FIVE MINUTES BEFORE MIDNIGHT (1992)
Recently I have seen a very sobering picture of a person holding up a sign which said: Will work for food! While this might not be such an unusual event in our time, the rest of the sign: "Ph.D., Chemistry, Caltech 58" put it in a dramatic stage. As forced early retirements become more and more commonplace in the chemical industry, the real eye-opener in the picture was the academic robe that the person was wearing. He was a professor with 30 years of tenure at the Chemistry Department of a California University.
I am sure that the person, who was involved as a councilor in various ACS activities for many years, was not down to his last dollar. He was making a dramatic point to describe the situation at his Chemistry Department where out of 24 tenured professors more than half were given six-week notices about the termination of their tenure. While consequently the uproar over this unprecedented action in academic circles resulted in "stay of the execution" until January 1, 1993, and there is indication that further extension of that date might be given, this should indicate that the situation in our profession is very serious. We can not behave as ostriches putting our heads in the sand ignoring the impending disaster. There is no question that time is running out and the window for possible action by the ACS is closing.
In 1957, the launching of Sputnik created an unprecedented expansion of graduate schools in the United States. The expansion itself was needed, but it was uncontrolled and it mushroomed into a vicious circle. It created more faculty positions which resulted in more graduates. Some of them went to industry but some of them returned to Academe to turn out more graduates. The bubble burst in the industry around 1970. Unemployed chemist was an unknown term 30 years ago, whereas today it is just an another term with "early retired", "consultant" or "underemployed" to describe the difficult situation our profession faces.
Last year Dr. Glenn Crosby from Washington State University who was then chairing the Committee on Education rang the alarm bell about education becoming secondary to research at some of the Chemistry Departments. Recently, Dr. Joe Dixon, a retired Penn State professor, Chairman of the ACS Board of Director pointed out that many Departments do not see the problem in our profession and keep pushing for more graduates who, when entering the real life outside of the protected world of Academe, have difficulties finding job. These statements are probably not surprising to those who were caught in various industrial "downsizings" during the past 20 years. However, when they are made by such distinguished members of Academe itself coupled with the professor holding the "will work for food" sign, they should shake up everyone whether they have an ironclad contract for a life-time job or not.
As we look back in history, it was frequent that "Cassandras" were disbelieved and ignored. More drastically, the bearers of bad news were beheaded. It is one of the weaknesses of human nature to sweep the problems under the rug when they are difficult. Subconsciously, many hope that the problems will be solved and they do not have to make a decision which might not be perfect. The problem is that no decision is already a decision and it can be even worse than an imperfect one. Being inactive does not absolve anyone from the responsibility for the consequences. We can not pass the baton to someone else and wash our hands. It is the ACS which can and must face the problem and initiate actions which can alleviate the situation and prevent future catastrophes in our profession.
What is the problem? There is no question that the average population has limited science education and we have to develop more understanding about the importance of chemistry. In our economic system, industry has to be concerned about the year-end profit sheet if it wants to remain competitive. In the present set-up of our academic system, the graduate students provide the economic labor force for research. It is also a fact that the graduates are frequently unprepared for work in industry. Finally, it is the sobering truth, that after the age of 45 one faces a rapidly increasing chance to be replaced by a "more knowledgeable" graduate.
What is the solution? There is no quick fix, so that we can go back to the carefree "business as usual" attitude of yesteryear. Each of the problems listed above interface with the others and requires continuous attention and leadership. Our Society is the most logical entity to initiate actions.
1. Science education. The most important is to educate our youngsters. There should be mandatory general science courses designed for every student. We should make sure that the importance of chemistry and its contribution to the everyday life which made everyones life much better is evident to everyone.
2. Industrial research. The educational system must prepare our youngsters to think, so that they can apply their talents to whatever industrial problem they encounter. This can be done without sacrificing basic research.
3. Continuing education. We must reform our educational system to assure that at the age of 45 one is just as knowledgeable about new developments, and therefore just as valuable, as the fresh graduate.
4. Supply and demand. We can and must influence their balance. We can increase the quality of the education which has a direct effect on the supply. We should serve as a coordinator and educator of industrial management for investment in the future which can influence the demand.
These subjects are interrelated and were discussed to death in the past. Various committees issued reports and many conferences made dozens of recommendations. They are not easy and their success is not assured without watching continuously. We might have to reexamine and modify them as we proceed. But proceed we must! We can not afford the luxury of waiting for the perfect solution while the clock ticks away, if we want to assure the well deserved place for our profession in the 21st century.
Attila E. Pavlath
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