Ambassador for Chemistry?

December 10, 2012

Let's face it, chemistry isn't cool. If there were a high school in which professions were individuals, Chemistry would be the strange-smelling, socially inept, inscrutable geek who sits in the corner of every class designing smoke bombs. His only friends would be the equally-unpleasant Nuclear Energy, Big Tobacco, and Big Oil. Chemistry would be routinely wedgied, taunted, and otherwise humiliated by certain members of the Lacrosse team: Medicine; Nanotech; and Molecular Biology.

I have more than a passing interest in how chemistry is perceived by those outside the field due to countless conversations taking a turn like this:

Person I Just Met: "So, what do you do for a living?"

Me: "I'm a Chemist"

Person I Just Met: "Oh, I hated that class."

With this recurring dialog in mind, a C&EN article titled Ambassador for Chemistry, Science, and ACS caught my eye. Ironically (but not unexpectedly), you won't be able to read it without an ACS membership.

The author, Marinda Li Wu now serves as ACS President-Elect. She ran on a platform calling in part for better representation of chemistry domestically and internationally. Her campaign slogan was "Ambassador for Chemistry".

I agree with the overall sentiment Wu expresses - chemistry needs better representatives. However, for a piece with "Ambassador" in the title, the article is remarkably self-centered. Wu recounts her travels during the last year. We're informed of the many places she's been, the titles of the lectures she gave, the things she said, the events she attended, and the awards and honors she received along the way. It's something like a written vacation slideshow, and depending on your perspective, about as entertaining.

In an entire page, the article conveyed only one instance of concerns or aspirations expressed by the many people Wu talked with: apparently some Romanian chemists would like to set up an ACS chapter in their country. Moreover, all of the reported venues on Wu's extensive travel itinerary (save for a Mexican school chemistry festival) were local ACS sections, foreign chemical societies, universities, government labs, or chemical companies.

Maybe I'm just cynical, but this sounds more like a marketing campaign than a diplomatic mission.

The article's one specific call-to-action was to attend Wu's presidential symposium titled: "Vision 2025: How to Succeed in the Global Chemistry Enterprise" at the April 2013 ACS Meeting. Those who can't attend are encouraged to buy the Proceedings in book form. I'm at a loss to connect the title of this symposium or the book plug in any way with concept of being an "Ambassador for Chemistry".

Chemistry in the US faces numerous problems including loss of well-paying jobs, disillusionment by students and job-seekers, severe lack of K-12 teachers who actually understand the subject, imminent loss of federal research dollars on the other side of the "Fiscal Cliff", and one doozy of a bad image outside of the discipline.

The American Chemical Society itself faces multiple internal challenges rooted in a festering conflict of interest between its near total financial dependence on a highly lucritive publishing and database business, and its often-cited congressional charter to act in the public good.

Like any other organization or individual, ACS has much more power to lead by example than to influence events largely outside its control.

The problems facing chemistry and the ACS are most likely not solvable through wider travel by ACS leaders or members, or by symposia on globalization. The biggest problems will require ACS to fundamentally re-evaluate its long-term relevance in at a time of ubiquitous and free electronic communication, shrinking budgets in U.S. industry and academia, underemployment, and chemophobia. As Marinda Wu assumes the position of ACS President, the organization's primary spokesperson, I can only hope she pays better attention to those she's speaking with than her article suggests.

Holiday season offers chemists everywhere yet another opportunity to engage in a conversation leading to the question: "What do you do for a living?" If you're not in the habit, when someone new tells you how awful chemistry was in school, ask them what made it so bad. You might be surprised by what that leads to.