Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Apodaca Challenge: What would I do with the ACS?

Rich Apodaca (the open-source cheminformatics guy) is a long-time reader and commenter on the blog, and he had a really good challenge for me (and for all of us):
I'm curious - you've seen the chemistry jobs situation from a vantage point few chemists have. What should ACS be doing to help its membership? 
Assume ACS is now in the mood to try something bold to address the #chemjobs situation - something it's never done before. Something that could change the rules of the game. Maybe even something with a significant element of financial/existential/credibility risk. 
What would it be?
I am not confident enough in my abilities as a policy wonk that I can offer concrete recommendations about what to do. But since you asked, here are a few ideas that I have:
  • Triple or quadruple funding to the ACS Department of Member Insights and Research so they can: 
    • Do the ChemCensus every year. Increase participation (advertising, paying people?, getting away from self-reporting) so that we get MUCH better information as to what's happening to ACS members. 
    • Expand the scope of the survey to attempt to reach all chemists, not just ACS members. 
    • Do longitudinal tracking of a cohort of chemists, so that we figure out what is happening to chemists over the course of their very long careers. 
    • Talk to member employers to ask them "What are you looking for?" and to drill down
  • Make sure that academics and employers have a much better picture of the hiring market
    • Have ACS representatives (members, ACS employees, whatever) show up at key conferences to give lectures on what the job market looks like. Do this ONLY after the above studies are complete (2-3 years), so that people actually have solid, reliable data. 
  • Offer more benefits to ACS members. Right now, what do you get? A deal on life insurance, C&EN (worth the cost, IMHO) and access to C&EN Jobs. Thaaaat's about it. 
    • Layoff insurance?: For larger companies, there's typically a severance package. That's not the case for smaller companies. Is there a case for ACS-subsidized unemployment insurance that goes past the federal 99-week limit? 
    • Shouldn't there be a list of long-term unemployed ACS members, who somehow get special care? 
  • Last, and craziest: How about a Rooney Rule for the long-term unemployed? For the uninitiated, the Rooney Rule is a rule instituted in the NFL that requires minority coaching candidates to be interviewed (not necessarily hired) for head coaching and other senior general manager type positions. Why not ask employers to consider/talk to/phone interview one long-term (longer than 6 months) unemployed chemist per opening? 
    • Better yet -- why not require recruiters at ACS National Meetings to interview at least one long-term unemployed member? (You could pay them to do it -- give them a break on having a booth, or lower the membership fees for their employees, or something.) 
Those are some pretty half-baked thoughts. The only one that I really, really, really believe in is the first one. If you're in a hole and you want to climb out of it, you have to find out how deep you are. 

Readers, you guys are so much better at me at this stuff. Please, if you had crazy ideas -- what would you do with the ACS? 


  1. The ACS should tract imported chemistry grad students and what happen to them upon graduation. Those students need to see into their futures, too. We need much deeper outcome data on the impact of international students on the workforce and what happens to them in their careers.

  2. Stop hyping "STEM.'

    1. I might suggest that we continue encouraging government investment in STEM. But, rather than using that money to "encourage" people to go into those jobs, we utilize the enhanced funding for a permanent research staff positions at universities. I believe that having a more permanent staff in research laboratories would actually increase the efficiency of academic labs due to the continued thread of knowledge and skills in the group. Additionally, there are a lot of good ideas that are likely withering away with the long term unemployed. Expanding the job base in a manner that is more permanent can capture some of this lost value. Plus, having been on the contract side of things, living contract to contract is no way to live long term for a number of reasons.

      Unfortunately, I have discussed this with professor friends of mine, and while they theoretically like the idea, the answer I invariably get is: "Why pay for one full time employee on a grant, when I can get two postdocs, or 3-4 graduate students". Realistically, this will require a dramatic shift in the funding agency requirements, and I don't foresee that happening without significant pushing from organizations like ACS.

  3. I "second" your first line of reasoning. Expand the ChemCensus. Put employed statisticians to work on the problem. I'd go further with longitudinal tracking: how long is the average career? What's the expected ROI for pursuing, say, a postdoc over taking an earlier-career job at lower pay? On average, how many different jobs will the average chemist have in a ten-year period? (I'm guessing 2-4). What's the average retirement age for each chemistry career level (guessing >65, now).

    In any case, more data always preferred. Maybe we'll do an "Employment Issue" of C&EN quarterly?

    1. It is my understanding that Dept. of Member Research/Insights is run by real-life social scientists (e.g. google Elizabeth McGaha's CV). But yeah, definitely, more experts on the issue, the better.

  4. I don't mean to sound dismissive or cynical, but realistically there is nothing the ACS can meaningfully do to help chemists.

    ACS can track all the statistics and put up all the job ads it wants, but that won't change the economic reality moving chemistry jobs overseas. I guess the ACS could lobby Congress to put up protectionist barriers to keep chemistry jobs in the US (there is a national interest to having a strong scientific infrastructure, but one can make the same argument about the manufacturing infrastructure we've been trading away for decades). Jousting against globalization is just the wrong side of history to be on.

    If the ACS were to just disappear, would anyone notice? Sure, there'd be fewer chemistry journals, but there's probably already too many. Scifinder is great, but replaceable. Chemistry week is fun (I guess: one would hope every week is 'chemistry week').

    Can anyone point to something of real tangible benefit that the ACS has accomplished in the past 50 years? At least by being a member of Von's club I save money on groceries (and membership is free!).

  5. How about free access to ACS journal articles?

  6. bboooooya is right...which is exactly the point of this exercise. How can ACS become relevant?

    Here are my suggestions...

    1) Bully pulpit stuff

    Someone has to argue against off-shoring in terms that the MBAs understand. If there aren't any real costs to it, then we frankly deserve to lose our jobs.

    And Congress has to be warned against stapling anything to a Ph.D. (B.S./M.S. chemists can be displaced by a Ph.D. flood, too.) Congress honestly have no idea what they're doing, and someone out there has to let them know the consequences.

    2) Education

    There are now amazing opportunities for continuing education. Offer online courses or develop them in conjunction with someone else...Khan Academy, MIT, etc. There could be some interaction with industry to determine what kinds of training they'd like to see...and perhaps some instruction from industry experts.

    3) Journal access

    "Freemium" access (e.g. limited to x articles per month) for the unemployed. Perhaps a low-cost subscription for individuals. I guess what I'm saying is that there should be "cheap seats" of one sort or another.

    4) Conference access

    Not everyone can attend ACS conferences. Put talks online for members...or stream them.

  7. I think the ACS has a role to play in that. People have asked me, “What are you going to do about protecting U.S. R&D jobs in chemistry?” I think there are several areas. I was asked this at a member forum in Philadelphia. I said, “That’s a good question. I have to think about it.” I have been thinking about it.

  8. "Since 1995, the American Chemical Society (ACS) has operated the Science & the Congress Project to educate and inform Members of Congress and their staffs on the importance of science and technology to solving national challenges. The Science & the Congress Project has conducted well over 100 congressional briefings on important and timely policy topics, relying on panels of knowledgeable and diverse experts to provide comprehensive, balanced presentations about chosen topics, and to increase the level of scientific and technological literacy on Capitol Hill." (ACS website info)

    So perhaps the message needs to change with the times, but at least ACS is in a position to communicate with Congress on behalf of chemists. That's a tangible benefit to its members. It's up to us to help ACS develop the agenda.

  9. The ACS could put together skills introduction/re-certification courses that members can actually afford. They have on-demand prerecorded video lectures- one had 4 lectures for $800. Can an unemployed member afford to pay $3000 for a single short course in a city that they have to fly to and get a hotel. Spending $4000 to take a 4 day course is a lot when there are full semester 4 credit courses at reasonably credible public universities that don't cost this much. I don't think I could afford more than $500 for a 2-4 day group course.
    And as far as I can tell from the ACS's course site, there are no reviews by members who have previously taken the classes, so who knows what previous students thought of the curriculum or teaching methods. They also don't say how many people enroll in the courses.

  10. The ACS attempts to be an advocate for scientific labor, a corporate lobby, and a publishing house. I think they have compromised the scientific labor in pursuit of the other two. I mean, I don't think they were ever a "real" trade union, they just sort of pretended to be one. The recent flurry of employment articles perhaps shows the ACS trying to wear the face of one.

    Maybe the ACS should own being a labor advocate and everything else could follow suit. Maybe the ACS should be representing grad students, post docs, and drones and not the UAW and be in the dirt negotiating labor. It could help change the culture in academic institutions to allow for more technical labor suggested by polychem, over the traditional prestige paid slave labor. I think a lot of technology might have more time to mature and privatize if specialists were allowed to hang on to their projects longer without fear of starving their children, not having any, or defaulting on their loans.

  11. " but at least ACS is in a position to communicate with Congress on behalf of chemists. That's a tangible benefit to its members"

    Specifically how? What is an example of real benefit to chemists that has this provided in the past 50 years? Just looking for 1 specific example. One.

    1. That's the thing bloooya they don't. There have been many trade unions that have even funded their own candidates to fight for their workers behalf, ACS just half asses advocacy for chemical laborers at best.

    2. Has SOCMA done any better? I don't know the answer, but perhaps Mr. Jobber can educate us.

  12. The benefit to me is that I belong to a professional society interested in providing educational sessions to a congress whose members need to hear from the scientific community. Just one example:

    Research That Pays Off: The Economic Benefits of Federally Funded R&D (March 16, 2012) video available

    Knowing that this sort of ACS activity is occurring, I might write fewer letters to congress. That is a real benefit to me, as my work with students has a dependence upon federal funding.

  13. In terms of safety ... ACS can:
    1) Band together with RSC in order to provide a format in which MSDS's can be more useful and readable.
    2) Disseminate some best practices for safety training and enforcing laboratory safety in academic labs.

  14. ACS should have a mid-career unemployed chemist on the board of directors as well as a newly graduated chemist ...