WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER! (1998)
Why do I quote Judy Giordans, last years presidential candidates theme? For many years, I wrote dozens of Comments and lectured at many Local Sections on the serious problems facing our profession. I always stated that the problems are complicated, they can not be solved overnight with a single stroke of the pen so that we can continue again carefree, devoting ourselves to the challenges of chemistry. If handled through a myopic view, as some problems were addressed this way in the past, we trade one problem for another. History shows that something which may help one group, could have a devastating effect on the other. Judys simple one sentence short statement is the clue to the solution.
Let me recap the problems. Without ignoring any groups, let us assume as a start that there are three major segments of our profession: Academic community, industrial management and all other chemists-at-large who practice chemistry in some other way. The major problems for each of these groups, as it stands today, may be stated as follows:
1. The U.S. academic system is based on individual professors working without any permanent help. They must depends on temporary help: students and post-doctoral persons. Unfortunately, the present publish or perish requirement forces young professors to get as much help as possible to get tenure. The need does not diminish after obtaining tenure. They need help to get grant and they need grant to get help. It becomes a vicious circle.
2. In our free market society, industrial management is under continuous pressure to show that the organization is profitable. This is generally measured by the difference in the financial situation between January 1 and December 31 of the same year. Unfortunately, research in chemistry in one year shows up in the profit only 5-10 years later, while the expenses are incurred immediately. It is easy to balance the budget by cutting research in one year while using the profit reaped from research done 10 years ago or hire young chemists and terminate older, higher paid researchers.
3. Hundred years ago, chemistry graduates could easily keep up with new developments by reading the literature. Today, even just to keep up on their own field is a difficult task if they have a family in addition to a job. To learn about other areas is very difficult under these conditions. Unfortunately, lack of knowledge of new developments put them at disadvantage when facing new graduates who already have an edge because of their lower salary.
What is the outcome of these problems if they are not addressed?
1. If Academe need students to get tenure and grants, they will turn out the same, if not increasing, number of chemists and chemical engineers, regardless of job opportunities in their profession. This will discourage the younger generation to choose chemistry for their careers, which will force Academe to recruit students from abroad to maintain the same supply.
2. If Industry considers research as a daily expense and not as an investment for the future, it will cut jobs and/or retire higher paid older researchers for lower paid starting students. It means, regardless how we look at it, that the job opportunities for all chemists will go down while the supply remains the same.
3. If researchers can not keep up with the fast moving developments, they can not assure their employers that today's research will bring appropriate profit in this competing world. The pressure not only affects family life but the uncertainty will influence their creativity.
Is there a way out of this seemingly vicious circle? Yes, there is, but it is not simple and requires cooperation.
1. No one argues that research at universities is an important contribution to progress in chemistry. But we could ease the "publish or perish" principle and making teaching equally important in judging a professors performance, as it used to be 100 years ago. If we also made continuing education for lifetime as a part of our educational system, it could provide additional students to the universities without increasing the number of practitioners of our profession.
2. It is fact of life that a company can not survive without profit, however we can look at research as an amortizable investment just as a new factory or building. This is being done in Japan, why can not we do it ourselves? Granted that a new graduate might have more knowledge about the newest state of the art developments, but it will take them a few years to become a productive member of the organization. Why not help the more experienced, older employees to keep up with the rapidly changing developments?
3. We all remember the difficult times of our education while eagerly waiting for a less hectic times when we can work and enjoy our private life. However, we can not become complacent. The future is not approaching us, we have to move to keep up with it, otherwise it will get away. It will require changes from the old traditional after-graduation life, but we can not put our head in the sands.
Does this appear impossible? Should not we just continue the "laissez faire, lassez passer" attitude claiming that the best solution is just letting the chips fall where they may land? The world survived this way without our meddling, why not just continue business as usual? Should not every segment just look out for its own interest in this dog-eat-dogs competitive world? Even if we could visualize solutions, are not they impossible to carry out?
We can not afford this attitude anymore. While we can apply temporary Band-Aids, we are just postponing the major operation which, with increasing neglect, will become more life threatening to our profession. This is point where the title of this Comment is the only long range solution. Nothing is impossible if we set our collective mind at it. Our profession is based on rational and creative thinking. We should apply it to our problems now before it is too late. We are all this together!
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