RETURN TO ACADEME (1985)
Sir Winston Churchill once said: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." Recently, C&EN summarized (Oct. 14, page 9) the 362-page report of the Pimentel Committee, entitled: "Opportunities in Chemistry." This report presents the results of three years of conscientious and thorough work by a 26-member committee working under the leadership of George Pimentel. The committee should be commended for the depth and excellence of its work and for its splendid service to the chemical profession. Why is this report so important? Its essence was best described by Frank Westheimer as follows: "It is an assessment of what chemistry has accomplished and how chemistry, if adequately financed, can meet the nation's continuing needs in medicine, agriculture, industry, national defense, and other practical areas."
Westheimer is the foremost expert on this subject, excluding the Pimentel Committee itself. Twenty years ago, he chaired a similar committee, which authored a report entitled "Chemistry: Opportunities and Needs." Although the past 20 years have brought many changes, the basic conclusion of both reports is the same: that additional funding is required for basic research in the chemical sciences if, as a nation, we are to realize all the potential benefits chemistry can offer. I believe that the entire chemical community will agree with this conclusion.
Funds must be provided, commensurate with the nation's economy, to ensure future advancement. ACS and other chemical organizations must make extensive use of the Pimentel Report to convey its message to national decision makers. Congressional leaders regularly receive requests for added appropriations from various interest groups and lobbies. We can greatly improve our chances for success if we can demonstrate not only the need for increased funding but the positive impact such funds would have upon the nation and practicing chemists. We must develop plans that demonstrate that we are aware of possible problems and are resolved to meet them.
Traditionally, a major portion of our basic research efforts has been conducted at academic institutions, where research endeavors and graduate education are intrinsically entwined. The increased research efforts envisioned and urged by the Pimentel Report will require additional personnel. The question is: How can these personnel be provided? In the past, academic institutions have had to rely solely upon graduate students. Accordingly, increased funding meant increased numbers of university graduates. Unfortunately, students who conduct basic studies at our major colleges or universities become job seekers before their research findings can be translated into practical possibilities. Today's graduates always compete with yesterday's graduates for the limited number of available positions. A sudden increase in the number of graduates quickly will exceed permanent employment opportunities.
During an economic downturn, this competition creates insoluble problems. Continued national and industrial progress requires knowledgeable scientists, trained in the most recent scientific skills and techniques. Therefore, when no economic expansion is possible, the historical tendency has been to discard older scientists in favor of younger ones. Today's young chemists become tomorrow's old ones. Thus, a never-ending cycle is perpetuated.
Are there no solutions to this paradox? The Economic Status Committee is greatly concerned that there be a better balance between supply and demand in the chemical profession. We have studied the problem and believe that it can be solved. On the one hand, academic institutions will require increased numbers of research personnel to conduct the basic chemical studies suggested by the Pimentel Report. At the same time, colleges and universities also are charged with providing high-quality education for those eager to learn. On the other hand, nonacademic institutions employ capable research personnel whose expertise needs to be updated periodically. If, in addition to the standard level of graduate education, the increased funding were budgeted to provide periodic sabbaticals for seasoned nonacademic chemists, it would be possible to break the vicious cycle of oversupply and underemployment.
This realistic possibility has been discussed many times but has never been implemented. Industrial or government scientists, with their years of experience, could efficiently conduct basic research studies at academic institutions. They also could provide a valuable resource for the better coordination of graduate education for the young with the realistic requirements of nonacademic employment. In return, veteran chemists would be afforded opportunities to upgrade their own training and education. Upon their return to regular employment, such employees could expedite the transfer of basic knowledge for practical applications. This approach would not only increase the profitability of applied research, but would have the added advantage of increasing the demand for new chemistry students and new professionals.
In practice, some difficulties may be encountered during the initial stages of such a project. But these need not be insoluble. In the long term, such problems can be resolved. A "return to academe" by industrial or federally employed chemists would become routine. It would parallel in nature and simplicity the acceptability of academic sabbaticals or entry into graduate school. I have no illusion that this approach can be adopted overnight. Careful planning and foresight certainly will be required. I am deeply concerned, however, that if early coordinated actions are not taken, negative consequences will result for the entire chemical profession.
How should we proceed? We must, have a "summit" meeting where frank and open discussions can lead to workable solutions. A prestigious, blue-ribbon task force with influential representatives from all sides could recommend policy and procedures. Their recommendations could be tested as pilot projects that could then provide more definitive guidelines for mass application. Such a concerted approach not only would produce a more harmonious chemical community, but would increase our chances to obtain the level of funding suggested by the Pimentel Report.
The advancement of chemistry is possible only if steady employment is available for those trained in the field. Increased funding of basic research is likely to create more interest in chemistry among bright young students, but this interest will quickly wane in the face of unemployment. The same disenchantment with chemistry experienced in the 1970s would surely be repeated.
Recollection of the past supports this view! The sudden increased interest in science during the post-sputnik era was quickly followed by events of the 1970s, during which time many chemists learned the full meaning of the word "unemployed"-previously absent from their dictionaries. Interrupted careers and psychological and family hardships created a nightmare existence for our colleagues unfortunate enough to be caught up in this vicious cycle. We cannot afford to ignore the past when we plan for the future. As scientists, we are trained to conduct research, to learn from our findings, and to design better experiments. The Economic Status Committee believes we must adapt this same spirit and apply this same approach to the question of how best to ensure the steady and healthy growth of chemistry.
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