Issue Date: January 2, 2017
Pedaling the power of chemistry
Last September in C&EN, I shared a snapshot of the vision, priorities, and initiatives that shape my presidential priorities (C&EN, Sept. 26, 2016, page 43). Here, I would like to outline my plans with you in greater detail, and, in the process, share my excitement about all we can accomplish together.
As you may know, I am an avid cyclist. Most mornings, I look forward to strapping on my helmet to ride the 17 miles from my home to my office at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), along the Columbia River in Washington State. I treasure this time because it gives me the chance to integrate three things about which I am most passionate: health, nature, and science.
As I ride, I enjoy watching the sun rise over a bluff across the broad river, revealing high-desert shrubs and sagebrush. In the quiet of the early morning, birds, deer, and other animals are my most frequent companions. It is peaceful, relaxing, and phenomenally beautiful. This time also lends itself to deep thought about the day ahead, and about the work we do as scientists and engineers and its profound importance in preserving the environment and enhancing our quality of life.
You may be surprised to learn that you all have become my constant riding companions as well. My morning ride reminds me on a daily basis of the reasons I ran for the ACS Presidency and of the tremendous potential we have to work together to advance our profession while also delivering great value to society as a whole by translating research innovations to solutions. To this end, I would like to tell you more about my three priority areas as we move down the trail together: effective communication with public audiences, education and advocacy for policymakers, and common global practices and principles for the chemistry enterprise. Our shared passion, optimism, and engagement will allow us to accomplish great things in each of these areas this year.
Sharing chemistry’s success stories with a broad public
Chemistry’s success lies both in its omnipresence and in its invisibility in our lives. Chemistry is the central science—central to nearly every facet of modern life from food production, to medicine, to transportation and energy. It enables the production of everything from fuels to pharmaceuticals. Society’s ability to enjoy the benefits that our profession consistently delivers without an explicit awareness of them is perhaps our greatest achievement.
While we value this transparency, it is also important that we cultivate public understanding of the role chemistry plays in our well-being and convey the excitement of discovery and possibility that is inherent in science. Through ACS public outreach and communications efforts, my goal is to make chemistry more approachable and engaging—and less intimidating—to a variety of audiences ranging from young children to high school students to older adults with no formal science background. I think the most effective way to accomplish this goal is by telling good stories—not necessarily stories about science itself, but rather about the transformative impacts that science consistently has on our lives.
It will be a tough hill to climb. The proliferation of information sources, coupled with the belief that facts and data alone tell our story, intensifies our imperative of reaching the public with accurate and compelling messages about the value and impact of science.
While science may be intimidating to many members of the public, a recent survey of ACS and other professional society members revealed the surprising finding that scientists also feel anxiety about discussing their work with the public and feel underequipped for that task. This finding helped me see that there are indeed two sides to the science communications challenge, which entails more than simply “translating science” for lay audiences.
To address this challenge, I am pleased to announce a new ACS course recently developed by ACS’s world class communications and education staff, “Effective Science Communication,” which will be offered starting this year. This dynamic, interactive course uses a combination of formal presentations, improvisational role-playing exercises, and small-group discussions to help participants develop communication skills and techniques, allowing them to feel more comfortable and confident in their conversations with nonscientific audiences. ACS communications and education staff will offer this course at the ACS Leadership Institute in Dallas on Jan. 27–29, and I look forward to announcing additional course offerings later in the year.
Communicating science to policymakers
“Communication is not something extra you add on to science. It is the essence of science.”—Alan Alda, visiting professor, The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University
Members of Congress and other elected officials constitute one of our most important audiences. Like some of you, I have interacted with members of Congress, congressional staffers, and state-level policymakers on various occasions, and I have found that these interactions have the potential to be among the most satisfying and most disappointing conversations we may have as communicators of science.
Alan Alda, who is a passionate advocate for science communication, recounts a story about a panel of scientists testifying before a congressional committee. As the panelists read their prepared remarks, the congressional committee members frantically slid notes to one another behind the dais: “Do you know what this guy is saying?” “No, I have no idea; do you know what he’s saying?”
I have witnessed variations of this phenomenon myself on several occasions. We all recognize the importance of talking with policymakers about our work, and many of us take time to travel to Washington, D.C., for this purpose. I want to ensure that those engagements are satisfying for all participants and effective in building partnerships between science and policy, each of which has much to offer the other.
My experience has been that the difference between an effective and an ineffective engagement with a policy audience hinges on our ability to meet that audience where it is at a given moment. That is, we must be able to consider the issues occupying the minds of policymakers at a particular moment, the pressures and time constraints they face, and the background knowledge and level of interest they bring to the conversation.
Conversely, we need to remind ourselves of our own inherent biases and professional socialization, particularly the assumption that science is inherently interesting to everyone. With policy audiences—as with any other—the point of departure for our conversations should be, “Why should this person care right now about what I have to say?” Our primary focus must be on the impacts that science has on our lives, our communities, and our nation.
With a new Administration and a new Congress entering office this year, this question takes on particular significance because new leadership always presents us with opportunities for education and outreach. Over the coming year, I will work to build new relationships—and maintain existing ones—with policymakers in Washington, D.C., using a variety of methods, including direct advocacy, expert testimony, and ACS-sponsored events on Capitol Hill.
I have set several specific goals for our policy and advocacy activities. By building awareness and excitement around the value of chemistry in our lives, my goals are to 1) broaden the membership of the House Chemistry Caucus; 2) launch a bipartisan Senate Chemistry Caucus; 3) develop and pilot a “Speaking with Congress” workshop series at the 2017 fall ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C.; and 4) leverage the 2017 National Chemistry Week to raise awareness on Capitol Hill. The top-notch government affairs and communications professionals at ACS will be working with us and guiding us as we set out to achieve these goals.
I encourage each of you to help me advance our collective interests on Capitol Hill and in your communities through science advocacy. Write a letter to your member of Congress and encourage him or her to support our agenda, talk with a student group, or write a letter to the editor of a local paper. These actions broaden awareness of science and help build a solid base of support for our efforts at the national level.
I also encourage you to take advantage of the many resources ACS has developed to help you be an effective science communicator and advocate. For example, you can 1) go to www.acs.org/policy to familiarize yourself with ACS’s policy positions; 2) contact the ACS Office of Public Affairs at (202) 872-4386 to speak with someone about engagement in policy advocacy; and 3) visit www.acs.org/Act4Chemistry to join the ACS Legislative Action Network.
Fostering common global principles and practices
Chemists and chemical engineers worldwide all share a common vision of benefiting humanity and improving the quality of our lives. Yet there is wide variance internationally in the principles and practices that govern our enterprise.
At international meetings, I have observed that there are often subtle but crucial differences that shape and inform our approaches, and affect the degree of emphasis accorded to priorities such as safety, security, and environmental sustainability. Over the next year, I will begin a dialogue with the global chemistry community with the goal of developing a set of global core principles for the practice of chemistry.
My aim is to ensure that chemical professionals and practitioners worldwide have a unified baseline for their respective efforts to elevate standards continually, wherever they may live and work. Establishing such a set of principles will also facilitate the sharing of best practices and collaboration across institutional and international boundaries.
I have already seen a powerful example of the effectiveness of common principles. Early last year, I attended a conference in Malaysia where 35 participants from 18 countries gathered to draft a Global Chemists’ Code of Ethics. The workshop was sponsored by ACS and the U.S. State Department with technical support from PNNL, and it included 10 current or former national chemical society presidents from Asia, the Pacific Basin, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. The group drafted ethics statements in six topic areas: the environment, research conduct, chemical safety, scientific writing and publishing, chemical security, and effecting positive change.
There was vigorous debate and some disagreement. But in the end, the participants produced a remarkable document that, perhaps for the first time, delivers a true global vision of a code of conduct for chemists and chemical engineers. It reads, in part:
“Chemical practitioners should promote a positive perception and public understanding and appreciation of chemistry. This is done through research, innovation, teamwork, collaboration, community outreach, and high ethical standards. Chemical professionals should act as role models, mentors, and advocates of the safe and secure application of chemistry to benefit humankind and preserve the environment for future generations.”
The ACS Board of Directors recently endorsed this code, providing greater weight to its importance to other institutions looking to use it as a framework for their own adoption.
Building on this model, I plan to invite representatives from chemical societies around the world to participate in preliminary discussions at the 2017 spring ACS national meeting in San Francisco to explore further areas in which articulated common values would strengthen the global chemical enterprise. Once these areas have been identified, I will ask participants to reconvene at the 2017 fall ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., to begin the work of drafting a set of core principles.
Climbing the hills together
I liken our upcoming year to one of my other favorite things: a bike climb through hilly terrain. We have a clear destination, have a good sense of the road ahead, and are well-outfitted for the journey. We can also anticipate the need to pedal hard and consistently, and to shift gears in response to conditions.
There will not be much time for coasting, and we’ll use the brakes sparingly. Most of all, I am glad to be making the journey together with you all. Thank you for your support, enthusiasm, and commitment, and I look forward to meeting and talking with you at this year’s regional and national meetings. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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