Representing the largest body of chemists in the world, the American Chemical Society has an important role to play in supporting its members and working with partners committed to addressing global sustainability challenges. In part two of this series, we’ll explore four foundational challenges and proposed action areas for ACS (Read part one: The Moonshot of our Times).
Each of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represents a set of significant technical and/or social challenges. Without a doubt, awe-inspiring advances in chemical/engineering research, leaps in the sustainability of manufacturing and products, and true integration of sustainability concepts in chemistry education will be needed.
But that is not all...a challenge of this nature demands that we look beyond the specifics and identify what kind of mindset will enable us to meet these challenges.
As ACS develops a strategic response to the SDGs, the Division of Scientific Advancement, led by Dr. Mary Kirchhoff, has illuminated some “cross-cutting challenges” we will need to address as a community if we are to move the needle on sustainability. Likewise, four areas for action are proposed to help address these issues.
Challenge: A New Mindset
A quick study of social science tells us that by far the hardest thing to do is to change someone’s mind—convince them (or even harder, ourselves) of the primacy of a new way of thinking. It usually takes a strong emotional connection; reason typically only goes so far to change human behavior.
Fifty-one years ago, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took the first color photo of the Earth rising from behind the moon. Anders said of the experience, “That was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” The picture evoked a strong response worldwide and is credited with inspiring the environmental movement. To me, this image remains potent today as a reminder of the unity and fragility of life in the vast expanse of space.
Most likely, if you are reading this from the pages of The Nexus, you also have something that inspires you on an emotional level to connect to sustainable and green chemistry. But for the larger chemistry community, which has yet to fully embrace sustainability, what will it take to get there?
Action #1: Create a Sustainability Mindset across the Chemistry Community
At a recent Committee on Environmental Improvement meeting I attended as a guest at the ACS National Meeting in San Diego, I got to meet a group of passionate ACS members already working to spread the sustainability mindset within the chemistry community. Similarly, at the offices of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute in Washington, D.C., I’m constantly inspired by my colleagues who go above and beyond promoting and fostering the green chemistry approach both within the Society and among larger global audiences (e.g., ACS GCI staff have been in India, China and Botswana in the last month alone). Although change can take time, I believe ACS has an important role to play in motivating and unifying the chemistry community around a culture of sustainability.
Education is another area where ACS plays a strategic role in the community. By integrating concepts like systems thinking and green chemistry, and by using the SDGs as a framework, we can help equip students to contribute to solving the grand challenges of sustainability. ACS GCI has been partnering with many groups and individuals to move this effort forward over the past several years, and is about to embark on a three-year content creation project to further support educators in this area.
There are many facets of creating a sustainability mindset in which ACS can provide leadership and support, and these are just a few.
Challenge: Efficient Translation of Research into Practice
As evidenced by the huge amount of research catalogued in scientific journals—over 3 million peer-reviewed articles per year—there is no shortage of research being conducted worldwide. Where things tend to break down is in how long it takes for research and innovations to be translated into commercial products and industrial practices. This is where the rubber hits the road if we are going to realize practical solutions for the SDGs before the 2030 deadline. A sustained focus on this issue by all sectors of the chemistry community could significantly improve the rate of translation. Improving the understanding and communication between industry and academia, as well as between industry and regulatory agencies, are just two areas to work on.
Challenge: Innovation and Entrepreneurship
An unprecedented amount of innovation and entrepreneurship will be essential to make the kind of scientific and technological breakthroughs needed for achieving the SDGs. The chemistry community can enable this by identifying and addressing innovation bottlenecks; developing new approaches to conducting research and multidisciplinary collaborations; looking for ways to speed up adoption of cutting-edge tools (e.g., data science) in research; and providing greater support for high-risk, high-reward research.
Action #2: Foster Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Translation in Chemistry
Frontiers in chemistry are increasingly spanning several fields, requiring researchers to form multidisciplinary groups. For example, Frances Arnold, 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, works with molecular biology, biochemistry, bioengineering and chemistry students in her research group. During a 2015 interview I did with her for The Nexus, she said, “I know chemists who feel that biology is the big frontier for them. They can apply their more traditional chemical knowledge to identifying new opportunities for biological synthesis.” ACS can create opportunities for information exchange and collaboration across sectors and disciplines that foster innovation, and efficient translation of research.
At the same time, ACS can help chemists develop the skills and knowledge they need to be entrepreneurs, and provide space to promote chemistry innovators. One recent example of this took place at the ACS National Meeting in San Diego where the ACS Industry Member Programs and ACS Small Chemical Businesses Division held a successful Entrepreneur Pitch Training and Competition. Other efforts have included an Entrepreneurial Summit at ACS; a Business Plan Competition at the GC&E Conference; and a student workshop fostering entrepreneurial skills such as networking, IP issues and chemical product design, also at the GC&E Conference.
Challenge: Policy Changes
Policy is an important tool to foster innovation in nascent and early-growth sectors. Whether we like it or not, the marketplace will not always drive innovation when it means competing with embedded technologies that have billions or trillions of dollars of sunk investment. Policies aligned with the SDGs must be considered. For example, the current low price of energy and carbon drives our industry toward fossil carbon-based feedstocks, making it extremely difficult for new approaches to take root. Only new policy can change this. The chemistry community can identify and be a strong voice for policy that moves the SDGs forward.
Action #3: Promote Sustainable Chemical Manufacturing
Many companies are moving towards more sustainable practices in response to the SDGs and other global challenges like plastic pollution and climate change. Partnering with industry to further their engagement with sustainable chemical and engineering approaches could be an area of increased ACS activity.
A recent example of this type of engagement is the AltSep project to advance sustainable separations. This project was led by the ACS Green Chemistry Institute’s Chemical Manufacturing Roundtable in partnership with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and supported by a $500,000 grant from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Over the past three years, ACS hosted a series of workshops with academic, industry and government scientists to map out a roadmap for less-energy intensive alternatives to separations. This kind of fundamental change to chemical processes, which represents a significant amount of fundamental research, cannot be tackled by any individual company. ACS holds a unique position as a non-profit in being able to partner with government, academia and industry, as well as other associations, to move sustainable chemical manufacturing forward.
Action #4: Promote Sustainability across the Globe
On July 8, ACS president-elect Luis Echegoyen participated in a forum of chemistry society presidents hosted by the Société Chimique de France at their Paris headquarters. The outcome of this meeting, was a joint agreement among the 15 societies present to collaborate on the SDGs—with an open invitation for others to join in the agreement. Creating and expanding these kinds of global partnerships that address the SDGs is an area that ACS can provide leadership.
In alignment with ACS’s strategic goal to communicate chemistry’s value, communicating progress towards the SDGs across the chemistry community and to the public is another area where ACS can act. I hope this article is one small step towards achieving that end…but there are many other efforts in this area. For example, at the upcoming ACS National Meeting in Philly and next year’s Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Seattle sessions are being planned that highlight chemistry’s role in the SDGs.
There are likely a myriad of ways we could approach responding to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, but hopefully these four broad areas proposed resonate with you. Feedback from the community is important--How do you envision ACS supporting you in the context of these goals?
In next month’s installment we will start to dig into the specific SDGs and how they tie into chemistry.