Monday, January 9, 2017

A very interesting statement from immediate past ACS President Donna Nelson

Also in this week's C&EN, immediate past ACS President Donna Nelson has an editorial up about how best to work with the incoming Trump Administration. I thought this section was a very interesting comment: 
Considering recent cabinet appointments 
Some information about President-elect Trump’s future science policy can be gleaned from his cabinet picks. His appointment of successful businesspeople to some cabinet positions brings hope for policies that will stimulate the economy, stimulate industrial growth, and increase the need for employees. His cabinet appointments suggest a favorable posture for all energy sources, especially oil and gas, which would benefit downstream products and chemicals, increasing employment in the chemical sector. 
Our recent President’s Task Force on Employment in the Chemical Sciences (2015–17) compared the number of chemists seeking jobs with the disproportionately smaller number of jobs available. Members of the task force discussed ways to strike a balance, such as reducing the number of chemists by either dissuading students from seeking degrees in chemistry or reducing the number of foreign scientists coming to the U.S. to obtain degrees or pursue jobs in chemistry. Both of these solutions are problematic. 
Chemists have long assumed that growing the chemical sciences industries enough to significantly increase the number of available jobs is unattainable. We have not considered this a viable solution because, for many years, we viewed the jobs situation through a stagnant economy. But if the economy is stimulated, perhaps there will be sufficient growth in the chemical industry economy to enable this more desirable solution.
I think the words "if" and "perhaps" are doing a lot of work in that last sentence.

(It seems to me that "dissuading students from seeking degrees in chemistry" is one extreme of a broad spectrum of potentially useful actions. For example, I have consistently advocated for better, faster information. Better understanding and dissemination of data about the salary/unemployment levels and career paths of age cohorts and subfields would be sufficiently informative about the state of the market to allow students to make appropriate judgments.)

UPDATE: Clarified language in last paragraph. 

13 comments:

  1. It seems that Pollyanna grew up and got a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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  2. It seems most ACS presidents (from what I have read anyway) are unwilling to publicly state that students should be dissuaded from chemistry or that numbers of foreign students reduced. At least she isn't in denial about the jobs : job seekers situation.
    But, this sort of 'if we could only stimulate the economy to generate more jobs' is about as useful as staring at the sky saying " . . . if I only had ten million dollars . . ."

    I like the idea of getting better information to students interested in chemistry, but I have serious doubts that idealistic/optimistic college students will really look at it with the seriousness that they should. Remember being optimistic about the future? Those were great times.

    I know it sounds bad, but a reduction in funding for NSF and NIH grants would eventually do the trick.

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  3. This is anti-conventional wisdom, but she's not entirely wrong, IMO. I didn't vote for him, but Trump's politics basically looks like non-ideological deal-making. If so, his hands off regulatory view combined with his willingness to use the bully pulpit to shame companies into hiring people may well be the most effective jobs strategy we've seen in many decades, especially if he does get an infrastructure plan passed. Certainly better than the GOP establishment's "close your eyes and take your hands off everything" and the Dem establishment's "send everyone to college and regulate companies to hell" approaches. My impression is there is a lot of hysteria about Trump that is unwarranted. Climate change aside, Trump is basically a blank slate on science. If the scientific community reacts stupidly by buying into all the garbage calling him a fascist, etc. then he will tune them out like he does everyone else who attacks him and get his advice from his party. And, IMO, it's the GOP Congress that we should fear, lest everything in sight get cut/slashed. I find Paul Ryan's positions far scarier than Trump's. Scientists and scientific organizations should be doing everything they can to reach out to Trump and offer advice wherever possible to hopefully spare science from the stupidity Ryan/McConnell and their caucuses are in favor of.

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    1. Nelson's statement: ". . . if the economy is stimulated, perhaps there will be sufficient growth in the chemical industry economy to enable this more desirable solution . . ." strikes me as wishful thinking in hopes of avoiding any other course of action to improve the employment outlook for chemists.
      In regard to shaming companies into hiring more, I am not sure that would be a long-term/sustainable approach to improving employment for chemists. But, I could be wrong.
      As as side note, I happen to agree with you in that any serious scientist who has Trump's ear should respectfully try to influence him rather than approach him as immediately hostile.

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    2. We've been adding 150-200k jobs/ month for some time with a few lower months here and there. The only deal that Donald could really take credit for is Carrier, most of the others have as much or more to do with a republican congress reforming corporate taxes or larger forces (Ford's move had to do with expecting to manufacture more electric vehicles going forward as an example). The president doesn't need to be in the weeds making a deal to save 800 jobs in one factory, that's a gross misuse of their time.

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  4. Also, I don't think we need to dissuade students from seeking science degrees. Just judging by all the people who seek libarts degrees despite the job market suggests we can't do that anyway. What should be pushed for is reducing funding for student positions and creating more funding for full staff positions, whether teaching or research.

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    1. I like the notion of what you are saying, but how do we strike the right balance? I am making the assumption you are talking about universities and colleges in your post. If you eliminate 2-3 student positions, you can probably get a full time teaching position. How many extra chemistry teachers and faculty do you want/need? Without being quantitative about this, it seems to me that absorbing postdocs and new graduates would require a lot of staff positions.
      Maybe this way of looking at things is too simple, but it seems to me that in order to keep unemployment low and sustain decent wages, the number of new degrees granted needs to roughly match the number of employees retiring + voluntarily leaving the field + growth-contraction of positions calling for a chem. degree.

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    2. Teaching positions are beside the point - I would like to see most postdocs replaced by staff scientists. Even if these positions aren't well-paying, it would be nice for chemists to be able to settle down, get married, buy a house, have kids, etc instead of living nomadic lives well into middle age.

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    3. One drawback to staff scientist positions is these are not tenured. After 10 or so years go by, the holders of these positions forget this fact. I have seen some really ugly outcomes. If money gets tight or they piss off a tenured professor, they can be out the door the next day. The same is true in industry but higher pay and advancement possibilities are compensating factors.

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    4. At my graduate alma mater, university employees such as stockroom attendants were nearly un-fireable civil service types. I would have expected a staff scientist to be in a similar position - pretty much the opposite of a grad student.

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    5. unless the number of newly degreed chemists is in an appropriate balance with available positions, wages will go down and unemployment will go up (barring the nelson/trump magical and permanent economic stimulation and subsequent increase in available jobs for chemists) this would eventually strike a university with increased staff positions as well

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    6. "What should be pushed for is reducing funding for student positions and creating more funding for full staff positions, whether teaching or research."

      I like the idea of trying to reduce demand for grad students and the resulting supply of PhD and MS degree holders, but what do we do with the bachelor degree holders then? There's not enough money to pay for them even if you reduce the number of grad students. Furthermore those sorts of positions frequently run on soft money so the money runs out and you're hosed. Unlike some industries these positions would be more distributed and so finding new jobs could be more challenging. The problem here is blanket encouragement of STEM as the path to riches. That's an overly simplified outlook and realistically will only cause problems if people keep coming in ill-informed about job prospects.

      I think the first goal should be to work on getting accurate information about graduates at all levels across as many fields and schools as possible. If I'm an incoming undergrad it would be beneficial to know what employment looks like for people from different schools and degrees. Ditto with grad school. Admittedly it might be impossible to get all of this data I could see how getting responses from alumni would be difficult, but there's still room for improvement.

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  5. In other words, Nelson’s plan is to hope that the problem will go away by itself.

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