With more than 161,000 members, the American Chemical Society is the world’s largest organization of scientists, almost all of them chemists or involved in chemistry-related businesses. The society is also a leading publisher, with about 45 scientific journals in its portfolio. The person running the society, then, has a lot of influence over a big slice of science. Last week the society announced that person would be Thomas M. Connelly, Jr., a chemical engineer who has spent his career at DuPont, the giant chemical manufacturer, most recently as the company’s chief innovation officer. He will become the chief executive officer of the ACS in February 2015, after the current chief executive retires. Connelly plans to focus on improving the scientific education of students, consumers, and policymakers, he told Scientific American in an interview, as well as on building up society membership and its publishing strengths. “I couldn’t think of a better role for someone who has spent their life in the chemical enterprise,” he says.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What are your priorities going to be as CEO?
I would like to see our membership broaden, particularly into different geographical areas than the U.S. and Europe. I also want to focus on STEM education, and educate policymakers and the public about ways that chemistry enables solutions to big problems.
What is important about education?
Our society recently set up an association of chemistry teachers, and we should continue that work, particularly in the kindergarten through grade 12 area. But education should not stop there.
It should continue?
We need to educate the general public. They need to understand the science behind food and energy and human health issues, and chemistry is central to that.
What are some examples of chemistry’s role in these areas?
Chemistry is key to protecting crops in our food supply, for instance. Soil chemistry is important for that, as is crop nutrition. In the environment, chemistry is important for maintaining ecosystems. People need to understand geochemistry and atmospheric chemistry in order to do that.
Are there challenges that chemistry faces?
I don’t think there have been clear messages in all of these areas, and we need clearer communication. Understanding human health from a nutrition standpoint is one instance. Consumers are presented with a lot of information on food labels. But what does it all mean? What is important for your health? We could add a lot of clarity there.