Science, Innovation, and Chemistry



An Interview with Thomas M. Connelly Jr., Ph.D., Executive Director and CEO, American Chemical Society

The ACS leader talks about science becoming more multi-disciplinary, innovation and the role of standards, and the work of his organization.

What challenges do you feel ACS can help address through advances in chemistry?

At ACS, we view chemistry as the central science, in the sense that it is central to many different fields. It's central to everyday life.

Think about the chemistry involved in nutrition and food science, or the chemistry that's involved in developing new drug therapies and other human health applications, plus for packaging, transportation, and electronics. All of these areas have chemistry and materials challenges. Some of the great global challenges with energy, climate, human health, agriculture, food, and transportation will require chemistry as part of the solution.

I think we're well positioned here.

I'll give you an example. Recently, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced their National Microbiome Initiative the same day as The Kavli Foundation announced their Microbiome Ideas Challenge, which is a special series of grants that they tend to make to scientists advancing studies in this area. They're working through the American Society of Microbiology, but they've also chosen ACS and the American Physical Society to be partners in the effort.

Vehicle electrification is another example that's receiving a lot of attention now. Higher capacity, more efficient batteries that can be recharged more quickly and have a greater ability to store energy are on the critical path to widespread adoption of electric vehicles. All of the battery components represent chemical or materials opportunities. In addition, electrification requires materials with high temperature performance and electrical properties beyond what has been available before. Materials for batteries and inverters as well as other car components are clearly an opportunity.

I think we also have to recognize that the practice of science is becoming more interdisciplinary.

Although we teach students in academic departments organized around single science subjects, all the challenges I've mentioned, whether energy, climate, human health, food supply, nutrition, or transportation, will have solutions that will be interdisciplinary in nature. We as a scientific society need to improve our skills at working with societies representing other sciences, such as The Kavli Foundation ideas challenge.

The challenge to us is how can we at ACS improve our skill set in terms of working in an interdisciplinary fashion. In my role, one of my first stops has been going to other societies to develop relationships. We're looking for opportunities to do more together.

What role does ACS play in encouraging innovation in chemistry and the chemical industry overall? What role do standards have?

I've spent a lot of my career in innovation, and it's an area I've given some thought to. Let's start with definitions.

In contrast to innovation, invention is about discovering a new science or technology. Innovation is about the application of these inventions or applying existing science and technology in new ways so that value is created.

Invention can occur in a laboratory. Innovation necessarily occurs in a marketplace and can't occur in a lab.

With that said, let's talk about chemistry. I've said that chemistry is a central science and although there are theoretical branches of chemistry, for the most part the practice of chemistry involves physical matter - atoms and molecules and macromolecules and other materials. These materials could be some of the things we've talked about: a new drug to cure disease, a new crop protection chemical, a new polymer for the electric vehicle I mentioned, a new photoresist polymer for the next generation of microprocessors, or a high efficiency polysilicon for photovoltaic cells. All of these are examples of innovations that occur in chemistry. The invention occurs and that invention is translated into innovation through a value chain.

ACS participates in this process directly. We publish 50 scientific journals covering every sub-discipline of chemistry. We hold two scientific meetings each year and have 15,000 scientists involved, plus regional meetings and special themed meetings by our 32 technical divisions that focus on one of the sub-disciplines of chemistry. Also, through our Chemical Abstracts Service, ACS provides data on the physical properties of materials or the chemical literature around a particular substance or reaction used by chemical professionals around the world.

Standards play a crucial role.

Here's one recent example. A study I was part of with the National Academies on the industrialization of biology delved into a number of aspects of metabolic engineering and synthetic biology. Today there is a cottage industry developing along the value chain for synthetic biology, but to move from a cottage industry to a full-scale industry, standards need to be established that will allow materials to flow at each step along the value chain. It's a critical need. I'm pleased to see that ASTM is coming forward to look at standards to enable that transfer of value in areas of synthetic biology. It's a positive step forward and an absolutely necessary one for the full potential of synthetic biology to be achieved.

ACS members participate along these steps, and we find ways to facilitate their involvement. For example, the event that we initiated last year - the CTO Summit - brought together chief technology officers of companies involved in the chemical sciences at multiple stages along the value chain. This is a way to get people together and stimulate dialog on how to make value chains more efficient.

How would you describe where we are with green chemistry and where do we need to go?

ACS is highly committed to and involved in green chemistry. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute is dedicated to promoting green chemistry, and we're involved in a number of activities.

We sponsor, for example, roundtables for the pharma industry, chemical manufacturers, and formulators involved in green chemistry. We recently began a hydraulic fracturing roundtable that includes chemical suppliers.

The ACS Green Chemistry Institute works alongside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to sponsor the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, recognition for leading researchers and companies who have developed green chemistry. In addition, each year, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute hosts a green chemistry and engineering conference.

Green chemistry, in my mind, is about finding more sustainable products so that there's less environmental impact during production, material selection, product use, and end of life. Green chemistry entails better chemical production processes, better catalysts, more benign solvents, lower energy requirements for the processes, and easier recycle, reuse, and disposal.

In my view, we're still at the very early stages of this work; it requires a lot of promotion. In principle, people have bought into the concept, but making this the way we do business has yet to be achieved.

One of the things we at ACS are doing is to assure that green chemistry and green chemistry principles are included in undergraduate curricula. We need the next generation of chemists and engineers to grow up seeing the critical role that they have in developing greener processes. University faculty need to embrace this as well and teach principles of green chemistry with passion.

What are your other current priorities at ACS?

Strengthening our growth in terms of membership and revenue is important to me. We want to understand what our student members, industrial members, and academic members are really looking for from ACS. We want to be sure we update our offerings to be consistent with what is wanted.

Global strategies are also a priority for me. We are the American Chemical Society and always will be, and the vast majority of our members are located in the United States. However, the practice of chemistry is global, and we need to be a resource that connects our members, wherever they are, with the practice of chemistry, wherever it's happening.

Customers for our information products are around the world and so are our authors. We need to look at our operations and our programming: Are they still oriented exclusively toward our U.S.-based members, or can we enrich our programming for our members who are outside the United States?

Thomas M. Connelly Jr., Ph.D., is executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., a position he has held since February 2015. Connelly previously had been executive vice president and chief innovation officer at DuPont, where he had worked since 1978. With a career serving in research, manufacturing and business roles, Connelly has also served on the boards of several industry and community organizations.

Issue Month: 
July/August
Issue Year: 
2016
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