ROAD TO THE 21st CENTURY (1989)
ACS has tremendous potential to shape the future of chemistry, the lives of those who practice it, and the welfare of our country. We must make basic policy changes, however, to achieve that potential. Although the Society's assets exceed $100 million, money is not our most important resource. ACS is a scientific, educational, and professional organization of more than 135,000 members. Its present international status has been earned through the efforts of thousands of members, hailing from every segment of our profession during the past 113 years.
In spite of our best intentions, ACS now faces a troubled future. Nearly everyone recognizes the need to address problems created by the changing times, but proposed solutions have been wide ranging, varied, and sometimes contradictory. Accordingly, attempts to apply such remedies have often led to endless debate or procrastination, and the resultant apathy has exasperated and frustrated many. Some have described ACS as a sleeping giant that must yet be wakened. Others have been less flattering. One member characterized the society as a marshmallow elephant whose mushy bulk defeats any attempt to reshape it. It is true that some proposals have failed because of an aversion to change but, just as frequently, inertia per se was not the culprit.
In many instances, initiatives failed because the cart was placed before the horse. Proposals intended to ensure scientific progress and enhance the image of chemistry disregarded the welfare of ACS members themselves, the most crucial factor in any equation for progress. Chemists/engineers have diverse backgrounds, ranging from the youngest bachelor-level professional to the most successful Nobel Laureate from the bench scientist performing basic research to nonresearch specialists engaged in marketing and sales. The combined efforts of all are required to ensure steady progress into the 21st century.
Failure to recognize the true nature of modern professional organizations lies at the heart of our flagging endeavors. Voluntary and social services organizations, such as the Red Cross, receive millions of dollars in contributions and countless hours of volunteered service. The symphony, opera, museums, and others receive substantial support from their subscribers and patrons of the arts. A 20th century professional organization, however, is vastly different - regardless of its name or charge. The simple truth, although frequently overlooked or unacknowledged, is that ACS is a membership organization. Its continued existence depends upon how well it meets the needs of that membership. Most of the 135,000-plus ACS members do not consider chemistry a hobby or charity but a profession. Accordingly, they expect ACS to advance chemistry and the welfare of those who practice it.
Some older chemists (my contemporaries) occasionally bemoan the attitude of today's chemists because it differs from their own. Yes, today's chemists are different. Rather than be cause for alarm, however, this should be viewed as a healthy sign of transition and growth. Today's circumstances require all of us - young and old alike - to adapt to the advance of time. Some activities of the society already reflect that change. An obvious example, accepted by all, is the Chemical Abstracts Service. The original CAS owed its existence and growth to the work of thousands of young, idealistic chemists who abstracted articles for pennies. Today, most who perform this service earn their livelihoods by it. The well-known Latin proverb "Tempora mutantur. . . " suggests that, even 2000 years ago, classical philosophers acknowledged the need for change. In modern times, we can do no less. Change that serves the needs of the membership can vitalize ACS for even greater contributions to science, to scientists, and to society in general.
Recently several academicians, among them Glenn Crosby - a distinguished professor of chemistry at Washington State University - cautioned that "some chemistry faculty members concentrate too much on research," that "teaching is often left to those who can't make it in research" (C&EN, Oct.23, page 25). By analogy, ACS may concentrate so much of its attention on publication activities that it neglects its responsibility for the professional interests of chemists and engineers. The Society continues to increase dues while failing to recognize that most members do not subscribe to ACS journals, seldom attend national meetings, or rarely receive a professional award. For this majority of the membership, ACS dues are no longer cost effective; real costs exceed perceived benefits.
Some members active in ACS governance expect that increased revenue will foster increased growth and member satisfaction. The newest proposal is to increase dues annually by the maximum allowable amount throughout the next 15 years. Meanwhile, expenditures on membership activities would be curtailed, permitting our capital to grow. The accumulated funds would then be used to sponsor innovative programs, beginning in the year 2005.
This cart-before-horse approach is unlikely to gain support from ACS members. Surely, it will not blaze a trail into the 21st century. A more reasonable first approach is to increase services for that majority which perceives their chief benefit to be a subscription to C&EN. These members may condone a dues increase if their interests are also served. They will not, however, wait 15 years for an accounting. Secondly, we must convince all present and potential members that ACS really is their society; this may not be an easy task. Although improvements have been made, members will carefully scrutinize the future performance of ACS.
In spite of past failings, the future of the society need not be dim. During their terms in office, ACS presidents Gordon Nelson and Clayton Callis have initiated a new approach. They convened two task forces charged with identifying the programs ACS members deem essential. In addition, Ernest Eliel, chairman of the ACS Board of Directors, created a task force to define the special needs of bachelor-level chemists. These studies conferred momentum, provided a basis for action, and lent credibility to our decisions. Unfortunately, many of those recommendations remain on the back burner. To demonstrate responsible and responsive leadership, we must implement those programs without delay. A return to business as usual will not suffice; tangible member benefits must be evident.
The task forces made nearly 100 recommendations. The most important of these suggestions include provisions to combat technical obsolescence, to promote legislation that is beneficial to chemists and engineers , and to offer those professional-related services that only a large organization can economically provide.
Yes, these activities will be costly and our resources are limited. As an Austrian general (Montecuccoli) proclaimed in the 17th century: "Three things are needed to make war: money, money, and money." But Montecuccoli made that statement after he had amassed enough soldiers. The same principles apply to ACS's "war" of survival. To sustain growth, ACS must recruit new members while retaining existing ones. Members must not be relegated to the status of mere numbers in the ACS computer. They must be convinced that ACS is a dynamic organization that gives prime consideration to their contributions, interests, and needs; including those of the young B.S. chemists. Our most important goal is to conduct society affairs in such a way as to assure our members that ACS really is their society. As long as ACS focuses on its members, it will remain viable. It will continue to be an organization of committed professionals, capable of doing wonders.
Is this strategy realistic? In previous Comments I have often quoted people of historical importance. This time, let me conclude simply by stating my personal philosophy: All things are possible if we set our minds to it. I say this with humility, optimism, and a willingness to persevere. The society can and must implement those programs that reflect the will of its members; otherwise, it will barely limp into the 21st century and, like the elephant, will be come an endangered species.
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