UNITED THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT! (1986)
"In the past we have had a light which flickered, in the present we have a light which flames, and in the future there will be a light which shines over land and sea." Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill will forgive me for applying his historic words to ACS's struggle to overcome technical obsolescence. Although ACS's struggle does not equal in magnitude the problems Sir Winston faced, technical obsolescence is certainly catastrophic to scientists. In the past, recommendations have been made to minimize or counteract the effects of technical obsolescence, but such efforts either did not work or were never implemented.
In a previous comment on nonacademic sabbaticals (C&EN, Dec. 23, 1985, page 31), I described a proposal of the Economic Status Committee to establish standard procedures within educational institutions that would facilitate the periodic return of chemical professionals to academe. Acting on that request, the ACS Board at Anaheim unanimously approved the formation of a Task Force on Nonacademic Sabbaticals. The objective of this task force is "to study the conditions, problems, and opportunities for enhancing this route to updating or retaining chemical professionals." The committee recommends that this be a blue-ribbon task force, composed of knowledgeable and influential members of academe, industry, and government. The task force's recommendations would not only address the steps required to implement the system but would provide guidelines for solving initial problems.
The specific purpose of nonacademic sabbaticals would be to assist the efforts of veteran scientists to acquire new and current knowledge relating to the chemical sciences. The overall effects would:
* Increase the research capability of academic institutions to carry out vitally needed
basic research, thus providing a solution to the research needs detailed in the Pimentel
* Facilitate interactions between academe and industry, thereby producing new graduates thoroughly familiar with industrial research practices and needs.
* Enhance the value of scientists to their employers, thus resulting in fewer terminations and/or "voluntary" retirements.
* Promote a better balance between the supply of and demand for scientists, thereby stabilizing this segment of the work force and fostering greater confidence in the future of our profession.
As a long-time promoter of such a system, I am convinced that it is realistic, achievable, and has tremendous potential for good. It may bring minor problems and major benefits to everyone. As with any novel venture, this system will not be perfect. But even in its initial form, it should be a tremendous improvement over present practice. It could be modified and fine-tuned as experience dictates. Clearly, it would be difficult, at the outset, to write rigid rules and regulations governing the entire process. Various problems-both administrative and financial-must first be addressed to ensure eventual success.
The administrative problems inherent in implementing such a system can be solved relatively simply. We can adapt or modify the criteria regulating admission to graduate schools to permit the application, acceptance, and postgraduate matriculation of experienced professional scientists.
I believe that the major obstacle to a sabbatical system for industrial or government scientists will be financial. Consider a chemist or chemical engineer who, after 10 years of professional work, wished to update his/her expertise through training received as a government or industrial scholar. Our scholar may earn about $40,000 per year and may have acquired comparable financial obligations, whereas the average graduate student or postdoctoral fellow receives about $9000 or $22,000 per year, respectively.
How and where can we find suitable funds to support our scholar's return to academe? Should academe assume the full financial burden? Should the scholar's employer continue to provide full financial compensation? Should our scholar assume financial responsibility for her/his own sabbatical? Each of these solutions could be justified on paper; the question is which solution will work?
It could be argued, for example, that our scholar, who is already an accomplished scientist and experienced problem solver, would be a valuable asset to academe. Five scholars, each of whom served one term, should be more productive than one five-year graduate student. Budgets for academic research are severely limited, however, and without substantially increased funding, academe simply could not afford the added expense.
It is generally acknowledged that a new graduate requires several years of experience to become fully productive and to become an asset to the employer. By comparison, our updated scholar would have the technical knowledge of a fresh graduate and also would be fully familiar with the organization. Thus, she/he could work effectively almost immediately. Clearly, our scholar would represent a considerable long-term advantage to the employer. Unfortunately, most employers must work within short-term budgetary constraints. To sponsor a scholar, an employer might-be placed under considerable financial strain, especially if our scholar decided not to return.
Our scholar would certainly derive personal benefits and professional advancement opportunities as a result of postgraduate training. Such training would not only extend professional "life expectancy" but would enhance our scholar's market value. It may be argued, therefore, that such advantages should compensate for any temporary financial hardship. After all, graduate students accept similar financial burdens with the expectation of better economic compensation in the future. Why should our scholar be different? The answer to this question is that most scholars would be older and may have substantial financial obligations. He/she might be unable to afford the training or dare not risk future financial insecurity. What if the job "disappears" during the scholar's sabbatical?
It is evident that such a system could bring significant benefits for academe, industry, government, the national economy, and many scholars. Accordingly, the task force might conclude that, depending upon the circumstances, each principal should make some contribution. If each principal weighed the advantages and disadvantages and considered the needs of others, any difficulty could be resolved. A thorough and conscientious task force could establish guidelines that would create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. The results could open new avenues for progress in chemistry. Perhaps not everyone would or could take advantage of the proposed system, but everyone could enjoy the indirect benefits of improved morale, increased productivity, and enhanced economic status.
The deliberations and recommendations of the Task Force on Nonacademic Sabbaticals can have historic significance for chemistry. The Economic Status Committee pledges to assist that task force in any way possible. If we unite in this effort, perhaps, the application of Churchill's words to our undertaking will not seem overdramatic after all.
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