Because of its serious large-scale effects on ecosystems and its transboundary nature, acid rain received for a few decades at the end of the last century wide scientific and public interest, leading to coordinated policy actions in Europe and North America. Through these actions, in particular those under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, air emissions were substantially reduced, and ecosystem impacts decreased. Widespread scientific research, long-term monitoring, and integrated assessment modelling formed the basis for the policy agreements. In this paper, which is based on an international symposium organised to commemorate 50 years of successful integration of air pollution research and policy, we briefly describe the scientific findings that provided the foundation for the policy development. We also discuss important characteristics of the science–policy interactions, such as the critical loads concept and the large-scale ecosystem field studies. Finally, acid rain and air pollution are set in the context of future societal developments and needs, e.g. the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We also highlight the need to maintain and develop supporting scientific infrastructures.