NO ONE IS AN ISLAND (1997)
I am 55 and have not worked in two years. The closest I got to a lab position was a call back for a glass washer position. I now am applying for a part-time teaching job at a community college. If I am lucky enough to get it, I'll do the same thing I did (at the same pay and benefits) 28 years ago as a graduate teaching assistant. It's impossible to feel you have any value to society. My family is slowly leaving me. Soon I will be totally without income. The stress is at times unbearable. When I call strangers looking for work, they tell me to look in C&EN. Your column showed perhaps you understand the human tragedy."
This was one of the most poignant replies among many I received following my previous ACS Comment, "Chemistry 2020: A Myopic Vision?" (C&EN, Jan. 13, page 28). Perhaps some people will dismiss it as a rare occurrence or a sob story. Others will say each person is responsible for his or her own life. However, I had a lump in my throat when I read this note.
No doubt many people become apathetic, numbed to the misfortune of their fellow chemists. Many of them sigh with frustration: What can I do? I am only a small cog in the conglomerate of wheels. You might call me a hopeless idealist. I plead guilty to being an but I never learned the word hopeless. During my whole life, I maintained that everything is possible if you set your mind to it. We cannot and must not dismiss problems affecting our profession just because individually we feel helpless to solve them.
Four years ago, one successful candidate for regional director of the ACS Board of Directors said to ACS members, "We are all in this together." This philosophy describes best what we must do. We have complex problems that do not lend themselves to quick solutions. Solutions that appear to help one or another segment of our profession but do not consider at the same time the interests of all segments will soon cause even bigger problems. We must work together or face catastrophe.
Basic research is needed because it will lay the basis for the development of practical industrial processes resulting in profitable products. Without it, the presently successful producers whose profits depend on past basic research will atrophy. Although basic research might appear to have more intellectual value than down-to-earth applied research, it is supported only by the development of useful products. There has to be a balance developed through cooperation.
The purpose of education at the college level is not only to satisfy intellectual curiosity. Students must also gain the knowledge and capabilities that they will need to obtain and to keep a job. Curricula that meet these objectives may be less conducive for producing high-level publications, but with our "publish or perish" system, such publications are needed for tenure and grants. Whose job is more important?
Chemical companies must make a profit; otherwise, they go out of business. They need the best and most creative labor force at the lowest cost. But this cannot be done indiscriminately. Some 40 years ago, in one year, one of the largest chemical companies hired 50% more graduates than it needed and, six months later, after testing them, fired those people scoring in the lowest percentile. The uproar was so great that for a few years most university campuses barred the company from recruiting. Today, when a company downsizes the older workforce, it is a routine matter.
If we had more chemists, discoveries would be made more rapidly, resulting in more products, which in turn would increase profits, creating expansion and more need for chemists. The cycle would go ad infinitum. Or would it? At the start of the Space Age, our academic institutions went into high gear to produce more chemists, many of whom themselves went on to produce more chemists. Eventually, an increasing number of our youngsters became wary of entering the profession. Chemistry is one of the most exciting professions, but only if we have a long-range prospect of economic stability. A smaller number of chemists might delay discoveries, but it would make the profession more inviting. In addition, the older generation would not be dismissed so readily.
Whose interests come first? How do we solve the problems? At one extreme would be a totally regulated system covering every aspect of the chemists profession. At the other end would be a free-for-all where the fittest survives. Neither of these is nor can be the solution. Professors must have helpers to carry out their research, but graduating students must have jobs. Industry must be profitable, but without regard for the human factor, profits will quickly disappear.
The philosophy that "We are all in this together," with realistic give and take, is the only solution. Admittedly, it is not perfect, but just like democracy - to paraphrase Winston Churchill - it is way ahead of whatever is the next best solution. We should have a careful evaluation of the problems: the supply and demand, academic curricula, research and education, industrial sabbaticals, certification, continuing education, and long-range research, to name just a few. Then we must act, even if the solutions are not perfect.
Postponing the discussion and initiation of changes is the same as disregarding early signs of disease at the stage when a cure, regardless of how painful it may be, is still possible. To ignore them equals suicide. I urge you to initiate discussion and send me your thoughts by e-mail, or by any other communication method.
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