. I hope you’ll check it out.

One excellent, recent example of chemistry problem-solving involves the modification of ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in some plant fertilizers. When ignited, ammonium nitrate can be highly explosive. It was used in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in numerous IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that have maimed and killed American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it has been the cause of several deadly explosions in factories, warehouses, and cargo ships. But by adding iron sulfate to ammonium nitrate, researchers at Sandia National Labs found that it changed the chemical structure so it was no longer explosive but still delivered the nitrogen needed for good plant growth.

Stories like this have relevancy to the public. You don’t even need to give a chemistry lesson on how iron sulfate becomes iron nitrate and ammonium nitrate becomes ammonium sulfate. Just keep it simple.

I’m not saying anything new here, simply reiterating the necessity of taking the time to tell others about how chemistry and chemists are working to improve the lives of people everywhere. If you read C&EN each week, as I do, you’ll find chemistry topics in the news that you can talk about with pretty much anyone. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s quite as much “chemophobia” today as there was a dozen years or so ago, and I would attribute some of that to the efforts of social media, with blogs such as Slate, the Sceptical Chymist, ChemBark, and In the Pipeline.

But that doesn’t mean we can sit on our haunches. As an institution, ACS has done a great job of getting many of our success stories in front of the public. But ACS is more than an institution. We’re a collection of more than 163,000 individual chemists, chemical engineers, and people in related fields, all with related professional interests. Just about every one of us has a story of success. Take the time to share yours with others.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions. Contact me at or catch my attention the next time you see me at a meeting.


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