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It’s the IYC. Plug in. Reach out.

By Chemical Engineering |

The United Nations (U.N.) has named 2011 the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). The designation has given rise to a host of programs, initiatives and events, the collection of which has afforded the chemical community a unique opportunity to pursue the IYC’s stated goals of increasing public appreciation of, interest in and enthusiasm for chemistry. Leading the yearlong effort are the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, in collaboration with a host of professional societies, institutions and chemical companies around the globe.

While large international organizations may be crucial in providing the IYC’s framework, the year’s ability to effect lasting change rests squarely on the shoulders of passionate individuals. The degree to which individuals from the chemical process industries (CPI) engage and participate at the local, regional and national levels will largely determine whether the IYC becomes a transformative force in improving science policy and education, or a historical sidenote.

The North American launch of the IYC, hosted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (www.chemheritage.org) in Philadelphia last month, represented a call to action for chemical professionals of all types to contribute to the broader IYC effort of raising public awareness of the power, promise and wonder of chemistry and chemical technology. The launch featured a group of esteemed panelists assembled to discuss the central role chemistry will play in addressing the most challenging issues of our planet, including providing energy, food, water and healthcare for a growing global population. Panelist Andrew Liveris, Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, Mich.; www.dow.com) CEO, was among those calling on attendees to seize the opportunity this year to be advocates for change. He also maintained that generating dialogue on chemistry’s role in society was important, and argued that the chemical industry should insert itself more fully and more frequently into public-policy discussions.

Prior to the event, I spoke with Katie Hunt, Dow’s director for innovation sourcing and sustainable technologies, who also emphasized the need for individual initiative in the IYC. “We want to put a human face on chemistry, so we need scientists to be more visible. Scientists are great at talking to each other — what we need to do is get better at talking to everyone else,” Hunt said.

Facing the complex challenges associated with sustainably providing energy, food, water and healthcare for the world’s growing population is daunting, but Hunt, like the event panelists, clung to optimism. “We have the capability to solve the toughest challenges, but it takes engagement,” she said. “We need to train scientists to communicate with science teachers, or to speak to their local communities, or to mentor students, or to educate legislators, all in an effort to make chemistry more accessible and familiar to all, especially to the next-generation of scientists.”

Other panelists, including former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell and event moderator Daniel Nocera, an MIT professor, echoed the importance of communication and early science education.

Many professionals across the CPI were drawn to their chosen profession because of its central and critical role in meeting society’s needs for materials, energy, water, food and medicine. Now, those in the chemistry community have a chance to take ownership of chemistry’s future by engaging their local communities, inserting the voice of chemistry into the political system, and inspiring future scientists. The IYC website (www.chemistry2011.org) contains a host of opportunities for involvement, as well as a virtual forum to develop ideas for events and programs, and tools to help execute them. So plug in and reach out.

Scott Jenkins, Associate Editor

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