CHEMISTRY 2020, A MYOPIC VISION? (1997)
Recently an extensive study, "Technology Vision 2020", was carried out to determine the developments needed to maintain the competitiveness of the U.S. chemical industry. The 100+ page report will serve as a beacon for future research. The report pinpoints in quite extensively the actual research areas where creative discoveries are needed. No doubt it will have an important role in determining research direction in the next 25 years. The Task Force which created this document should be commended from the physical science point of view for its work. The executive summary points out five areas which are crucial to future success:
Improve operations, with focus on better management of supply chain.
Improve efficiency in use of raw materials, the reuse of recycled materials, and the generation and use of energy.
Continue to play a leadership role in balancing environmental and economic considerations.
Aggressively commit to longer term investment in R&D.
Balance investments in technology by leveraging the capabilities of government, academe, and the chemical industry as a whole through targeted collaborative efforts in R&D.
I will not argue with the plan. It challenges our creativity. The accomplishment of these five points will maintain our leadership in the world. Therefore, we solved our future, there is nothing to worry about. We just practice creativity for the next 25 years every workday from 9 to 5 as we enter the laboratory of our employer. Is there any problem? Is this a realistic solution? Let me elaborate on how great development are made.
There are various views about this.
1. At one extreme is the statistician view: Put one million monkeys at typewriters and if they type feverishly for 1 million years, a new Shakespearean drama will be written.
2. The other extreme is the science fiction writers dream: Develop a self-improving thinking computer which will solve all our scientific and social problems.
Recently a new one was added by replacing the monkeys with desktop computers and later perhaps other Utopian solutions will be developed, but lets just concentrate on these two.
To be fair these extremes are not completely impossible. We all know how the artificial sweetener, saccharine was discovered by a scientist eating in the laboratory and accidentally tasting it. However, there were thousands of others who did the same unplanned "experiment" at best with the only discovery of getting a stomach ache quickly. Recently the victory of Big Blue over the world chess champion made headlines increasing the possibility of the other extreme in the distant future.
However, our problem is in the present. The year 2020 is less than 25 years away. The probability of either extreme providing the badly needed solutions in that time period is astronomically low, much less than being hit by a different meteor while reading this lines. It is evident that neither monkeys nor computers will help us in such a short time, even if we assume the validity of these hypotheses.
Since we need human beings, lets examine how human beings make discovery. The human mind which many compare to a computer with unknown circuitries, in spite of Big Blues victory, is still our most effective means to achieve the required technological developments. While we all know examples how great discoveries were made by self-taught people without any formal high level education, there is no question that the human mind still needs to be educated. A debate is still going on the degree of basic and applied scientific education which we should provide at our academic institutes, but that should be the subject of another symposium. Lets assume that we have a properly programmed inquisitive human mind, how does it provide the required technological developments?
Hollywood movies gave the public a distorted unrealistic view about this. The absent-minded professor or the mad scientist, generally a male, works in the laboratory day and night oblivious to his environment, his family or even his own appearance in search of new discoveries. Whether this was influenced with Einsteins well known hairdo is unclear, but it is evident that a genius is not bothered by the mundane problems of existence. To some extent almost anyone, who made discoveries more than 30 years ago exhibited subconsciously some traits of these philosophy. What makes it different? Is there a generation gap between the younger generation and us who were intrigued in our whole life by wonders of chemistry?
The difference is the changed environment in industry which brought about a different treatment of research. Fifty years ago research was considered, I should add rightfully, the goose which lays the golden egg. When young chemists joined an organization they expected to retire from the same place, unless they themselves were forced for family or other reasons to change job. One of my classmates worked for an oil company in the fifties. He was one of those whose life was chemistry and he worked even during the weekends so much that his research director one day took him out to the plant area and pointed to the big storage tanks saying: "Alex, relax unless you intentionally set fire to one these you have a life-time job here". In the thirties, during the worldwide depression, the famous German chemical company, I.G. Farbenindustrie was also facing severe budgetary problems, it had to economize everywhere, even in research. However, they did not want to lose their research staff. A part of the research team was offered work in the plant with the promise that when the economy gets better they will be transferred back to research. The company kept its word! It is not surprising that it became the most productive company due to the creativity of its research staff.
However, the situation drastically changed. About 25 years ago a large American chemical company was facing labor problems and its workers went on strike. The company asked the research staff to help running the plant, which they did frequently with 10-12 hours of workdays even during the weekends. It helped to maintain productivity and its market share during the strike and business was as usual after the settlement. However, when in a short time later the company decided to economize, the first place for cut was in research downsizing the loyal staff which helped in the difficult times. Can you expect such an atmosphere to be conducive to creativity which is the basic requirement for new technological developments? Even in a dictatorial system, where researchers are threatened with repercussions, if they do not produce the required results, is not as efficient as the treatment of the IG Farbenindustries research staff.
Why do we have this attitude in the United States? Industry has to have profits everywhere in the world not just here. However, while for example in Japan , research is handled as a capital investment, we consider it as line item expenditure which can be used to make the bottom line on December 31 better looking. Sadly, it is shortsightedly overlooked that while production can be cyclical, research creativity can not be turned on and off as economic picture fluctuates. Todays production is the result of a creative research atmosphere 10-15 years ago. Creativity is priceless. It can not be measured by the cost of research in the annual balance sheet. Creativity require a loyal work force, but loyalty is a two-way street. I am not advocating guaranteed employment regardless of individual performance. However, the workforce must feel that their loyalty is reciprocated so that they do not have to worry about job stability. The tenure is a time-proven means to assure creativity in Academe, why does an industrial entity has to gamble with their researchers job? Why do we have downsizing at any organization? Apparently, someone in the high management some years ago decided to expand and the expectation did not materialize. Progress requires daring steps in the unknown with no guarantee of succeeding. Without bold leadership any organization will atrophy in our competitive world. However, there is a difference between playing poker and setting off on an uncharted course. Maverick based his life on bluffing going from one card parlor to another. Columbus had a theory which was justifiable even though it turned out to be wrong. He did not set out on his voyage with a safety plan to throw part of the crew overboard when encountering any problem.
Both the virtue and fault of human beings is the same: their thinking is influenced by emotions and feelings. As history shows, they are capable to create things which were thought to be impossible. But there are many cases when emotional distress destroyed great talents. To achieve the goals of this study we will need a stable scientific workforce. Almost all of the great discoveries were made by persons who did not have to worry about how to support themselves and their families. Todays work environment is permeated by the uncertainty of possible downsizing. In a short range, it is thought to be the solution to an organizations desire to improve the bottom line of the annual report. Such atmosphere kills creativity. In such environment, any plan to achieve the five points outlined above starts with the proverbial two, if not three, strikes against it.
I will go back again to the example of Japan where Academe, Industry and the Government work together for one purpose: the interest of the Country. Interestingly you find this in many other countries. When we talk about global competition it is not just facing less expensive labor force, but also a different attitude. Industry is facing difficult problems, government regulation should be rational to help its productivity. Academe and Industry should work together to provide an educated work force capable to address its problems. Industry should create an stable atmosphere for research which is conducive to creativity. We must realize what the Japanese already did: WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Each of the segments might obtain temporary advantage, but in the long run it is going to be a joint catastrophe if we do not cooperate
Mr. Gerald Greenwald, the Chairman and CEO of United Airline, was quoted a few months ago (USA TODAY, July 1, 1996, 13A) after describing the devastating effect of downsizing on moral at his previous job at Chrysler with this advice to other CEO's:
"Lesson One, dont overexpand. Dont bet your peoples jobs. If you want to bet your peoples job, then damn it, bet your own. Put your name on saying, youre going to be one of the hundred who leave if it comes to it, because you will have failed."
I hope that all chemical CEO's will adapt his philosophy. Otherwise, Vision 2020 will become a very myopic Vision 20/200.
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