Wednesday, June 13, 2012

George Whitesides on #chemjobs: "Should US students be doing organic synthesis...?"

I think this quote from Professor George Whitesides in that NSF report of graduate education in the chemical sciences that I just mentioned is the headline quote for the entire report (from my perspective, anyway.) I don't believe I'm leaving out any necessary context for this comment:
Whitesides believes that the question should be asked whether PhD theses are narrow technical presentations for jobs that no longer exist. Should U.S. graduate students be doing organic synthesis if most organic synthesis is being done in China? “That’s not to say that these aren’t really important activities, but we need to connect our investment in graduate school with what’s actually needed to give jobs to students.”
I am sure there is much to parse in that statement. However, such a question from a very prominent professor of chemistry demands an answer from our community as a whole. 

18 comments:

  1. Many of Whiteside's comments about chemistry employment are rather self serving, and loaded with his own ego, but this one actually makes sense.

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  2. I could not agree more with this comment from Whitesides.

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  3. Whitesides also once told me, "I don't believe in peer review, because I have no peers." And that grants should be awarded by a scientist sitting in a bar with a fund manager and drawing ideas on a napkin. So I don't take his views on the scientific community very seriously.

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  4. Yeah, I wonder if this is just a really effective troll on the part of GW. Worked for me.

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  5. I agree with him. It is like training students to be video shop owners or travel agents. Unfortunately, it is a dying field in the US.

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  6. On a totally unrelated note: anybody saw a post on the Acs Careers blog, just a few days ago, that was taken out?

    Thank you.

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  7. Unstable IsotopeJune 13, 2012 at 6:10 PM

    That's a pretty bold statement from a professor. Whitesides is retirement age, so he doesn't need the system anymore.

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    1. It is, isn't it? He really trashes US chemistry in his comments, e.g.

      "Despite the current potential of the chemical sciences, the profession has been shrinking, has become less innovative, and is attracting less attention, said Whitesides.

      Over the past 20 years, the United States has lost 300,000 jobs in chemistry (ACS, 2011) The pharmaceutical industry is contracting as the return on invested capital becomes less than the cost of capital. China and India are doing some kinds of chemical research not just less expensively than it is done in the United States but more effectively, according to Whitesides. And when popular science magazines list their 100 biggest discoveries of the year, very few if any are likely to be chemical discoveries. “We are not working for that purpose, but it says something about the way society is viewing the field. It is not connecting us to the solution of big problems.”

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    2. As long as he's already gotten his, that's really all that counts.

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  8. Whitesides has been prone to not-quite coherent tirades and outbursts back in early 90s when he was on the scientific advisory board of our company. He certainly was the biggest douche there among our board of luminaries. I later saw him up close at the grad school and I did not improve my opinion of him - he is extremely self-centered and not in a sweet way, and lots of work done in his group impressed me like a fluff designed to produce nice pictures for publication

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  9. Grad schools in the US should not be hiring international students who are not US citizens. There are some major schools in this country importing most of their chemistry graduate students from China. This is a foolhardy use of taxpayer funds that will accelerate the loss of the US chemical industry.

    Also FDA should require big pharma to use API's only made in the US where quality control and safety can be enhance.

    At some point, we need to be acting in our own nation's interest. China understands this; the US does not.

    wc21

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    1. To the best of my knowledge, protectionism never led to an improved economic situation. It only creates industry which is not competitive in international markets - something "big pharma" etc need.

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  10. "Grad schools in the US should not be hiring international students who are not US citizens."

    A nice idea, but how would that possibly work? If I'm not mistaken, close to half of graduate students in chemistry are non-US citizens (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c2/c2s3.htm suggests 38%). Where is professor X going to get those 4 of every 10 students in her/his lab? The idea that the US should not subsidize education for foreign nationals may have merit (I'm not myself American, but enjoyed a nice US post-doc, thanks Uncle Sam!), but how far do you take this? Why should the taxpayers of Vermont subsidize some pushy New Yorkers to study in the lovely green mountain state?

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  11. George Whitesides was able to start up a career in his mid-twenties, with federally-funded graduate students and gov't grant money. Now that he's famous, he's throwing stones at young chemists for their "lack of innovation," when his former grads and postdocs are the ones now in high management and scientific roles. Does anyone else smell the hypocrisy?

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  12. The difference is that US citizens have, presumably, paid their share of taxes and are therefore entitled to enjoy some kind of benefit from that. Foreign graduate students do not pay taxes into the US tax system until they arrive here and, very often, they leave and go back home where their education does not benefit the US in any way. I'm not saying I completely agree with this logic, but that's the way it's laid out. I do agree that people from the US should be given preferential treatment when considered for graduate school (and to a large extent, I see that happening in many universities), but completely cutting off funding for foreign students? Sounds a tad xenophobic to me, but I do agree that the large number of foreign students getting an education in the US and then leaving and going back to their home countries is a major reason why outsourcing is as common as it is.

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  13. Outsourcing is absolutely not the reason organic chemistry is in decline. The reason behind the decline is the lack of innovation from the field in the past 20-30 years. Foreign students are not the problem, unimaginative professors are the problem.

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    1. Imagination is not rewarded. You can put a grant proposal together with the most creative ideas that you can envision and it will be trashed for being too speculative, too far-fetched, or not interesting.

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    2. Err, someone needs to read more.

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