Friday, October 24, 2014

ACS Presidential Candidate Donna Nelson on #chemjobs issues

I recently sent an e-mail to Professor Donna Nelson, who is currently running for the ACS President-Elect position to see if she was interested in answering last year's questions for ACS presidential candidates. Here is a portion of the e-mail I sent: 
Below are the questions that my readers and I have come up with. If you need any clarification, please feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I will run your unedited response as soon as you give me permission to (and not a moment before!)  
1. Which ACS program do you think best helps the job-seeking ACS member? How would you improve it? 
2. Is it ACS policy to get more students to study in STEM fields, specifically chemistry? If so, how do we reconcile the fact that wages for chemists are stagnant or falling? Does this argue against the idea of a STEM shortage and the need for more STEM students? 
3. Each ACS president candidate, for at least the past decade, knows the challenging job market facing ACS members and inevitably speaks of "growing jobs" in the US. Specifically, what tangible steps would you take to increase the number of chemistry jobs in the US, and is this something you think is really achievable? 
4. How would you describe ACS' response to the Great Recession and the increase in unemployment amongst its members? How should ACS respond to similar situations in the future? 
Thank you for the opportunity! Again, please let me know if you have questions. 
Yesterday evening, Professor Nelson responded with her statement. The entire e-mail is reproduced below:
A statement which answers your questions and more is inserted below.  I hope this will explain my thoughts. 
The ACS provides assistance with resumes, cover letters for job applications, interview strategies, negotiation, etc.  ACS members who believe they need improvement in these areas have those resources.  
However, I think the real problem is simply an imbalance between the number of chemists and the number of jobs for chemists in the US.  One can view this as too many chemists or as too few jobs. Acting based on the former perspective will require that the number of chemists be reduced.  One way to do this is obviously to reduce the number of future students steered toward chemistry, but I would rather try other solutions before taking this possibly irreversible step.   
The ACS programs mentioned above can enhance job skills of existing chemists and train them for a wider variety of jobs.  Acting on the latter perspective makes the question how to create more jobs in chemistry or how to reverse the job reduction trend.
There may be no easy or quick solution for increasing chemistry jobs. However, a worthy approach is to bridge to the public in order to make science and scientists more popular.  If the general public becomes more comfortable with us, it will be easier to converse with them and enable them to see our perspectives in scientific issues.  If all ACS members practiced this, it would resolve many of the problems and barriers which plague us now.  So how can we do this? 
Building bridges to the public must become an activity for all ACS members.  It should not be reserved only for leaders or regarded as a special talent of only a few spokespeople.  This is an activity which should be carried out routinely by all ACS members (and leaders) taking opportunities to speak to various groups which we already know. Examples are Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, PTA, churches, neighborhood cookouts, etc.  We should each communicate what we do as scientists, our scientific ethics, our dedication to improving the world, etc.  In short, we should all insure that the public knows the excellent people we are. 
Currently, it seems the US general public realizes that the high standard of living to which they are accustomed is brought to them courtesy of science and scientists.  They enjoy the products, but they don't think about their source.  By each of us simply telling the public about ourselves, they would come to know us better. 
It may be difficult for some scientists to take an initiative to discuss the fabulous things they bring the world, because scientists are typically modest.  However, all 166,000+ of us must try to do this. 
Donna Nelson 
Thanks to Professor Nelson for her responses. The other candidates will have their responses published within 24 to 48 hours after they have been received.


  1. Professor Nelson seems more willing to admit there's a problem and do something about it than the other candidates, but I'm curious what her evidence is that a lack of popularity on the part of science or chemistry is an issue. Competitive pressures such as less expensive labor abroad and cuts to R&D seem like a much larger issue. I want to hear what she might do about those things. Encouraging chemists to be ambassadors to the public is a nice thing, but I don't think it will improve our collective job outlook.

  2. Kudos to Prof. Nelson for her reply, but did she really say anything of use? Certainly I don't see any tangible plan.

    Making "science and scientists more popular" sounds nice (who doesn't like a good neighborhood cookout), but it isn't going to address the core financial issues facing chemist employment (cheaper labor overseas/decreased risk tolerance among investors).

    It's a pity that those running for ACS office don't seem to take issues critical to chemists seriously enough to provide more than meaningless platitudes doomed to accomplish nothing.

    1. What can she do about those problems? I don't think anyone in any sort of power is interested in restricting overseas labor, visas, or changing the "structural disequilibrium in the biomedical sciences" (labor markets only work when labor is cheap, or rich people win, otherwise there's a market failure that needs to be addressed by government), and tax policy that would penalize outsourcing won't happen, while taxation that benefits creating jobs here would require money from individual taxpayers, probably, which might not be easy to swallow (seeing how the tax burden is already shifting onto them anyway). Convincing investors (particularly people who need to be cashing out shortly for retirement, who in most cases didn't have enough invested for retirement anyway, and lost a lot of what they did have in the recession) to swallow more risk without corresponding increases in yield and to be willing to wait for their money requires a deity, not an ACS president.

      Increasing the perceived social status of chemists would help a little in that people might be willing to tolerate (a little) less pay for acceptance, but when it comes to how much their Hep C or cancer drug is going to cost versus liking the chemists that make it, or being willing to spend more taxes to fund NSF and NIH, well, I don't know that making people prouder of chemists will make people more likely to pay money to support us. On the other hand, she is clear that helping people with job searching only works when there are jobs to find, and she's not saying "Go find/make your own jobs", which seems to be the most popular line for ACS presidents. And it is something the ACS president can do for chemistry.

    2. dentists aren't cool or popular but they make a lot of money. I don't care if chemistry is popular, it's not running for homecoming queen.

    3. Lawyers aren't winning any popularity contests, either. And yet the J.D. post-doc is extremely rare.

  3. Phase 1: Engage with public.
    Phase 2: ??????
    Phase 3: Profit.

    Here's what the American Chemical Society can do for me: Fight against the labor arbitrage that exploits the infinite reservoir of foreign scientists through outsourcing, insourcing and corporate protectionism… you know, the complete opposite of what it has been doing. I already know how to format my resume.

    1. At least she wants to change something. Dourhat seems to think the status quo is working going by this quote
      "I believe that the solution to our economic woes and changing the employment outlook resides with us as ACS members. To paraphrase the comic strip character Pogo: “I have seen the solution, and it is us.” Our talented members are agents for change—no need to add new programs to ACS. Let’s rally around the things we do already to promote jobs: local section and division activities, career services, international and entrepreneurship centers, and leadership development, to name a few."

      Unemployment is still a huge problem and he's proscribing more of what we've been doing.

      Then there's Lester "That times are difficult is a statement of the obvious as young people strive for employment in sectors that they have studied to work in. At the same time, we recognize that some people who work in these sectors are confronting issues of continued employment. We must work to assist in identifying optimum ways of assisting these important problem areas that impact our membership and society more broadly"

      Can anyone draw any conclusions as to what he's actually proposing? Probably not because he's got nothing.

    2. Why don't you send her an anonymous e-mail about this?

  4. I agree with the wonkychemist that Nelson seems slightly more tuned in to the jobs issue than the other two who are more status quo type candidates with the typical "Entrepreneurship!" line. I don't necessarily agree with her "make chemistry popular" argument, but at least it is something a little different. I talked to her a bit at our regional meeting and I think she just believes that to fix the chem jobs problem means first fixing the chem reputation/ignorance problem in the culture which emanates largely from media voices--you know, the "ew chemicals" problem. Since she has connections in Hollywood she thinks she can pursue this course.

    Really, that seems about as good as anything. I don't know what tangible thing an ACS presidential candidate can proposed to address the jobs problem with only a 1 year term and having to get board and/or committee backing.

    That would actually be a good blog post: What tangible proposal(s) would you make as an ACS presidential candidate? I can think of a few things I would propose, but I doubt the board would go along with it.

    1. If enough people get together and raise their voices, then it IS possible. But you have to be brave enough.