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Grand Challenges and opportunities for chemistry

by Diane Grob Schmidt, Immediate Past-President
December 19, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 49

Credit: Peter Cutts photography
Photo of a woman.
Credit: Peter Cutts photography

One of my goals during my service in the ACS presidential succession was to highlight the Grand Challenges—obstacles that require multidisciplinary innovation in science and technology—through symposia, events, and dialogue with scientists from industry, academia, and government.

The emphasis was on future research opportunities and significant financial investments by the U.S. government in each of these Grand Challenges. As we know, the financial investments in these Grand Challenges translate into research opportunities to provide solutions and jobs.

Aligned with my presidential theme of “Inspiring and Innovating for Tomorrow,” coming up with solutions inspires creativity and the transformation of invention into innovation.


At the 2015 spring ACS national meeting in Denver, during my presidential year, I chose to focus our efforts and resources behind the symposium, “Nanotechnology: Delivering on the Promise,” which highlighted the tremendous advances that nanotechnology has brought.

For more than 15 years, major investments have been made to advance nanoscale technologies; the expenditure by the U.S. government alone has exceeded $20 billion. The symposium addressed the current state of nanomaterial science research at the federal level, provided updates from key funding agencies, and described the path toward a thriving U.S. marketplace. Speakers represented top research universities, industry, federal agencies, and national labs.

Tremendous advances in research have been made in diverse areas such as medicine, energy, water, food, materials, and electronics. Many basic nanomaterial applications are already in the marketplace as product enablers. However, high-volume manufacturing of more advanced and sophisticated materials and applications continues to be a challenge. The impetus for the symposium was to move the promise seen in research labs out to the reality of societal benefit by bringing these innovations to market.

As a follow-on activity, ACS worked closely with the U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to reach out to ACS membership to ensure that chemists help shape the future directions of the federal government’s investments in nanotechnology. We hosted an ACS Webinar to discuss a Request for Information released by the Office of Science & Technology Policy.

In September, ACS Science & the Congress Project hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill, where I served as moderator. The briefing covered methods of “light weighting” in the aerospace and automotive sectors including materials such as nanotechnology.

ACS also participated in celebrating National Nanotechnology Day in October 2016. This project presented a wonderful opportunity for ACS to pull together an impressive cross-section of ACS resources and materials. Major ACS units, including ACS Publications, C&EN, Membership & Scientific Advancement, Education, and the Office of Public Affairs, all contributed.

Future Energy Technologies

At the 2016 spring ACS national meeting in San Diego, Michelle V. Buchanan of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and I organized the symposium, “Research Opportunities for Future Energy Technologies,” sponsored by the ACS Division of Energy & Fuels.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review provides a deep dive into the U.S.’s rapidly changing energy needs. The symposium commenced with a keynote address by U.S. Under Secretary for Science & Energy, Department of Energy, Franklin M. (Lynn) Orr. Speakers from industry, academia, and national laboratories discussed groundbreaking technology in energy storage, new materials, and additive manufacturing.

Energy—ensuring its availability and minimizing its impact on our environment—is one of humanity’s grand challenges. The Department of Energy has requested $32.5 billion for fiscal year 2017, an increase of $2.9 billion from the FY 2016 budget.

Kavli Symposium on Neurotransmission

Following the trajectory of addressing grand challenges, Anne M. Andrews and Paul S. Weiss of the University of California, Los Angeles, and I worked with the Kavli Foundation to sponsor the “Kavli Symposium on Chemical Neurotransmission. What Are We Thinking?”

This symposium addressed the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative aimed at studying the brain at the level of individual cells and complex neural circuits. It brought together multidisciplinary researchers in neuroscience, computer science, and big data, who are working to visualize and measure chemical reactions in the human brain in real time.

With this capability, researchers can not only better understand brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injuries, but also devote resources to prevention and cures.

President Obama’s FY 2017 budget calls for the National Institutes of Health to provide an estimated $190 million in funding for the BRAIN Initiative. Agencies planning to further support the BRAIN Initiative in 2017 include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency with $118 million, the National Science Foundation with $74 million, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity with $43 million.

As with all new advances, meeting these challenges in a safe and responsible manner must be a part of the plan to address humanity’s Grand Challenges. Chemists and chemical engineers are uniquely positioned to play a central role in crafting future solutions to these challenges. The global chemistry enterprise can seize these myriad research opportunities for society’s benefit. I invite all those interested to participate.

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


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