Prof. Whitesides is exaggerating to make a point. It's not like there's no organic synthesis being done in the U.S. A lot of the stuff that's moved to China (and India) is routine chemistry that's being outsourced because it's cheap (or has been cheap, anyway). As that changes, the costs go up, and we head towards a new equilibrium. It seems beyond doubt that there are fewer people doing industrial organic chemistry than there used to be in this country, but it's not like it's only found in China (or will be)...
[snip] ...thinking about the larger economic and scientific context - is hard. The time it takes to get a degree means that the situation could well have changed by the time a person gets out of grad school, compared with the way things looked when they made the decision to go. But this has always been the case; that's life as we know it. People have to keep their eyes open and be intelligent and flexible, because there are potential dead ends everywhere. (emphases CJ's) As hard as that advice is to follow, though, I still think it's better than any sort of scheme to allocate/ration people among different fields of study. My bias against central planning isn't just philosophical; I don't see how it can possibly work, and it is very, very likely to make the situation even worse.Regarding the China issue, I tend to agree that what is being done in Chinese or Indian companies tends towards the routine and inexpensive. I think I am echoing many US chemists' concerns when I note that the Chinese are smart and will use routine work to innovate, etc.
I'm also sympathetic to Derek's philosophical bias against central planning. However, isn't that the nature of NSF funding? Someone has to figure out who gets more money, whether it's the physical chemists, the analytical chemists or the organic chemists. NSF money equals PIs, grad students and postdocs, right? Reducing funding to organic chemistry seems to be one of only a few tools to prevent over-production. (I don't understand the issues (i.e. the allocation of funds within NSF's Division of Chemistry) well enough to comment intelligently on the repercussions, so this isn't an endorsement of the idea.)
As I said a long, long, long time ago, as an organic chemist, all I want to do is "carefully learn a trade and continue a tradition." It's difficult to keep that balanced in my head with being aware and intelligent and flexible, but I'll do what I can.