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Chemistry in Decline

May 24, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 21

* May 3, page 41: As part of WRM, Philip Eaton will be the keynote speaker for a history symposium titled "The Most Beautiful Chemistry Experiments," not the symposium on diesel emissions and air quality. ACS President Charles Casey will not attend the meeting, but President-Elect William F. Carroll Jr. will.
* May 10, page 9: New labs to be built at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories are to be BSL-3, not BSL-4 labs.
Chemistry in decline

I read with great interest the article about the decline in foreign students entering the U.S. to study chemistry (C&EN, April 5, page 67). It seems to me that the U.S. government (perhaps quite inadvertently) is helping to bring the supply of chemical professionals in line with expected future demand, an action that really should have been taken long ago. In spite of what ACS leadership might like to dream about, there is no shortage of chemical professionals in this country, either now or anticipated in the future.

The future of chemical professionals in the U.S. may be less bleak than that of wagon makers when automobiles first became common, but the handwriting is clearly on the wall. Is it symptomatic of chemistry's grim prospects that even one of the notable figures interviewed for the article, Purdue's George M. Bodner, openly admits that there is "no encouragement" for American students to study science, in view of job prospects and the fact that science is no longer perceived to be exciting and rewarding. Similarly, the Editor's Page of the same issue (page 5) contains a particularly telling feature, "The Next Big Thing," detailing the massive growth of the chemical industry in China.

As manufacturing continues its inexorable shift to Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, research and development is sure to follow, a trend already well-documented in the pages of C&EN. In light of these trends, it is very difficult to see why government funds (or any percentage of undergraduate tuition fees) should subsidize the education of foreign students to obtain graduate degrees in declining fields like chemistry. It would make far more economic and practical sense to subsidize the education of domestic students who wish to study nursing or information technology at the undergraduate level. There are clearly plenty of jobs available in those fields, as evidenced by even a cursory review of the "Help Wanted" pages of any major metropolitan newspaper.

All of this ought to be a sharp wake-up call to the leadership of ACS and to chemical professionals in general. Put bluntly, what has been achieved by the sacrifice and sweat of previous generations is now slipping away, to the great detriment of this nation's long-term economic and military strength. The steady decline of American manufacturing power, and the failure to include a practical component in graduate education (like courses for business, medicine, environmental science, or engineering) are trends that have been known for 20 years.

If chemistry continues to decline as an economic force in the U.S., chemical professionals should prepare for the day when their endeavors are no better funded or rewarded than the endeavors of those in fields like art history or modern dance. After all, practitioners of the fine arts may not be able to demonstrate a direct economic benefit to the nation either, but at least their endeavors can be appreciated and enjoyed by a larger percentage of the population.

In the interim, it would be wise to take the advice of Geoffrey K. Cooper (C&EN, March 8, page 5) and start asking how ACS can truly serve the interest of the rank-and-file members of the society. Additionally, it would be wise to realize that training large numbers of new researchers without practical skills is a luxury the U.S. can no longer afford. Perhaps it is time for the nation's universities to consider formal graduate degrees in applied rather than pure chemistry, the distinction being that students would have enough additional background in areas like pharmacology, engineering, and computer science to get or create jobs in fields other than traditional chemistry.

If ACS cannot anticipate and respond to the challenges of the future, is it unrealistic to imagine a day when a disgruntled membership decides to follow the current example of the chemical industry, and outsource the jobs of those currently employed by ACS to a lower cost venue overseas?

W. C. L. Jamison
Warrenton, Va.


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