ECONOMIC STATUS OF CHEMISTS (1993)
The economic status of chemists has been debated for almost 50 years without coming to an agreement on what, if anything, ACS should do about it. Healthy economic status is like freedom - its value and importance are only appreciated when lost. A crisis is difficult to handle; therefore, logic calls for preventive actions.
Do we have a problem? Although the recent ACS survey shows only a 2.1 % unemployment rate among chemists, the number refers to unemployment among ACS members, who make up only about 40% of our profession. Furthermore, the survey is voluntary, and those who are unemployed are less likely to respond. Finally, those in postdoctoral positions are not counted among the unemployed.
This number is nearly double of that obtained three years ago by the same method. At the same time, the number of graduates in postdoctoral positions is also doubled. This cannot be attributed to their not wanting to leave academia. The National Employment Clearing House at the ACS national meeting last fall in Chicago reached an all-time record ratio between those seeking employment and the number of positions offered: five to one. In the "good old days" of the early 1960s, it was four to one - but in the other direction! To make matters even worse, at the recent Conference on the Needs of Industrial Chemists, those from industry, managers and bench chemists alike, stated one after another that no improvement can be expected in the employment situation, and further consolidations will occur.
Is economic status a factor in our lives? Perhaps those who chose chemistry as their profession 40 to 50 years ago did not consider it important. However, I cannot blame those who think that chemistry is no longer fun, if they have no job or if they are underpaid. Can we do anything about this, and if the answer is "yes," what? Those who believe that action can and should be taken always come to the same conclusion: Balance supply and demand by controlling the pipelines of the supply.
Twenty years ago, people claiming that we cannot predict the future would have tarred and feathered me for recommending such action. It is strange that the same uncertainty did not hold back proposals to open the pipelines when a shortage of supply was predicted. In our private lives, are we not estimating continuously the future and making decisions on the basis of probabilities?
If demand is underestimated, there might not be enough chemists to discover new things as rapidly as before, some inventions might be delayed, but unemployment in our profession will not be a factor. Early retirement will not be forced upon unwilling employees because organizations will want to hang on to their employees. On the other hand, if the demand is overestimated and more students are encouraged to enter the profession, discoveries will proceed with the speed proportional to that which organizations are willing to spend on research. But an increasing number of graduates will find no positions, sub-professional positions, or temporary positions. Forced retirement will occur at an earlier age to make space for the new graduates. It depends on one's views whether new discoveries or human wellbeing is more important.
If unemployment and broken careers are less desirable than the delay of discoveries, then the question is what we can do. Obviously, no single action can solve the problem. As in every balancing act, we have to coordinate various steps carefully. Details have to be worked out and adjustments made. But this is the logical way. You would not go to sleep at the steering wheel, even if you set your car in the right direction. These are the steps that we have to take:
* Regificensing. No, there is no such word ... yet. We have discussed for many years REGistration, certiFICation and licENSING. Since they were not perfect, we shied away from any action. We must develop a new concept that combines the advantages of these processes while minimizing the problems. Currently, undergraduate degree programs are certified, and similar action is proposed for graduate programs. The legitimate question can be raised: Why certify the degree programs, why not the product? The legal and medical professions have certification. With increasing legislation about chemicals, we can expect attention to be turned toward the practitioners of chemistry, not only toward its products. A bureaucracy-developed system win produce many problems. We must take the leadership role ourselves. Quality will affect the quantity.
* Immigration. As an immigrant myself, I am grateful for the opportunity that allowed me to start a new life in the U.S. 35 years ago. However, I consider immigration a privilege, not a right. We have to make sure that immigration policies concerning chemists are not causing domestic hardship. We can all remember the catastrophes that occurred when control of admission broke down at public events with limited capacities. I do not propose an on-off switch in immigration, but an adjustable valve to ensure a realistic flow.
* Continuing education. A 45-year old chemist faces an increasing probability of being replaced by a young graduate. For some organizations, replacing an older chemist is a way to reduce the payroll, but sometimes these replacements are made to acquire new expertise. I renew my pilot's license periodically by passing a test to prove my proficiency. Would the similar principle work in our profession?
I do not claim to have the perfect-or even an imperfect-solution to our problem worked out in every detail. I also do not blame anyone for the problem. I propose to bring together various segments of our profession and work out an approach that is fair to everyone. In this difficult situation, we have to act together. Whether one works in academe or in industry at a lower or higher level, in the long range, the problem, directly or indirectly, will affect everyone, even those with the most secure jobs. The question is not who is right, but what is the right action. To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It does not matter so much where we are, but in what direction we proceed." Recently, a distinguished scientist, a previous ACS president, openly declared that he changed his views on this issue and advocated quality before quantity. Reassessing our views means that we keep an open mind. Refusing to consider changes when facing danger might be brave, but it is not logical. Let us start 1994 by addressing this problem, which has been ignored for many years.
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