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January 6, 2003
Volume 81, Number 1
CENEAR 81 1 pp. 2-4
ISSN 0009-2347


I doubt if many of you have made it through the holidays without hearing of Harry Potter, the main character in a series of books by J. K. Rowling. The books chronicle the youngster's adventures at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft & Wizardry.

I'm particularly fond of Harry Potter because he's about the age of my twin sons, who recently turned 12. Like them, I'm drawn to the boy-wizard's bravery, his spunky friends, the magical Hogwarts, and the comical conflict between "Muggles" and wizards. Muggles are ordinary people who don't have a drop of magical blood in their veins and lead myopic lives burdened with technology.

AT HOME Clockwise from top right, Elsa Reichmanis; children Edward, Elizabeth, Patrick, and Thomas; and husband Frank Purcell.

Wizards routinely deride Muggles for ignoring magic and scorn them for coming up with nonmagical solutions to everyday problems.

Rowling's readers probably identify more with the Muggles than the wizards. In fact, "ordinary" people might be inclined to believe that the only "wizards" in our everyday lives are scientists, because they are mystified by our seemingly complex knowledge and skills. But I feel kinship with the Muggles of the world. We chemists know that science's contributions are not magical, but they are nonetheless equally elegant.

I'm an industrial chemist, and I've built my career on finding ways to get along without so-called magic. I believe, as novelist Eden Phillpotts once said, that "the universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." We may not be able to travel by Floo powder or cast an invisibility spell, but scientists are already shedding light on the wizard's bag of tricks. For example, the cellular enzyme telomerase may prove to be the legendary "Elixir of Life," and superconducting magnets may someday make levitation commonplace.

 Chemistry is at the very core of every technology we come in contact with. From pharmaceuticals and biotechnology to new high-performance materials with unique properties, developments are made possible only because there is a fundamental understanding of chemistry at the base. The power of the chemical sciences is what they create as a whole: an enabling infrastructure that delivers the foods, fuels, medicines, and materials that are the hallmarks of modern life.

Ronald Breslow, professor of chemistry at Columbia University, a past ACS president, and cochair of the National Research Council Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century, envisions our future as "increasingly multidisciplinary and increasingly concerned with organized molecular systems as chemistry moves from reductionist to integrationist." What the areas described in the forthcoming report each have in common is first, the pervasive need across all sectors of our society for a continued strong chemical sciences research and development effort; second, that increasingly discoveries are occurring at the interfaces between disciplines, requiring a multidisciplinary approach to research; and third, the switch away from concern with the properties of pure substances and an increasing concern with the properties of spontaneously organized interacting molecules such as one sees in a living cell.

As these exciting changes in directions are unfolding, it is critical for our membership to be at the forefront of that change. It is the responsibility of our society to be proactive in understanding and thus steering the changes in our discipline while preparing our members with the appropriate skill sets. In today's job market, chemical workers are required to have a knowledge base much broader than that of a traditional chemistry or chemical engineering education. ACS is uniquely situated to fill the gaps. I would like to see the continuing education offerings expanded to include a broader set of technology-oriented courses, in addition to workshops designed to provide team building and project management skills.

My predecessor, Eli Pearce, asked the ACS Society Committee on Education to consider what chemical education would look like if it were established today. To carry out this intellectual exercise, the current framework of chemical education must be ignored, a vision must be crafted, and then ways to best implement changes must be determined. It is my hope that collaborative efforts, particularly those that foster interactions between disciplines and institutions, will be part of the vision.

Our membership represents all sectors of the national and international economy: industry, academe, and government. The research enterprise must remain strong in all these sectors for our nation, and all nations, to be economically healthy in the future. As a partner in this enterprise, ACS has an obligation to monitor and to foster activity in the public arena relative to education, research, and the health of the chemical industry. In the upcoming strategic planning process, we have an opportunity to set a vision for what our society should look like and how it should function in the next 20 to 50 years, not just the next two or three.

The industrial enterprise is essential to the economic well-being of our nation. To remain healthy, investments must be made, not only for the short term, but also for the future. But that enterprise is evolving and the boundaries are changing--in part as a result of the current economic climate--such that the question of affordability is often raised.

The answer is that we can't afford not to invest in the future. Over the past few months, I have been talking with many of the leaders of our industry to understand how ACS could better meet the needs of the chemically related industries. From conferences and publications that communicate emerging science and technology advances to education and diversity, we have identified areas where we can form partnerships that will better serve our membership.

As have so many past ACS presidents, I strongly support those investments in the research infrastructure and in the people of the profession. Working to enhance chemical education and the chemical enterprise are always among our top priorities. In my presidential year, I am adding another priority--one to which every member can contribute. The overarching message I've chosen for the coming year is communication--among ourselves and our sister disciplines, with our legislators at both the state and national levels, and with the public at large.

With respect to the first, we need to understand and communicate our latest findings in an efficient and timely manner. We live in a fast-moving global society where the dissemination of knowledge occurs at an ever-increasing pace. It is essential to the technical community that it receive continued high-quality, trustworthy information about the latest findings as quickly as possible. ACS is now, and must for the future remain, competitive in the global publishing arena. The society must maintain its leadership role as a provider of scientific information, and most important, must continue its efforts to identify new products to ensure that its members have the tools they need to function in the new research environment.

Our technical meetings are one of the top benefits acknowledged by our members, but they, too, need to remain vibrant. I have offered financial support to planners of regional meetings in 2003 for symposia or other programs that focus on chemistry in technology development, chemistry in multidisciplinary research endeavors, or chemistry in education in a multidisciplinary research environment.

National meetings provide an excellent product. However, the structure is such that we are competing with ourselves. We need to develop mechanisms that give incentive to our divisions and committees to work more closely together when planning technical programs. I'm increasingly hearing from members about conflicts and how it's impossible to get to hear talks because of logistics. In more than an isolated case, four and sometimes even up to five divisions are programming in related areas. These programs are frequently overlapping in time and not only are competing for the same audience but also have many of the same speakers. Rather than forcing our members to run from one location to another, I believe that the membership might be better served if only one or two symposia were presented on a given topic, allowing them to more fully cover the breadth of the associated science and technology.

Communication is also involved with collaboration. I agree with Linus Pauling, who said, "In order to have a good idea, you must have lots of ideas." In my roles as researcher and manager at Bell Labs, I can say that every successful research program has been a multidisciplinary effort involving the teaming of chemists with chemical and process engineers, materials scientists, physicists, and device engineers. In my advisory role on visiting committees to university campuses, I see similar multifaceted, collaborative programs aimed at addressing fundamental issues in diverse areas ranging from biomaterials to electronics.

We must create more opportunities for our members to engage in dialogue with other scientists. National meetings and divisional symposia provide a solid base on which to build, and local section meetings offer perfect venues for communicating the value of chemistry to our sister societies. Cooperative, rather than competing, events will maximize the resources available to our members while minimizing their costs.

Communication with our government leaders and with the general public is equally important. The federal government is the largest investor in academic research, providing nearly 60% of all academic research funding. The overwhelming majority of this funding is invested in basic research. By building and supporting the nation's scientific infrastructure in the national laboratories, the federal government supports research that expands the frontiers of science in areas critical to various agency missions.

For example, each year, over 15,000 scientists and students from academia, industry, and government conduct cutting-edge experiments at the national laboratories and user facilities managed by the Department of Energy. Given the important role federal funding plays in the scientific enterprise, we must continue to work with leaders in Congress and the Administration to ensure a shared understanding of the value of and need for a strong physical sciences funding base.

I intend to spend as much of my time as possible contacting congressional leaders in Washington in support of funding for basic research. You, too, can be part of this effort simply by joining the ACS Legislative Action Network. Showing your support is as easy as reviewing a draft letter to your elected officials and pushing the "send" button. Details are available at

We can emphasize to the legislators the need for increased investment in fundamental research and science education, but we cannot neglect to educate the individuals who voted them into office and whose priorities they represent. While the 2001 National Science Foundation survey "Public Attitudes Toward an Understanding of Science and Technology" noted that nine out of every 10 adults who were interviewed by telephone report they are either very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries and in the use of new inventions and technologies, less than 15% of those interviewed feel very well informed about these subjects.

Harry Potter appeals to the public in part because the books suggest that what's possible is limited only by our imagination. Perhaps that's why Americans remain strongly interested in learning more about new discoveries and inventions, despite their consistently low level of scientific literacy. This curiosity gives us a great opportunity to pique their interest in our craft and to show them and our fellow scientists that without chemistry--the sometimes seemingly mundane, exacting tool that it is--many of the bells and whistles of modern-day life would not exist. We need to develop a shared vision and understanding of the value and "return on investment" of physical sciences research and development efforts and how chemistry pervades all of our key technology sectors.

We live in a country that can get excited about tall people in shorts working as a team to stuff a ball in a hoop. Or 11 people trying to kick a ball into a net. If they can cheer that, then I believe that Americans also can get excited by a team of scientists developing a life-saving medicine, a faster microchip, or a more fuel-efficient car. From a somewhat parochial point of view, I would hope that people will appreciate that many of these types of advances have their foundation in chemistry.

But in this interdisciplinary age, discoveries that have their basis in chemistry are oftentimes attributed to other disciplines, like biology or physics. ACS member Anthony Trozzolo--in a speech he gave nearly 25 years ago at the University of Notre Dame--suggests why this may be so. He said, "Perhaps part of the reason for the inadequate recognition lies in the central position of chemistry in the material and life sciences; its borders pervade those of its neighbors so much that a chemical contribution can be easily masked."

I've considered, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, that perhaps "the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves." For too long, we have worked at our chosen tasks expecting that others would, like our peers, naturally appreciate our contributions.

The reality is that all of us live in worlds that are flooded with information and, on most days, already full of tasks that tug at our attention. To break through, we need to add communicating to our skill base as chemists and take steps to connect with nonscientists. One way to do that is to learn to describe our work using analogies to everyday events and references to popular culture--like, say, blockbuster movies about wizards, for example.

There are seemingly magical results in store: Last year, research presented at ACS national meetings and published in ACS journals reached a potential audience of more than 260 million people through news media coverage, all of it positive. Just a handful of members participated with the society's Office of Communications in preparing news releases and other information to reach public and media audiences, however--and more local sections and divisions need to appoint public relations chairs, for whom communications training is available from ACS. It's my hope that you will consider ways you can get involved in communicating with public audiences; an easy way to follow what's happening is to subscribe to a regular e-mail newsletter issued by the ACS Office of Communications. Send an e-mail to to subscribe, and get started.

In closing, I want to state that the most valuable resource that ACS has is its members. I hope you will join me in making a commitment that during 2003 we will contribute a little more of our time to efforts to communicate our value to friends and family, a little more time to learning the skills that will enhance our value in the new collaborative environment, and a little more time to mentoring our successor researchers to ensure the vibrancy of a great profession.


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Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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