Monday, April 30, 2012

The Chamot Statement, or why this man should have won the ACS presidency

From this week's C&EN, an essay from Dr. Dennis Chamot, the former candidate for ACS president full of rather remarkable comments:
Nevertheless, a global manufacturing enterprise with increasing international competition is here to stay. Unfortunately for chemical professionals, it’s not just shop-floor manufacturing and assembly jobs that have moved from the U.S. to Asia and other areas; in recent years the movement has included upper-level, sophisticated work such as chemical research, drug discovery, process design and development, and various levels of management. In addition, domestic capabilities have increased enormously in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as has their output of homegrown scientists and engineers. 
What does all of this say about employment opportunities for U.S. chemists? Well, we are probably producing too many chemists for the traditional academic and industrial research labor market, at least for the foreseeable future. To come to any other conclusion would be indulging in empty rhetoric. Note that I did not say we are producing too many graduates with chemistry degrees—more on that later—but we need to be realistic... 
[snip] Growth in the U.S. will not be fast enough to make up for all of the lost positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries over the past few years, in part because many of these losses have not been solely determined by economic decline. Rather, there have been strategic shifts to place work in other countries, and there is no reason to expect those decisions to be reversed. 
The keys for many chemical professionals will have to be imagination and flexibility. I am a firm believer in the need for all citizens in modern technological societies to have a strong grounding in science and math, so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.
This is a groundbreaking comment for a member of the Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society to make; Dr. Chamot is to be praised and thanked for being willing to state such unpopular and unpleasant facts. I don't really have anything to add to it (other than a sense of skepticism at the alternative careers pathway).

While we can argue about the speed at which ACS and C&EN have approached the #chemjobs issue, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that many people are coming around to the same set of facts and all that remains (all!) is to discuss what is to be done about it. That's a start.

8 comments:

  1. "so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry."

    Yeah ok, all those jobs you can do with a base BS in Chemistry, sure. Sometimes with no further training. Grad school and then doing all those jobs? A bit excessive.

    You're better served by going to the philosophy PhD route if you want to do grad school and do any of those jobs. You'll learn more stuff actually relevant to your future job.

    I guess a counter-argument is that during a science PhD you do get paid... but it will be a sad, sad day when a PhD becomes a requirement for many of those jobs. Yet another five years to waste because they wanted to keep the youth busy and out of the unemployment lines while oiling the university research machine. I think they tried a similar thing in Egypt with their degree mills that gave you a no good piece of paper but kept you occupied for four years, but they did have too high of a birth rate back in the 80s and couldn't create even crappy jobs fast enough. Hell, if we can stay stable below replacement level fertility, it might work out without causing mass unemployment and disappointment.

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  2. "medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more"

    Also, I'd like to note, that all those jobs are secondary type jobs that depend on other people who create value, unless there was something hiding in the 'and more' part that I missed. It's not school teachers and regulatory people that create value for the country and its budget. Last time I checked it was people selling commodities and higher value products that could be taxed to pay all those other things.

    Now, I suppose the US could export natural gas and pay for all those nice jobs with that money, or become some sort of financial center and skim off the transactions for others, like London has done. But to come close to recouping losses to sending out jobs that create new products, you'd have to tax transactions a bit more.

    If all those research scientists and engineers are going to be in Asia, that means it's Asians creating the primary money. I don't believe that it will be the multi-national corp. They'll turn on them, steal their IP, reverse-engineer, and launch a home company that will bury the multi-national corp very fast. With out secondary service economy, we'll become poorer and they'll become richer because they are the ones who actually make stuff that people want to buy and we don't have enough raw resources.

    Another thought, if science R&D moves to cheaper places like this guy is suggesting and it's irreversible, I suppose university research will move too, until the whole world is equal in income right? Then reserach will stop moving and because it's too much of a pain to spread out, all research will be concentrated in the last part of the world to catch up, that is the crappiest place you can think of now. So... is the university of the Democratic Republic of the Congo looking for profs? I've got to look out for my grandkids. I'll be all over that job as long as the most brutal civil war that no one in the West has heard about comes to an end. Don't want to be casualty 5 million and 1 (or is it up to 6 mil now?)

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  3. Uh oh. Don't be surprised if you hear about Dr. Chamot deciding to step down in order to "spend more time with his family" after mysteriously finding a severed distillation head in his bed.

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    1. But how would he figure out what it is? You think man's ever seen a stillhead?

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  4. Dr. Chamot, in his nice cushy job at the National Research Council in Washington, is at least acknowledging the employment problem. His fix, though, of pursuing alternative careers, is simply not feasible given the number of new chemists being turned out every year and the number of existing chemists who already need jobs. There are not enough of those alternative career openings to go around.
    Still, his words are a step in the right direction of discussing the matter openly. Now, the next time he testifies on Capitol Hill in front of this or that House/Senate committee, hopefully he will remember his words and not call for ever more federal research dollars for ever more academic research to produce ever more chemists.

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  5. You can not be serious! He says this _after_ the election, when he has nothing to lose. What, he had an epiphany? No, he knew that all along, it's just never been of any interest to him. In any case - let's be real, ACS president is just a figurehead, and people in the running for it run only to collect cool million it pays, as exemplified by this year candidates who would not be able to tell flask from a beaker if their life depended on it.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I think it's important to emphasize: the ACS president position is not paid a salary. I believe it is expensed.

      See here for details on page 8: http://portal.acs.org/portal/PublicWebSite/about/aboutacs/financial/CNBP_028710

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