Monday, March 21, 2022

Complexity in ACS governance

In this week's C&EN,  
In mid-February, ChemBark resigned American Chemical Society membership as a protest, announced via Twitter. The issues are real, but personally, I’ve never understood quitting as a protest when the fix requires work. ACS is a large, complex organization, and the subscription fees, executive compensation, and governance are certainly issues worth considering with respect to our society’s mission. Mostly, I was drawn to ChemBark’s comment “lack of transparency in operations and governance” in the tweet. 

Reflecting on the routine editorials appearing in this magazine promoting diversity in chemistry, I think that comment highlights how we, as a scientific society, are far from those aims. In the nearly century and a half of ACS’s existence, the systemic racism, sexism, and structures that have marginalized various identities in society at large have become baked into the structure of ACS, and no pathway program will change that. We have complex rules that consolidate authority. 

A good example of this complexity is the different structures for how officers are elected in the various technical divisions, something I’ve observed from membership in several. Another good example is award committees. I recently served on a committee where I was the youngest member of an all-White, all-male group. Honestly, I am also a little unclear on how I came to serve. It may have been from entering my name in the Yellow Book, a process of which I was unaware until I chaired my local section.

In short, we have needless complexity and structure that protects privilege. It is built into our documents, bylaws, and rules. To be serious about supporting diversity, we need to be more transparent, and a tremendous part of that is in our governance, how it works, and how it is accessible to members. I am ready to roll up my sleeves and help, but ACS-wide structural revision needs to be led from the top.

Rory Waterman 
Burlington, Vermont
UPDATE (March 23, 2022): It appears that I deleted or didn't add my thoughts to Professor Waterman's comments. In my experience, he is correct - ACS governance is unnecessarily complex, and mostly has to do with the overgrowth of a hundred years of self-governance by committee. I believe there have been various simplification initiatives over the past number of years, but they haven't been particularly successful. 

Complexity is a feature, not a bug, for insiders and those with experience in ACS governance. If the Society wants to invite new people in, making things simpler might be a way to get there. 

A final thought: it's not clear to me that ACS volunteer governance is particularly important to the day-to-day or even the year-to-year operations of ACS. Long time friends know that I describe ACS governance more church-like than corporation-like. Some churches, the congregation and its lay leaders hold the power, and the hired staff (the pastor) is relatively weak. Some churches, it's vice versa. I think it's pretty clear that ACS is the latter, not the former. 


  1. That diversity stuff is all talk and no action. I've got a bunch of chemistry professors among my Facebook connections, and they're all "rah-rah, women in science, hooray!" in public. In private, it's more like "we're going to sweep these complaints under the rug because Professor X brings in a lot of funding" or "I would never hire a woman postdoc because she might get pregnant."

    The ACS is really a publishing house; don't expect it to act like a professional society even though it tries to present itself as one.

  2. I have long abandoned the notion that the ACS serves chemists or the Society. There is no doubt the mission is to serve the DuPont Circle elite and the like minded political class. Sad.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20