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Safeguarding chemistry: Becoming a force for peace

by Donna Nelson, ACS President
November 14, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 45

Credit: David McNeese
Photo of Donna Nelson.
Credit: David McNeese

In my final Comment as 2016 ACS President, I want to focus on the global influence of chemistry, chemicals, and chemists. As ACS President, I’ve focused on important concerns identified by ACS members, including employment in the chemical sciences and public perception of chemists and chemistry. A presidential task force studied and made recommendations on the former, with a final report forthcoming. The latter will be the subject of 2017 ACS national meeting programming.

While I was President-Elect and President, news media reported chemical misuse, perhaps most notably in Syria. Concerns about chemical warfare and its possible spread have increased recently, which warrants reprioritizing my efforts for the remainder of this year as ACS President, and next year as ACS Past-President. Our members have high standards for handling chemicals safely, and they are against using them to harm people. Therefore, I hope these thoughts will inspire discussion among our 156,000 ACS members and move us forward as a common body with a common cause feeling a common responsibility to tolerate only humane uses of chemicals.

Scientists and scientific societies with knowledge and power to influence how chemicals are used bear a responsibility to lead and to exemplify humane conduct.


As responsible scientists, engineers, and science educators, we are uniquely positioned to offer solutions addressing the use of chemical explosives and chemical warfare. We can help understand and control their destructive effects. Whether we practice chemistry in the classroom, lab, or management and administration, building global relationships and trust is a central product of our work.

Conflict, terrorism, and/or violence in Belgium, France, Syria, Turkey, and the U.S. remind us that threats to global peace and security endure. In Syria, chlorine gas has been reportedly used as a weapon and it is disproportionately impacting children. In the attacks in Belgium this summer and France last fall, terrorists used chemical explosives.

In a world with regions and nations in such conflict, what are appropriate and desirable activities for scientific societies like ACS? One of our responsibilities should be to share information with companies, universities, and the public to help raise awareness of and set standards for responsible chemical procurement, storage, transport, and disposal. But how can members of such societies strengthen the culture of responsible conduct in the chemical sciences and dissuade the misuse of chemistry?

Engagement mechanisms of scientific societies.

ACS has been involved in issues of science and human rights since the 1970s, informed by the ACS Constitution. ACS has worked to address human rights issues and initiatives, including responsible conduct and scientific freedom. ACS has partnered with organizations globally to leverage resources and capabilities. The ACS Alliances program creates an opportunity for ACS and its partners to jointly promote explicit responsible conduct, chemical practice, and use of chemicals, where mutually agreeable. Therefore, building relationships that foster such agreements is essential.

My activities.

One priority of my ACS presidency was strengthening communities, relationships, and trust within ACS (C&EN, Jan. 4, page 2; C&EN, Dec. 7/14, 2015, page 45). This extended to working with ACS members to build bridges and trust with other countries and cultures through chemistry to further agreements, collaboration, exchange, and more scientist involvement in communities globally.

At the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia earlier this year, I signed five memoranda of understanding (MOUs) on behalf of ACS with signatories from the following scientific organizations: (1) the Chinese Chemical Society, (2) the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers, (3) the Mexican Chemical Society, (4) the Atlantic Basin Conference on Chemistry (representing Canada, Mexico, and Europe), and (5) the Chinese American Chemical Society.

As ACS President, I spoke on building a global scientific community in several countries, including Morocco (Malta VII Conference), Israel (Israel Chemical Society meeting), United Arab Emirates (ACS UAE Chapter charter installation), Japan (Chemical Society of Japan national meeting), Canada (Canadian Society for Chemistry national meeting), China (Chinese Chemical Society national meeting), England (Royal Society of Chemistry meeting), and France (scientist exchange agreement initiation with Société Chimique de France, immediately after the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist strike in Paris). My message was broadly distributed to other meetings and is available for downloading.

What you can do.

Working together, ACS members can achieve much more than the ACS President can alone. We can address global problems through our role as science diplomats working toward peaceful scientific endeavors. In this way, ACS can use its position and standing as a professional society to reduce threats to the welfare of humankind, as encouraged in The Hague Ethical Guidelines (Toxicol. Environ. Chem. 2016, DOI: 10.1080/02772248.2016.1172074). Through our global networks and relationships, we can engage the global chemistry community in awareness and prevention of chemical warfare. The first step is to recognize, as Linus Pauling did, that “every aspect of the world today—even politics and international relations—is affected by chemistry.” Please send comments to

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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