Member organisations need to change their approach to be fit for the 21st century, says the International Organisation for Chemical Sciences in Development

A globe map on a table in front of a man working on a laptop

Source: ©Shutterstock

Chemical societies across the world must adopt a ‘glocal’ approach

There are more than 250 diverse chemistry organisations that can be identified by searching online. Around a quarter of these are national chemistry societies, which have traditionally served as learned societies, voices of the profession and protectors of the interests of professionals and the public. These have traditionally provided professional training and accreditation and communicated chemistry’s achievements and value to diverse audiences. But the world is changing, and societies are being compelled to rethink their fundamental purpose – and how they can refresh themselves to best serve chemistry and society at large.

Faltering responses

The responses to the emerging challenges have been varied and, at times, feeble. Sustainability, while beginning to be acknowledged by some organisations, has yet to be wholeheartedly embraced by many or to result in any commensurate action. This is especially crucial in the context of the recent adoption by the United Nations of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the Paris agreement on limiting climate change.

Another area in need of overhaul is cross-disciplinary collaboration. Fulfilling chemistry’s capacities as a science, as an underpinning for adjacent sciences and as a source of useful applications increasingly requires engagement and the adoption of a ‘systems thinking’ approach. National societies can do much more to encourage and facilitate the interfaces with a host of adjacent areas, from chemical engineering and technology to earth systems and life sciences.

Ethical behaviour and research integrity are also emerging as major areas of concern. Their promotion and practice in chemistry is often poorly visible and needs stronger enforcement. The American Chemical Society’s drafting of a global code of ethics for chemists,[1] based on The Hague Ethical Guidelines, is a step towards filling this void.

Finally, societies need to undertake a rebalancing of the priorities they give to publishing, compared with service to their membership and to the broader needs of the discipline and of society. One driving factor is that the publishing world is undergoing profound changes driven by the impact of rapidly evolving communications technologies. This may affect the revenues, and they need to respond to the increasing demand for open publishing and access to scientific papers.

Change blueprints

How can each national chemical society adapt in order to facilitate the repositioning of the field, as well as ensure its own continued relevance and sustainability? There can be no uniform answer. These challenges are both internal and external, and may require a reset of a society’s priorities and remit, with implications for its membership, finances, and purpose.

To start, societies should undertake a full review and update their vision, mission, objectives and medium term strategic plan. They must examine whether they address contemporary challenges such as sustainability and promotion of ethics and integrity, and whether their organisational structure and strategic plan demonstrate a commitment to providing the resources and actions required. This could be aided by commissioning periodic independent external evaluations of their purpose, function and performance (put in both local and global context).

National societies should develop and act on a coherent policy for international engagement, supported by appropriate resources. National societies need a ‘glocal’ approach, attuned with both global and local trends and issues. They should take cues from initiatives such as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Pan Africa Chemistry Network, and reform international chemistry organisations to render them fit for purpose.

They must also broaden the effort to communicate about and project the scope and value of chemistry as a central science. This includes targeting audiences beyond the membership and beyond the field, including the media, the public and policy-makers. Chemistry education that leverages the revolution in communication technology and embraces innovations in content must be promoted. The traditionally successful chemistry academia–industry interface should be strengthened, for example by reinventing Liebig’s law of the minimum, recognising that growth is controlled not by the amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource.

Finally, national societies must devise mechanisms for enhancing diversity and attracting and inducting young and talented chemists into active roles.

While some societies are already pursuing some of these approaches to varying degrees, others need to gear up. This will require overcoming internal resistance to usher in deep-seated reforms, enabling them to give better service to their own communities and the field of chemistry, while assisting in reinforcing the relevance of chemistry and its capacity to meet contemporary global challenges.

Goverdhan Mehta is Lilly-Jubilant chair at the School of Chemistry, University of Hyderabad, India; Alain Krief is emeritus professor at Namur University, Belgium; Henning Hopf is professor at the Institute of Organic Chemistry, Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany; and Stephen Matlin is adjunct professor at the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, UK. All authors are board members of the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development.