THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL (1996)
Walking in a dark tunnel can be very depressing, even if one knows that, sooner or later, the tunnel will lead to a more pleasant surrounding. Sooner or later is, of course, a relative concept depending on a person's preparedness for the trip. Even with endurance, and the psychological and physical wherewithal for the confident continuation of the trip, a light ahead is always a pleasant sight. It gives hope that the tunnel leads to greener pastures, that it is not a blind bore to a bottomless pit. The light ahead creates the same feeling as seeing a rainbow at the far end of a bank of storm clouds.
Although it is too early to ascertain that the light is really the sunshine filtering through the end of the tunnel, there are signs for optimism regarding the employment and public image of chemists. In a previous ACS Comment, "United We Stand" (C&EN, Jan. 9, 1995, page 32), I pointed out that the problems chemists face are difficult and that they require joint actions by all segments of our profession. It appears that the understanding between these segments is slow!y becoming stronger. Increasingly, people have started to realize that only close cooperation can solve the problems.
I was a member of the ACS Doctoral Education Task Force created in 1994 by former ACS President Ned Heindel, and it was very gratifying to see that members from both academe and industry recognized the gravity of problems concerning the education of chemistry professionals. It was agreed that we cannot continue with a business-as-usual attitude. Although there was still disagreement on the details, there was consensus that we must initiate changes in our higher education system. Task force members cautiously recognized that problems exist not only with the quality, but also with the quantity, of Ph.D. production and that these problems need to be addressed.
ACS President Ronald C. Breslow recently held a symposium in which representatives of various academic institutions were invited to discuss in detail these problems of education of chemistry Ph.D.s. Breslow found great understanding and cooperation. Immediate Past-President Brian M. Rushton devoted his term to an all-out effort to bring industrial leadership closer to the fold of the Society. It has been a long time in modem ACS history since three consecutive ACS presidents have worked in such cooperation to overcome common problems.
In 1995, 1 was also a member of another task force, this one concerning employment, chaired by ACS Region I Director James G. Bennett Jr. The task force searched for ways to help ACS members find employment and recommended the initiation of eight new projects for this purpose. The ACS Board of Directors, in great harmony, unanimously approved these projects and allocated financial resources for a quick start.
I wish I could report that the future is rosy for graduating students and downsized, middle-aged professionals, but the employment situation remains difficult. I have received numerous letters describing long, unsuccessful searches for jobs. Obviously, this is an area in which ACS has to concentrate effort because time is running out. If we do not stop downsizing, chemists will soon be confronted with the capsizing of their profession.
Although we chemists and ACS members are still far from solving all of our problems, we can look to the future with cautious optimism. The long overdue cooperation in our ranks can ease the problems. However, we should not forget the past. The Santayana quotation, "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to relive it again," is barely 100 years old, but it has been valid throughout the history of mankind.
Anyone who believes in "Let it go, let it pass-the world goes by itself," is probably ready to make tropical sunshine out of a few faint but encouraging light rays at the end of the tunnel. Such people might claim that everything will be all right if we do not interfere any further with natural processes. Unfortunately, even those who were apprehensive of darkness are tempted to forget the problems on the first appearance of a more optimistic situation.
In general, people do not want to face any problem for a long time. They feel uncomfortable with bad news, whether it is real or not. It is interesting that a toothache frequently disappears just before the patient visits the dentist. Today, there is a similar feeling in our profession. As chemists face serious problems with perhaps complicated solutions, every little improvement can quickly bring out the idea that no further action is necessary. We are inclined to sweep the remaining problems under the rug.
But managing the problems of our profession-for that matter, managing the problems of any of the sciences -is similar to driving a car. We have to keep the car in the center of the lane. We cannot let go of the steering wheel. Even on a modem airplane, one equipped with the latest automatic pilot system, we still need pilots and navigators at every moment of flight. Problems in the chemistry profession were created because, in euphoric times, we did not want-or perhaps could not think about-possible future problems.
It is interesting that chemists work carefully with many chemicals under dangerous conditions always applying great precautions and planning against even low probability accidents. At the same time, we downplay the safety within our own profession. We must apply the principle of "better safe than sorry" here too. We must keep moving toward the light at the end of the tunnel. If we stop it will be a catastrophe. We must remember that the only time the light will come to us is when it is the light of an oncoming train.
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