In August 2017, the annual SciFinder® Future Leaders program started with a session on how innovative and creative thinking leads to valuable innovations that benefit society. The program, organized by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), offers a week of science communication, database research and leadership training to Ph.D. students and postdocs from around the world.
The team at CAS started their program by quoting Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company: “The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.” This message stimulated me to think about the research that I am doing in my lab. I asked myself whether my research is too iterative. How can I know if I am working on a world-changing solution to a problem?
Society needs to continue to fund seemingly “non-relevant” research if they hope to find the answers to pressing challenges. Everyday applications are the best outcome of research, but only basic and blue-sky research leads to new knowledge and ideas.
The importance of chemistry research is often measured using different metrics that are distorted by several factors in the academic system. However, the academic impact of research is not the same as its social impact. Society profits from new therapies against cancer or phone batteries that last longer. But several years of basic research precede such attention-grabbing innovations. Basic research findings are the basis for novel applications that are then commercialized by startups and large companies alike.
Chemists often only think about their work in the lab and are not aware that they have an essential role in society. Any research project result could potentially affect the development of society. Some results have a more significant impact, some less, and some none. But how research will transform society is unknown before it is published.
The change will not always benefit society because the consequences of new technologies can never be fully forecasted. Nuclear fission is used to generate power and to build bombs; artificial fertilizers ensured the food supply of generations and led to over-fertilized soils. Scientists cannot predict the consequences of all their discoveries, but they should be aware of their responsibilities.
The SciFinder Future Leaders program opened my eyes to the opportunities that scientists have alongside their role as researchers. During the two weeks at the CAS headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and at the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition in Washington D.C., I met more than 20 other Ph.D. students and postdocs from around the globe. This diverse group of scientists will soon work in different fields and job roles. As a scientist, we can change the world for the better.
Driving change, in science and society, needs creative minds, freedom, and endurance in overcoming stubborn old ideas and traditions. Society sometimes needs to leave its comfort zone to make this happen. But “the riskiest thing we can do is [to] just maintain the status quo.”
Torsten John is a participant in the 2017 SciFinder Future Leaders program. Besides his Ph.D. research in Germany and Australia, Torsten is the Secretary of the European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN) and works on the collaboration of young chemists across countries.