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January 1, 2001
Volume 79, Number 1
CENEAR 79 1 pp.2-4
ISSN 0009-2347


Attila E. Pavlath
ACS President

In 1874, a group of American chemists discussed the possibility of forming an organization for the strengthening of chemistry in the U.S. The initial reaction was that, for various reasons, it would not work. However, there were some who did not accept the verdict of "impossible," and they refused to give up. Two years later the foundation was laid in New York City for our organization, the American Chemical Society. During its 125 years of existence, the Society's pioneer "can-do" spirit was occasionally threatened by doubt, overcautiousness, and even complacency. The voices for change were frequently downplayed. Although gains were made in the membership numbers, many dissatisfied members also gave up and quit.

[Photo by Peter Cutts]
Nevertheless, the Society grew and became the world's largest single-discipline scientific society. This was not easy. While we were successful in making crucial business decisions, growth was made possible through the work of countless idealistic members building Local Sections and Divisions, organizing meetings, and editing journals. Some older members may remember that 50 years ago a significant fraction of the work forChemical Abstracts was done by young members who received four cents per word for their contributions. This seems laughable in the context of present technology, but, without such efforts, CA would not be the world's largest publisher of chemical references.

The American Chemical Society, without question, has a solid foundation and an impressive history. With your help, I hope to add to this history during my presidency. There will be problems--no large enterprise is without them--and all may not be solved by the end of 2001. We cannot return to the good old days. But we can capitalize on the same strengths that served us well in the early days: the extensive network of individual chemical scientists and their dedication and commitment to the organization. For the past 30 years, I have stressed this theme, suggested solutions, and promoted ideas summarized on my Web page ( http://www.pavlath.org). Throughout my presidency, I will continue to emphasize the importance of the individual member and to promote programs to increase member benefits.

What are the problems? How am I going to attack them? What are the solutions? Please don't be disappointed if this message does not spell out everything or if, at the end of 2001, all problems have not been solved so that we can return to the "good old days." In this message, let me give you some idea as to what you can expect from me this year.

Public image of chemistry

Fifty years ago, chemistry enjoyed a high standing. Its contributions to our lives were known to the general public. One giant industrial organization openly acknowledged by its slogan that chemistry provided better things for our lives. Then, something changed, and the media increasingly publicized the occasional negative aspects of chemistry while downplaying or ignoring the larger benefits that chemistry provides. However, we in ACS ignored this trend and only recently started to fight back. At the fall ACS meeting in Chicago, my Presidential Event will be the celebration of the most important chemical technological developments of the past 125 years that have made our lives easier. A special committee has made these selections from the hundreds of nominations received from throughout the world. The results will not only be featured as an exhibit in Chicago, but will be summarized in a book that will be widely distributed. The display will be preserved and made available as a traveling exhibit to museums throughout the country.

This will not be a "one-shot" event. We have an uphill fight just to stay even, but with concerted effort, we can progress. Chemistry must be given deserved recognition for its overall beneficial effects on our lives. How many people know that the high efficiency of agriculture was made possible by development of artificial fertilizers through the Haber-Bosch process? Does the younger generation realize that their desktop and laptop computers would not exist without the development of semiconductors, silicon chips, or liquid crystals? Cures for diseases are frequently attributed to medical researchers and not to the chemists who developed the compounds. Penicillin, for example, would be a rare drug indeed if economic mass production had not been made possible by chemists and other scientists working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture .

Chemistry has improved and will continue to improve our lives. I will work with every segment of the Society to spread this message through lectures, public-relations programs, Web pages, and day-to-day discussions. Yes, chemistry has had some negative side effects, but even so, chemists have quickly corrected the problems. We must make it well known to the public that there is no such thing as "zero risk" in any aspect of everyday life. We also must be careful that, in our publications and meetings, we do not succumb to so-called politically correct attitudes that substitute fashionable speculations and "buzz-words" for scientifically proven facts. This kind of sensationalism has no place in a scientific organization. Every member must carry this message.


Obviously, the chemistry graduates of our colleges and universities that enjoy worldwide reputations do not have to be told the value of chemistry, but they represent only a small part of the population. Our public-relations activities are making headway in enlightening the adult population about the contributions science--especially chemistry--has made to the betterment of the human condition. This will be a long process, for it is quite difficult to change attitudes in people who not only lack formal education in science but are also regularly bombarded with sensationalist journalism.

I will increase activities to attack the problem at its source, namely in K-12 education, where the quality of science teaching is uneven. In too many high schools throughout the nation, it is increasingly rare that students choose the physical sciences as electives. In contrast, the Midland (Michigan) Section has been very successful in working with elementary and high schools to increase the science content of their curricula. The goal is not to increase the numbers of chemists we graduate, but to increase the level of science "literacy" so that the students can make judgments based on their own knowledge and not on media headlines. To respond to this challenge, I will appoint a task force to examine how we can disseminate the success of the Midland Section's activities to other Local Sections where they can be adapted to local circumstances.


Around 1988, when a danger flag was being waved alleging a shortage of chemists, the implicit slogan was, "Be a chemist; chemistry is fun!" Yes, chemistry is fun, but only if you have a job. If one has a stable, secure position, chemistry is very exciting and can lead to great discoveries. Our academic colleagues, especially those who enjoy the stability of tenure, are living proof of this. Without a stable atmosphere, creativity generally wilts; the nightmare of potential unemployment really kills the "fun."

Do we have a shortage or a surplus of chemists? This has been the subject of an ongoing debate for decades. In a free-market economy, the relationship between supply and demand generally decides such questions. In many commodities, for example, a surplus might be diminished by storing it for use when the demand increases. But chemists are not commodities, they are human beings with human needs, they cannot be put in a "deep freeze." Between 1960 and 1970, we doubled the graduation rates in every field of chemistry at every degree level; and today, after a short decline, we have an additional increase of 15% over the level of 1970. This would not matter if the supply of jobs had also increased. While certain industries, such as pharmaceuticals, have increased their R&D spending, the overall number of industrial positions, where most of the opportunities are, went down. Even if recent graduates breathe a little easier while they search for jobs, chemists at the other end of the age spectrum find it harder to find industrial employment if they are forced to look for new jobs.

Naturally, it is easy to say that the cause is the imbalance between the supply and the demand, and one can find rational explanations for why this is so. Academe is in the business of teaching; it needs a certain number of students to maintain its staff, and, therefore, it does not adequately take into consideration the decrease in available jobs for its graduates. Industry needs chemists who are up-to-date in new scientific developments, and, therefore, young graduates. Middle-aged chemists with family obligations and full-time jobs often have difficulty finding time to keep up with new knowledge. Since jobs are limited, it means that new hires entering the workforce push out older people at the other end of the pipeline.

What can we do? I have discussed this frequently in the past in numerous ACS Comments, which are collected on my Web site, and I will elaborate on this in more detail in the future. For the present purpose, the simplest solution is continuing education. If we take some of the graduates at various levels of their careers and "recycle" them into the educational system, we could ease the problem. Academe could maintain the level of its chemistry-student population without increasing the total number in the pipelines. Industry would have a mechanism to maintain a well-skilled workforce, retaining its seasoned employees with their extensive corporate knowledge and replacing mostly those who retire with younger, inexperienced workers. Chemists would have a mechanism to stay current regardless of their age.

It sounds simple enough, but can it be done? Academe long ago solved the problem through sabbaticals at seven- to 10-year intervals. We can implement industrial sabbaticals, but we must first solve a number of difficult problems. At the San Diego ACS meeting, my Presidential Event will be a series of symposia dealing with every aspect of career development, including this subject. Industrial sabbaticals have been discussed in the past, but, perhaps because the idea was ahead of its time, we did not take any serious action.

Member services

When the Society was founded, the membership was homogeneous, and the services expected and provided were simple: journals and meetings. But over the years, the demographics have changed drastically in almost every category. Only 30% of the members subscribe to one or more ACS journals, despite the significant discounts from the commercial rates. Today, the members' needs and expectations are more diverse, they want not only more services, they also want new ones. For example, the professional needs of a young B.S. chemist who is not on the "beaten path" of chemistry either geographically or scientifically cannot be equated with those of an experienced Ph.D. researcher who is able to attend national meetings. However, they both pay the same dues regardless of what they receive from the ACS.

Should we base the dues on some demographic factor? Should there be a cafeteria-style system where one pays in proportion to the services received? Ten years ago, the Membership Affairs Committee (MAC) was struggling with graduated dues without finding a solution. Recently, it revived a version of it, but it was again dropped. I think this is an idea whose time has arrived. What is the best way? I do not know. I am asking MAC to come up with a recommendation to improve the situation.

Thirty years ago, ACS President Alan C. Nixon stated that the first responsibility of the Society is to its own members. At a recent meeting of the ACS Board Planning Committee, an outside consultant stated this in a different way: We must design the 2001-03 Strategic Plan with an eye toward primarily the benefit of the members and then secondarily for that of the profession. This is an important reversal of the philosophy that has governed the Society since its inception. I am therefore asking every committee to use this principle in its deliberations, and I am prepared to appoint task forces for quick actions as needed. If the solutions require a new paradigm or even a new philosophy, so be it. We need more than a Strategic Plan, we need a Strategic Vision.


An 18th-century Austrian general defined the three major requirements for winning a war: money, money, and money. While we need ideas, most of them cannot be accomplished without financial support. While we are on a very solid financial base, we do not have unlimited resources. I am fiscally conservative, and I do not want to "give away the store" or "squander our inheritance." On the other hand, we should not adopt a narrow accountant's definition of what constitutes success in the operation of the Society, that is, the difference in the bottom line from one year to the next. Just as any smart enterprise regards research as a long-range investment, the services to the members will bear fruits, not immediately, but in years to come. We can afford to experiment with a variety of approaches. I am therefore asking the Budget & Finance Committee to review the activities in a somewhat different way from the past. Namely, ask not how much something costs right away, but how much it will return in coming years. As Niels Bohr once said: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." However, we are experimenters in the laboratories. We should not be afraid to use the same philosophy in ACS affairs. The Society's resources should be used to provide benefits to members and to the profession.

Solution of the problems

Some of you reading this message might think that the approach I propose cannot work, but I would ask you to think about it again. In 1884, there was an important gathering of the world's best physicists in Europe to discuss whether a heavier-than-air flying machine was physically possible. After two weeks of thorough consideration, this savant group delivered the verdict: Man will never fly! (I could be flippant and note that trans-Atlantic mail service was slow at that time, and after 19 years the verdict still had not reached the Wright brothersin time to stop their "impossible" experiment.) There is, however, a logical explanation: Aerodynamics was an unknown science; the physicists' verdict was based on past knowledge without considering possible new approaches. Of course, it's not easy to predict the future. Isaac Asimov, the famous science-fiction writer, in the 1940s predicted the increased use of computers in our lives. This was before the discovery of the transistor, and he could not foresee the computers' diminutive sizes; instead he visualized an ever-increasing size, even taking over the moon!

I am not minimizing the problems of the profession; they will not be solved overnight. Finding solutions cannot be achieved by a single person in one year. I fervently hope that these efforts will be a start and will continue after I hand over the helm to President-Elect Eli Pearce in 2002. However, we must begin without delay.

During his presidency, Columbia University chemistry professor Ronald Breslow began discussions with university officials regarding the educational system. I have asked him to revive and intensify these interactions. His highly respected status in academic circles will help to start us on our way toward a solution. I am also seeking out other past ACS Presidents from both academe and industry who are willing to lend their support to these concentrated efforts.

As you can see, I do not consider the ACS presidency as a one-person, one-year effort. I am working closely with the current presidential succession, Immediate Past-President Daryle Busch and Eli Pearce, to act in unison. We will work together with the ACS Board and Council to utilize everyone for this purpose. We also want to involve the Local Sections and Divisions in every way possible, creating local and regional task forces as needed to give every willing ACS member an opportunity to join this effort. In the past, we frequently overlooked the tremendous talents available at the grassroots level, and we failed to seek input from this resource.

The key to the success of the American Chemical Society is a grassroots approach! A favorite ploy by some politicians is to promise easy-sounding, "pie-in-the-sky" solutions that frequently sound condescending: "We know what to do, just trust us." Similarly, some of the past efforts focused on convincing the members that "top-down" solutions were best for them: "Try it, you'll like it!" Such attitudes may have been the result of overconfidence, lack of input, or other benevolent reasons. It is not important how it happened or why. I have frequently quoted Winston Churchill's warning against debating the past, because by doing so we may miss the future. Who did what and why is immaterial. The past is important only to ensure that we avoid repeating the same mistakes. What are we going do now? Proposed actions should not be killed in advance by finding reasons why they cannot work; a more rational and pragmatic approach is to look for ways how new ideas can work.

I have intentionally not spelled out detailed plans. The most important part of my suggested approach is to involve every member who is willing in all phases of the planning and execution process. On one principle I will not waver: I will relentlessly press for action to improve the professional state of those whose work makes our profession so valuable, from the youngest chemistry student to the most respected Nobel Laureate. I am not proposing change for the sake of change, nor to terminate existing programs that work, but I am not afraid to try new ideas just because someone says they might not work.

These issues are complex and their solutions are difficult, but I won't paraphrase Churchill and offer only "blood, sweat, and tears" to solve them. We have things much easier. A few years ago, ACS presidential candidate Judy Giordan noted that: "We are all in this together." If we follow this admonition and work together, the future will be bright.

I am prepared to lead, but I will need your help, cooperation, and support. I want to revive the spirit that prevailed when our organization began 125 years ago. As we enter the 21st century, I invite you to join me in a new journey to seek out uncharted territories of ideas where perhaps no one has gone before. In earlier times, we frequently delayed action, choosing instead to continue the quest for perfect solutions. We cannot afford the luxury of endless discussion. We must listen to our members and start activities and programs in response to their needs. Try new things! Experiment!

We must deal with the problems in a different way: IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE!

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