2011 is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). The goal: To "increase the public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs, to encourage interest in chemistry among young people, and to generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry." For many chemists, the part about the future is the most pressing concern right now. At a time when some people argue that there is an overabundance of Ph.D. chemists (or even too many Ph.D.s in general), the future seems a bit uncertain and even scary.
It's clear that something has to be done. A new approach in chemistry is necessary to invigorate the field, give young people something to look forward to, and be more profitable. Some experts argue that we need to get practical. We need to look at what will get public attention and go for hot topics like energy, health, environment, and food. The argument is that when we create more useful results, they will be more marketable, which will generate more funding and create jobs.
Practicality is great, but we must keep in mind that we can't become completely mercenary. We have to balance practicality with discovery. Sometimes it's impossible to know what will become practical or useful in the future, so we need to freely explore and expand our knowledge. The discovery process doesn't always bring immediate payoffs. Much of what we can do today is due to discoveries that were made decades ago. If we keep using up our supply of discoveries, without adding any new ones, we will run out and become stagnate. While we look to the future with practicality, we should also keep our sense of wonder and the desire to just explore for the sake of learning.