Friday, June 15, 2012

Derek Lowe addresses Whitesides on #chemjobs

Over at In the Pipeline, Derek has taken up The Whitesides Question:
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.


  1. Good point that centralized funding is de facto centralized planning. I really wish chem and pharma companies were funding grants in a level similar to NIH/NSF for multiple reasons. Alas.

    CJ, i wondered if you saw the New Yorker article a month or so back by Larissa Macfarquhar, "When Giants Fail"? The economic theories of Clayton Christenson she described seem to have some relevance to the chem field.

  2. CJ, I'm also glad that you picked up on the "centralized planning" thing. Derek says that Whitesides exaggerates to make his point. I think Derek does here as well. Whether he wants it or not, there IS centralized planning going on. The trouble is calling it centralized planning or picking winners and losers. It is a tough tight rope to walk. But I think that it needs to be walked. I absolutely think that the NSF should look at hiring trends and national needs/interests in divvying up funding between the sciences and subdisciplines. I think that it is the degree at which this occurs that Derek and I (and you and I) would disagree upon. But I think that it is important to do this in order to make graduate education more reflexive to the actual needs of the nation and its employers. (I think that I convinced myself of this in our first round-table. And, I still haven't been convinced that it is a bad way of thinking.)

  3. Technically furloughedJune 15, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    The manufacturing is where the innovation will be. At some point the Chinese simply won't need us anymore, and we will have lost the ability to do the work ourselves.

  4. It's not all doom and gloom. Just came back from a lunch with a US academic oncologist who says the single biggest roadblock to novel cancer therapies is a lack of good medicinal chemistry, cased by a lack of medicinal chemists in the US. More data from cancer genetics than they can shake a stick at, but nobody to develop genuinely useful chemical diversity to take advantage of it. Probably the most upbeat comment I've heard on organic/medicinal chemistry in a decade....

  5. From the way it was quoted, I almost thought that Whitesides said those wise words in the text snippet you bolded. Alas.

  6. Around the great pay wall:


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20