WHAT DO THE MEMBERS OF
THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY
WANT FROM THEIR ORGANIZATION?
In January 2000, I wrote to all Divisional and Local Section Officers, Councilors and Alternate Councilors, asking for input from them and their local membership to help formulate the ACS Strategic Plan for 2001-2003. In addition, my ACS Comments in the January 10, 2000, issue of C&EN asked readers for their input. Altogether, I received 432 responses via postal and e-mail. At the San Francisco ACS meeting in March, I received additional responses, mostly verbal, at Councilor caucuses, Sci-Mix, open meetings of committees and through personal encounters.
The following is a first attempt to present these responses in an organized manner. Since I received many detailed proposals which could not be adequately summarized for this report, I will prepare a full follow-up report with some appendices later.
While respondents gave credit to the improvement of ACS activities during the past several years, an overwhelmingly large majority expressed discontent with the amount of attention the Society pays to the members own needs. A disparity between what the members pay, in terms of the dues, vs. what they tangibly receive was a main concern. It was emphasized over and over again that the ACS must first be concerned with the members needs before it considers benefits to the chemical profession. Members from a wide range of the spectrum claimed that the Society is elitist and pays little or no attention to the large majority of members who work in industry, are retired and/or have no Ph.D. degrees. Surprisingly, even many educators from state colleges or small private universities with limited or no graduate programs agreed with this view.
The concerns of members and their suggestions for improvements can be grouped into three main categories, as follows:
There was unanimous agreement that K-12 education in the United States lacks suitable depth in the sciences, especially chemistry. University education was also strongly criticized for not helping students prepare for work outside of academia. It was perceived that many universities are more focused on research than education. It was recommended that the ACS brings academe and industry together to work out differences. A further recommendation was that more emphasis be given to teaching chemistry for the sake of educating students regardless of their majors. Strong support was also given to the ACS developing continuing education courses that would be easily accessible both economically and geographically, in order to help chemists stay valuable to their employers and to "recycle older chemists." It was also recommended that the Society educate the general public, at various levels, about the importance and contributions of chemistry.
The growing role of the Internet was acknowledged and supported in every answer addressing this area. Responses touched on electronic journal publishing as well as providing web pages for meetings and posters. Furthermore, many protested that the programming at national meetings caters mainly to academia. Suggestions were made to change the direction more toward addressing everyday problems (more for education than information). Many voiced strong criticism of C&EN for perceived unbalanced editorial views and not representing both sides of issues. The environment was the most frequently mentioned "politically correct" bias.
Again an overwhelming majority claimed that the Society does not pay even moderate attention to the employment problems experienced by members. With the exception of two answers, no one wanted to turn the ACS into a labor union, but many did advocate changes similar to those practiced by professional organizations such as the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association. The decrease in the number of American students selecting chemistry as a profession was attributed to employment problems rather than a negative public image. Strong support was given to ACS interaction with legislators on two issues affecting employment: immigration and portable pensions. The supply and demand ratio was considered the most important factor in employment. It was a unanimous consensus that there was no shortage of chemists.
Overall, the responses were realistic. The members who contacted me unanimously agreed that these concerns and issues are complex and will not be solved overnight. Still, many strongly criticize the Society as being timid and reluctant to address problems. It was recommended that the Society immediately bring together influential representatives of academe and industry to start a working on improving the situation. Responders wanted to change not only the image of chemists and chemistry presented to the general public, but also the image of the Society presented to the average member.
General attitudes towards the ACS
Only a few responses indicated readiness to resign, but many apparently border-line cases indicated a great deal of dissatisfaction. The most dramatic was this statement by an emeritus professor:
"It is an open question whether my membership of 45 years has been worth the investment."
Another person is still hanging on after dozens of years, but his discontent is clearly evident:
"The ACS was no help when I applied for over thousands jobs without success in the early Seventies. It kept advocating shortage of chemists. I got very little of the thousand of dues dollar I contributed during 35 years of membership."
The most frequently cited cause of dissatisfaction was receiving minimal or no return on the dues dollars.
"All I get for my $100+ dues is C&EN. If I were not the Secretary of the Section I would not be a member."
Recommendations addressing this issue included increasing the tangible benefits received by the average member, and instituting graduated dues payments based on age, degree, financial background or even use of available services:
"The dues should be in proportion to what you get, e.g., cafeteria style. In the electronic age this could be easily arranged."
It appears that the payment of dues by the employer is on the decline. As a solution it was recommended that annual dues be included in meeting registration fees, which employers are more likely to pay.
Many voiced criticism of the Societys emphasis on getting new members. The first priority should be retention of the existing ones. Another emeritus professor put this in the right perspective.
"During my 56 years the only real change in the ACS was its growth without any improvement. The ACS grew without direction. Growth should not be the goal, it must come with improvement."
Many respondents, even Ph.D.s, stated that the ACS appears to be mostly concerned with Ph.D.s -- especially academic researchers -- and pays only cursory attention to non-Ph.D.s, even though they comprise the majority of the membership. Similar observations were expressed about the ACS governance. As one scientifically well-known professor from a middle-sized university stated:
"The ACS is a bureaucratic quagmire with domination by the elite. It is stacked with status quo people who are not about to let go of their power. They determine who gets awards and grants. Most members know this, but they have to feed their families, thus they remain silent."
Some said that more influence should be given to the Council, Divisions and Local Sections:
"Many decisions are made at the top with the expectation that (they) will be useful at the bottom without checking with them."
Caution was voiced about taking official position on controversial issues for which members are not surveyed:
"ACS stands on public or social issues should reflect the diversity of the membership, giving opportunity to differing views."
Respondents also suggested exploring various means of finding out the opinions of the membership, and that the Strategic Plan should be a living document that is continually revised and updated as needed.
Frequently, it was stated that the ACS must address educational, scientific and professional issues in the services it offers to the membership. There were numerous recommendations on new directions or improved activities for each of these three areas:
1. Education of students and the public.
Everyone agreed that science education in American K-12 schools needs improvement, especially since scientific subjects, including chemistry, are frequently taught by teachers with no scientific background. The ACS should provide leadership in developing science education as a career for chemists, and as an opportunity for the retraining of middle-aged or early-retired chemists, especially at the high school level. One step would be for the Society to offer listings or a clearing house of available teaching positions.
Concern was raised that college chemistry departments do not provide adequate education for all students. The major emphasis appears to be to graduate more chemists, not produce students with more chemical knowledge. The thinking of many educators is expressed in this evaluation by one long-time teacher:
"Chemistry education is geared to making a student a major. Its goal should be to make the students understand chemistry, not necessarily to become chemists."
The problem is further complicated by the fact that the present education system, even for chemistry majors, is designed to prepare them for careers in basic research, not for the real-life business world where the majority of available jobs are:
"Academe is training graduates for academic jobs, not for industrial positions."
More publicity should be given to the Doctor of Chemistry program, which is offered by only a few universities but better prepares graduates to face industrial challenges. The ACS should play a key role in bringing academe and industry together to make chemistry education more relevant. A research professor and dean with 35 years of involvement in education pointed out what should be done:
"We need a balance between basic and applied research: the research for the sake of research and development work."
Frequent concern was raised about the limited availability of continuing education for graduates in later years of their careers. I received numerous complaints about the high cost and geographic limitations of ACS short courses. For the self-employed, retired, or non-compensated, they are completely out of range. Whenever possible, they should be dispersed throughout the country. In most cases, the courses could be given by locally available scientists or on-line. More employers would enroll their scientists if the costs of attending were lower.
Many responses dealt with educating the general public about the benefits chemistry provides for every day life. National Chemistry Week is a good start, but it is not enough. Recommendations were made for ACS-sponsored TV series, as is done by the American Society of Microbiology , and for providing the types of publicity to which non-scientists, or even kids, can relate, such as chemistry comic books. As one respondent noted, if the mountain wont come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain:
"Put news on technological developments at (places other than C&EN): e.g., Yahoo, Netscape, CNBC, etc."
2. Science: meetings and publications.
Many responses suggested the ACS make increasing use of electronic media for meetings and publications, making them more available for the membership. For example, we could place poster sessions on the Internet, with e-mail addresses for contacts. Likewise, lectures at national meetings could be recorded on videotape, for sale. Eventually, this could even be extended to regional and larger local meetings.
Questions were raised about the content of programs as well, with suggestions for more knowledge-based programming at national meetings, which would make attendance by industrial chemists attractive to their employers:
"Make national meetings more industry-related, i.e., related to chemists working on everyday problems."
It was even suggested that the topic list include subjects of interest to executives:
"Have high-level programs at national meetings with well-respected speakers for business executives on issues important for them: new market opportunities, national thrust,etc."
The increasing need for making ACS publications more easily available through the Internet was a recurring theme. While it was acknowledged that publications provide important financial resources for the Society, it was repeatedly stated that they should be available to members at decreased cost. Recommendation was made that publications be available for viewing free of charge to members, but with a charge for down loading. Another use of electronic media could be to create "cafeteria-style" electronic journals where individuals subscribe to a limited set of articles, based on author, subject or other characteristics.
The cost of attendance at national meetings was the topic of many responses. Recommendations were made for providing more inexpensive housing, and having meetings at locations where the cost is lower. The high registration fees were also frequently mentioned. One solution (mentioned earlier under general attitudes) would be to include membership dues in the registration fees, which are frequently paid by the employer. With an efficient computer-controlled database it should not be a problem to give credit for such payments.
Many, especially councilors familiar with the situation, questioned recent changes in the ACS accounting system that suddenly placed the meetings in the red. Questions were also raised about whether, regardless of accounting system, meetings ought not be subsidized. It was pointed out that journal subscription prices for members do not even cover run-off costs. The question, "Why do we have to have self-sustaining meetings?" appears to have great validity.
A considerable amount of criticism was directed at C&EN regarding a perceived imbalance of editorial views, and a disproportion between technological vs. membership-related news. It was claimed that the editorials are biased for "political correctness," and that letters with views in opposition to the editors are frequently suppressed or at best given only token publicity. One member put it this way:
"Unbalanced editorial views. It should reflect the diversity of the membership."
A similar observation was voiced about C&ENs overall contents:
"Too much environmental-issue-covering, not enough information on industrial chemists situation."
Surprisingly the previous quote is from the response of an emeritus professor. Other responses also advocated change in the content, with recommendations such as:
"More but shorter reports on technological developments."
"More information on type of jobs available and held by chemists."
"More Local Section and Divisional news."
One response gave a specific recommendation on the new format thats claimed to be well-received in the Physical Society:
"It should be more along the lines of Physics Today. Separate the members everyday interest from the scientific news. A weekly employment magazine."
A number of responses questioned the composition of the C&EN Advisory Board, which was not viewed as representative of the diversity of the membership, especially the non-Ph.D. and industrial bench chemists.
3. Professional issues.
The large majority of the responses were about employment-related issues, ranging from general philosophy to specific details. The recurring theme was the out-of-whack balance of supply and demand for chemists in the U.S., and the way that the ACS has done nothing to help the situation -- and may have even been making it worse. The way that other professional organizations -- such as the AMA, ABA and NEA -- have an indirect influence on employment in their profession, while acting supposedly for the benefit of the general population, was cited as a role model. Such recommendations were not limited by the age, degree or type of employment of the respondents; many from academe decried educational administrators for moving away from tenure-protected employment. The message was clear: The ACS must be concerned with the interests of practitioners of chemistry over those of the profession, when the two are in conflict:
"It should concentrate on helping the members be good, prosperous and productive. Take example from AMA, ABA and other professional organizations."
"The ACS should become the American Chemists Society"
"Advertise unjustified layoffs, age discrimination. Make the ACS independent from academe and industry, concentrate on the individual." (per a 50 year member, former Local Section chairman.)
Certification was frequently mentioned as a way to bring a better balance:
"Chemistry is the only profession that does not have any kind of professional certification."
"Why not certify the product, instead of the producer? Certify students, not schools."
No specific certification programs replicating the systems of other profession were recommended. Instead, respondents recommended that the ACS develop the solution best applicable to chemistry:
"The lack of action in this area will come back to hunt us when legislation will be created (in response to) pressure from environmental groups and the news media under the pretense of protecting the public from dangerous chemicals created by unqualified practitioners of chemistry."
No one claimed that remedying these problems would be an easy task. The ACS has no authority to tell employers whom to hire, or universities how to teach, nor to set up mandatory certification programs. Still, the Society can and must act as a mediator between the involved parties, bringing them together to work out possible solutions benefiting, in the long run, everyone involved.
While there was no question about the difficulty of finding solutions to the employment problems, no one maintained that there was a shortage of chemists in this country. A large majority, in fact, emphasized the need for enforcing immigration laws and closing loopholes in them:
"The ACS should strongly support existing immigration laws. No phony justifications for H1-B visas.The immigration lawyers are enriched at the expense of American scientific professionals."
We need accurate statistics on the job situation and then must inform the students honestly about it:
"Let the true marketplace determine the number of chemists graduated, not the universities needs for research and teaching assistants."
Meanwhile, the ACS should improve its services for members who are searching for employment opportunities. A wide variety of detailed suggestions were received. The Employment Clearing House should expand its utility by including opportunities for sabbaticals, jobs in professions on the border of chemistry, high school teaching, part-time employment and consulting.
Numerous suggestions were received on services not limited directly to practitioners of chemistry, but useful for the general workforce. The Society should consider offering them or promoting legislation covering them. Some of the most frequently mentioned items were portable pensions and medical insurance for unemployed and retired members who need it. The success of our life insurance program shows that there are possibilities, which the ACS should vigorously investigate.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The respondents recommended a number of actions, but the theme is the same in each of them: The Societys major concern should be to serve the members first, and then the profession, not vice versa.
The following is a short list of various issues which have been neglected and should be addressed immediately. They should be part of the Strategic Plan. In addition, there are many further problems and issues which we cannot afford to ignore if we really want to become a membership-oriented organization.
1. Supply and demand.
3. Graduated or cafeteria-style dues and subscriptions.
4. Interaction between academe and industry.
5. Innovative plans to help our members search for employment.
6. More programs for non-Ph.D.s.
7. Member retention.
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