SUPPLY AND DEMAND (1985)
Professionals in the physical sciences learn to approach problems in an objective, analytical manner. We know, or can predict with good probability, what changes will occur by increasing the temperature or decreasing the pressure in a reaction. When faced with the unknown, we attempt to develop hypotheses, to conduct carefully considered experiments, and to determine qualitative or quantitative relationships between cause and consequences, so that we can control the latter.
In a previous Comment (C&EN, July 16, 1984, page 36), I discussed the propriety and need for addressing those issues that influence the economic status of chemists and chemical engineers. I have received many letters on the subject. The unanimous opinion is that we must do something to stabilize and improve the economic situation of those employed in the chemical professions. Some correspondents offered help in approaching this vital problem. One person stated, however, that this is a "motherhood" issue about which everyone talks, but does nothing.
Can anything be done or are we constrained to empty oratory? During the past 15 years I have participated in numerous discussions on economic status. Many factors have been cited as having serious positive or negative effects. Nearly everyone agrees that the most influential actor is the balance between supply and demand. It is unlikely that those who have remained silent on the issue would dispute this assumption. Since no decision is already a decision, the question is: Why have we failed to act?
Three prime reasons for inaction can be cited: A "laissez-faire, laissez passer" philosophy that disdains any "interference" with the course of "nature"; the complexity of accurately predicting any future event; and the need for continuing and vigorous research programs at many colleges and universities.
Since the first reason is philosophic, a debate detailing pro and con arguments is unlikely to win converts. However, we do set standards for many of the activities crucial to science, for example, admission, performance, and graduation standards at colleges or or universities; ; job qualification standards for hiring, promoting, and firing; and standards for determining the recipients of grants, awards, or other forms of professional recognition.
The second reason for inaction is the difficulty of foreseeing future needs or trends. Today's demand for chemists or chemical engineers influences the career choices of students who would provide tomorrow's supply. Today's requirements may prove inadequate four to six years hence, when present-day students enter the job market. Discrepancies between present and future needs result in two out-of-phase curves, the interdependence of which reflects many complex factors. However, with modern technology, it is entirely possible to bring some measure of control to the ever-fluctuating balance between supply and demand.
The control panel of a Boeing 747 awes the novice. But many have mastered these controls and safely guide those giant birds through both calm and turbulent atmospheres. Similarly, the solution to the complex problems of supply and demand depends upon mastering the theoretical aspects of the problem and applying that knowledge-first in simulation; second in controlled pilot studies. Only then would we attempt to broaden the scope of our efforts. Once the qualitative and quantitative factors involved are understood, we could apply current technology to provide good approximations, within acceptable limits of tolerance, with respect to supply/demand patterns during the following six to eight years.
The third reason for inaction results from the need of graduate departments to provide both the intensive education and experience required for an imaginative and productive approach to scientific problems as well as to conduct cost-efficient academic research. University budgets are limited; the availability of graduate students lessens the effects of limited funding. Accordingly, a major or sudden decrease in the number of graduate students would precipitate crises in academe. At the same time, unlimited increases in graduate enrollment would again create conditions such as those experienced in the early 1970s-layoffs, forced retirements, unemployment. The employment needs of industry must be brought into balance with the equally important need for academic research. Any solution that failed to take cognizance of each would be unacceptable.
The goals of the Economic Status Committee (ESC) are to evaluate all factors that affect supply and demand; to develop mathematical models that would best control the most troublesome aspects of the problem; to conduct well-planned pilot studies; to evaluate results; and to suggest actions.
ESC does not assume that no problems will occur or that every question will be answered. Obviously, the future cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. Unexpected scientific discoveries or political developments could influence the accuracy of any prediction. However, with continuous monitoring and fine-tuning, we can derive workable solutions to this complex problem.
Our efforts will require the cooperation and objectivity of all, and any recommendation must take into consideration the interests of all. ESC hopes to provide a quantitative description of our supply and demand needs and to find solutions that are both realistic and fair.
Meteorological predictions are still based on probability, yet we use such predictions as the basis for many important decisions. Similar predictions can be made about prospects for rain or sunshine in our profession. As chairman of ESC, I solicit your help, ideas, and cooperation in finding those solutions that will be most beneficial to chemical professionals and thus to the progress of chemistry. I am convinced that, working together, we can find ways to resolve or simplify this issue.
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