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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter March 7, 2017

Chemistry Organizations in a Changing World

  • Stephen A. Matlin

    Stephen A. Matlin [] is Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London.

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    , Alain Krief

    Alain Krief is Emeritus Professor in the Chemistry Department of Namur University and Executive Director of IOCD. Belgium.

    , Henning Hopf

    Henning Hopf is Professor in the Institute of Organic Chemistry in the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany.

    and Goverdhan Mehta

    Goverdhan Mehta is University Distinguished Professor & Dr. Kallam Anji Reddy Chair, School of Chemistry, University of Hyderabad, India.

From the journal Chemistry International


Building bridges between global thinking and local action was the tag line of the 2016 International Year of Global Understanding. [1] This provides an invaluable opportunity for chemistry organizations to rethink their roles and responsibilities in a global context. For IUPAC, its approaching centenary adds a further impetus to the continual quest for sustainability, relevance, and value. Chemistry organizations have a long tradition of helping to develop and promote the interests of the subject and its practitioners. In a rapidly changing world, what is their fundamental purpose, what should be their roles, and how can they refresh themselves to best serve the field and also society at large?

Spectrum of Chemistry Organizations

Since the earliest chemical societies were formed in the mid-19th century,[2] numerous and diverse chemistry organizations have evolved. A web search identified more than 250 that are currently active. [3, 4] At the international level, chemistry organizations have formed as geographical or global federations of national chemical societies and industry associations, as well as of bodies that focus on a specific chemistry subject area, technique, process, or class of substance; or as new entities with a specific goal, such as networking or the promotion of particular objectives. Chemistry organizations have developed a diverse array of activities (see box below). As a well-known example, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), formally founded in 1919, includes many national chemical societies among its members and provides global networking opportunities through its diverse activities. It has developed a number of distinctive functions (see box on next page).

Emerging Changes Necessitate Action

Chemistry organizations are encountering many new challenges and face new realities in the 21st century. Externally, the global landscape in which chemistry operates is changing and the field is compelled to refresh both its identity as a science and its relevance to society. Several clusters of issues can be discerned [6-10] in the field of chemistry, especially:

Position in the ever-expanding space of sciences: As a mature science where fundamental new discoveries are increasingly rare, chemistry needs to find effective ways to refresh and reinvigorate the understanding of chemistry as a central/enabling science that delivers new knowledge, useful applications and the underpinning of adjacent sciences among practitioners and also those in related fields and those who determine the priorities for funding education and research.

Examples of activities of chemistry organizations

  1. Acting as learned societies—providing opportunities for knowledge exchange and dissemination, outreach between members, and outlets for publications, as well as establishing a framework for recognizing excellence and contributions to industry and society.

  2. Serving as voices of the profession and liaising with other stakeholders, such as government regulators and the public.

  3. Protecting the interests of the professionals in diverse ways (e.g. advising on career development, safety standards, and remuneration levels; lobbying with entities that are critical to the profession).

  4. Protecting the public interest (e.g. by setting standards of professional competence, best practices, and codes of ethical professional conduct).

  5. Providing professional accreditation and certification to chemists and encouraging or certifying continuing education.

  6. Communicating about and projecting the value of the subject to diverse target audiences beyond the field, including the public and policy-makers.

  7. Recognizing the need to address global challenges.

Some distinctive activities of IUPAC

  1. Providing a global service in setting criteria for recognizing new elements and definitions, standards, and nomenclature rules in the field of chemistry.

  2. Hosting meeting-grounds for discussions about aspects of chemistry, including chemistry education and research, through regular cycles of conferences.

  3. Serving as a publisher of technical reports, recommendations, and books.

  4. Organizing long-running series of conferences, e.g. Chemical Research Applied to World Needs (CHEMRAWN). [5]

Ambition as a science that solves large-scale contemporary challenges: To avoid declining into a science that only progresses through small, incremental, and often predictable changes, chemistry needs to develop the space, ambition, and courage to tackle large-scale and risky undertakings. These include ‘grand challenges’ (large-scale problems that require collective international effort and funding beyond the normal scope of national programmes), whether relating to fundamental problems that will result in disruptive step-changes to understanding, or to applied problems that will contribute to the benefit of society globally.

Perception and image of chemistry among scientists, the public, media and policy makers: Linked closely with the above issues is the need to overcome negative attitudes to chemistry. These include perceptions by some that chemistry is no longer an exciting science and that its practice in both industry and research is sometimes unethical and contributes to pollution and damage to health and the environment.

The shifting profile of chemistry-related activities across geographies: With the growth of chemistry research, innovation, production, and publication in countries like China, India, and Brazil, the locus of chemistry has shifted substantially from its traditional locations in Europe and North America and will continue to do so as new regions, including Africa, increase their capacities.

These are deep-seated developments that have been evolving over time and may require new frameworks of thinking, one recent example being the concept of ‘one-world chemistry’. [9] Chemistry organizations need to contribute to the substantive adjustments and re-alignments required, including the need to refresh chemistry’s sense of its own mission and purpose; reduce internal fragmentation and barriers to working across disciplinary boundaries; embrace systems thinking within the education, research, and practice of chemistry; ensure the promotion of ethical approaches and research integrity in academia and industry; strengthen the promotion, championing, and steering of the chemical sciences; and strengthen diversity and inclusion. In this endeavour, it is important that all chemistry practitioners—especially educators, researchers, the chemical industry, and chemistry organizations—join forces in contributing to the evolutionary changes required. To be able to do this with objectivity and credibility, some chemistry organizations may need reforms that will amplify their remit and reset their priorities.

Internally, many chemistry organizations, and especially some at the international level, are also experiencing challenges, some of which are:

Stagnating or declining membership:Organizations may need to consolidate or expand their membership base, especially among the young, and concomitantly find ways to enhance the orgnanization’s relevance and value to all members.

Stressed finances:In an era when income from publications and membership are facing headwinds, there is pressure to find a sustainable financial model to support the core purposes of the organization.

Jaded purpose: The mission, objectives, strategic plans, and budgets may all require restructuring in order to align them with priorities and expectations in a changing world, rebalancing income generation, service to the membership, and attention to the needs of society. International organizations may additionally need to repurpose themselves to lead in meeting the global challenges by building appropriate networks to implement solutions, harnessing needed strength through partnerships.

Archaic governance: To overcome issues related to efficiency, while retaining the confidence of both the membership and society at large, each organization may need to make adjustments to guarantee the adoption of best practices with regard to democratic processes that ensure transparency, inclusion, diversity, rigorous evaluation, and renewal that will induct fresh talent into the decision-making processes. Global and regional federations and unions can be especially vulnerable to being captured by interested parties that wish to control or perpetuate agendas or positions. Special efforts may be needed to overcome this.

Future Horizons

Responses to the emerging external and internal challenges appear patchy and inadequate. The focus of this article is not to evaluate in detail what the chemistry organizations have been doing, but, notwithstanding their many previous achievements, to suggest directions for reflection.

How can each chemistry organization adapt to help lead and support the repositioning of the field, as well as to ensure its own continued relevance and sustainability? Given the diversity of current organizations, there can be no uniform answer to these questions. What may be useful, however, is a menu of options for consideration that could help to stimulate reflection and focus attention on areas of strength, weakness, and also on opportunities for each organization. Such a menu might cover:

Vision, mission, and organizational objectives and strategy: Are these clearly stated, publicly visible, and periodically revisited with both internal and external inputs? To what extent do they reflect the changing landscape (in and beyond the field of chemistry) within which the organization works, the changing circumstances in which its membership operates, the changing nature of target groups in and beyond the profession, and the evolving nature of global challenges that require chemistry to contribute to solutions? Is the organization’s agenda an inherited one, whose relevance might be eroding but linked with embedded interests that work to perpetuate themselves?

Ethics and research integrity: Does the organization have formal policies, rules, and procedures for ethical behaviour and integrity regarding its own practices? Does it make systematic efforts to promote these values among its membership and in the wider community? Does it align with the recent initiatives that generated the Hague Ethical Guidelines [11] and the drafting of a global code of ethics for chemists [12] based on these guidelines?

Building on strengths: It is important that chemistry organizations working at the national level give attention to factors that relate to the respective country’s history, resources, challenges, and opportunities and that recognize its strengths and weaknesses. Strengths may include, for example, a history of success in education, academic research, and the chemical industry or the use of traditional knowledge, such as the use of plant products in medicine. At the global level, strengths may include the convening power of international organizations to bring together diverse views, transcend borders, and orchestrate solutions.

International perspective: Does the organization have a coherent plan for international engagement, supported by appropriate resources? Global organizations must necessarily take a worldwide view of the field they serve and operate accordingly. But in the 21st century national societies, constituted in the first place to serve the field of chemistry and its practitioners in their own country, need to ensure that they also acquire an international perspective to their work. Chemistry organizations can foster engagements in diverse forms, from formal partnerships and collaborative efforts to participation in networks, projects, campaigns, and events. [13]

Chemistry education: Whether or not the organization lists education among its primary objectives, does it acknowledge that all those engaged in the chemistry enterprise have an obligation to promote their field, including through education? This may be concerned, at a systemic level, with the formal teaching of chemistry in schools, colleges, or universities; the upgrade of professional knowledge (e.g. through continuing education); or, at a more general level, investment in communication and interaction initiatives that help to promote and develop improved societal scientific literacy and understanding of contemporary challenges. Chemistry organizations should use their capacities to champion and strengthen chemistry education, and ensure it remains contemporary in its content, focus, and methodologies.

Open access: The unrestricted flow of scientific knowledge requires open access journals. Does the policy and practice of the organization permit open access to its publications? How free is this access to authors and to readers globally? Many chemistry bodies are changing their approaches, seeking new models. A striking example of innovative change in an adjacent field has been the launch of a free open access, rapid publication journal, eLife, which has attracted peer esteem and substantial support from some of the world’s biggest private biomedical funders. Why not eChemistry?

Industry interface: Traditionally there were very strong relationships between the chemical industry and academia (e.g. Liebig’s model). These have served as a pivot for the growth, contribution, and common welfare of the discipline for the last century and a half, but have been eroding. Are chemistry organizations developing models and strategies to restore and re-energise this interface?

Funding for the field: Funding for chemistry research is woefully inadequate in many places and facing a crisis situation in some parts of the world. Chemistry organizations should do more to draw the attention of policy makers to this problem, help garner public support for remedying the situation, and encourage industry to invest more in the creation of new knowledge on which it depends.

Periodic evaluation: Many bodies in diverse fields throughout the world undertake independent external evaluations (IEEs), which serve as a mechanism for accountability to the stakeholders in the organization and as a means to conduct formative policy and strategy reviews that can help move an organization beyond the constraints of its legacy practices and the vested interests of its current staff or sub-groups of influential stakeholders. Does the chemistry organization subject itself to periodic IEEs of its purpose, functions, and performance, set against both internally defined criteria and external criteria that look at the organization’s comparative advantage in a competitive world, its long-term viability, and its value to the community it serves and the world at large? As an example, in the 1990s the International Council for Science (ICSU) commissioned an independent review [14, 15]to rejuvenate itself, which resulted in major changes in the organization’s approach to strategic planning and methods of work. [16] It is notable that few, if any, chemistry organizations ever undertake such independent external valuations. Some, like IUPAC, [17] maintain an internal evaluation function that focuses on areas such as project evaluation and delivery. This does not obviate the need to scrutinise the broader strategic vision and performance of an organization and its value to its membership, the field of chemistry, or the world at large.

Communications and image: Negative public perceptions of chemistry and its attractiveness to the young are issues of continuing concern, particularly because the discipline is sometimes subject to poorly informed comment. This requires redress through active communication and image refurbishing efforts. There is also a need to create a public forum for articulating views on contemporary issues concerning chemistry and its future. Does the organization have a communications strategy that is linked to the overall organizational strategic plan? Does it include dialogue and communication about and projecting the value of the subject to diverse target audiences beyond the membership and beyond the field, including the media, the public, and policy-makers?


The field of chemistry faces a number of severe challenges in the 21st century as it strives to refresh its purpose, sustain support from society, and continue to provide solutions to contemporary global problems, amounting to no less than planetary sustainability. Chemistry organizations have a central role to play in helping chemistry respond to these pressures, but at the same time they must overcome some major internal challenges that require deep-seated reforms to enable them to give better service to their own chemistry communities and to the field of chemistry. This will require breaking long-standing traditions of many of these associations: champions at both leadership and grassroots levels must step forward and press the case for reform. Each organization needs to do its own critical analysis (with assistance from independent external evaluations as appropriate) to ensure it is fit for its purposes. Implications for national chemistry organizations have been discussed in a separate article. [18] International organizations must also play their part.


The authors are members of the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD) and participants its programme to promote dialogue on the future of the chemical sciences.

Über die Autoren

Stephen A. Matlin

Stephen A. Matlin [] is Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London.

Alain Krief

Alain Krief is Emeritus Professor in the Chemistry Department of Namur University and Executive Director of IOCD. Belgium.

Henning Hopf

Henning Hopf is Professor in the Institute of Organic Chemistry in the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany.

Goverdhan Mehta

Goverdhan Mehta is University Distinguished Professor & Dr. Kallam Anji Reddy Chair, School of Chemistry, University of Hyderabad, India.


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Online erschienen: 2017-3-7
Erschienen im Druck: 2017-1-1

©2017 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston

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