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July 18, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 29

Caution and change in China

As my professional work has taken me to China many times in the past five years, I read your story “Perspective on China” with great interest (C&EN, May 23, page 11). You are absolutely correct concerning the lack of safety in most laboratories. I have never seen anyone in an industrial or academic laboratory wearing safety glasses. Hard hats are usually evident in production units, but again, no safety glasses. I have even seen children and spouses in production units with no safety equipment at all, during start-up operations.

I also strongly support your caution about the Chinese political situation. Though, economically, China has a free enterprise system (referred to as “Chinese communism” by one local factory owner), politically, China is very much a one-party authoritarian state. The government will not tolerate any criticism. I, like you, have also experienced frustration over blocked Internet sites. I, too, like to check the New York Times website to keep up on news when in China. However, in my experience, it is periodically blocked, apparently depending on whether there is a recent article critical of China.

Many companies are anxiously looking to manufacture in China due to low costs. What they need to be cautious about is the question of future political stability in China and the lack of respect for contracts and intellectual property. Industrial espionage is common. I know of one case where one company had two employees sign up for jobs with a competitor in order to be in a position to learn trade secrets. Due to corruption in local court systems, the odds of winning a lawsuit against a local company for stealing secrets or reneging on a contract are quite remote.

I find China to be a fascinating country, in the throes of great changes. But from a business perspective, great caution is necessary when dealing with China.

Lawrence R. Lerner
Livingston, N.J.

The recent reports of American Chemical Society activity in China have inspired me to add several observations that support positions related to the future of chemistry in that country.

In 1981, when I headed a program at Huazhong University of Science & Technology in Wuhan, it took three weeks to get the gate across the English-language section of the library unlocked, and there was only one book in English that had a description of open-hearth steel production. That book was Demings’ 1946 beginning college-level chemistry text. There was no air-conditioning, and the classrooms sweltered under the 112 °F temperature in the evening. We taught scientific English to 250 faculty members in old Nationalist villas in the Luchan Mountains, where the temperature reached only 95 °F. Meals consisted of chicken and rice, and chickens roamed the campus grounds.

By the next summer of the seven-year program, classrooms had been air conditioned and new technical books had arrived at the library. We offered a course experience built around the beginnings of the chemical industry in the Wuhan region. In the one year, the university had built a computer building housing a mainframe and 120 terminals, all air conditioned and carpeted. A team of faculty had spent time at Hewlett-Packard in the U.S. to learn how to use and repair the computer facility. That summer, Huazhong and Tianjin Normal University had organized the first chemical education conference in China, with representatives from the U.S. and two representatives from each province attending.

During this summer, we visited steel-producing and oil-producing facilities, and we addressed issues in chemical education that we are still struggling with here in the U.S. today, especially related to school-level instruction. About five years ago, a plan that we developed for facilitating inquiry into instruction in chemistry was published in China. It has yet to be formally published in the U.S. It is a plan that developed from research conducted at Temple University during 1998–2000, and it will be formally presented at the forthcoming Gordon Conference on Chemical Education this summer.

All this indicates how rapidly China can move its chemically related activity forward compared with our inefficient processes. About 10 years ago, I asked the U.S. undersecretary of state for South Asia how long it would take China to overcome the negative impact of the Cultural Revolution. His response was about 75 years. I predicted from my experience a period of 25 years. With the drive of the Chinese people to advance their science and science education practices, I anticipate that my estimate is closer to reality. This comparison should give us cause to move ahead quickly in our efforts.

Frank X. Sutman
Linwood N.J.

H2S hazards

The article “Torpor On demand” reminded me of an incident when my technician became “suspended in animation” while we were working in a phosphoric acid plant (C&EN, April 25, page 8). The rock had been calcined prior to digestion and low dosages of H2S were being released—above 5 ppm but below 10 ppm in general areas. Our monitors would alarm at 10 ppm.

My technician was sampling slurry every five minutes, and in the process apparently got “overdosed” with H2S; after several hours of sampling, he asked, “Where is the scoop?” and I informed him that he had been using it all morning and that it was sitting next to the sample port where it always was. Realizing he was in a mental state of suspended animation, we packed up and left the area. Our coins had also turned gray due to the H2S, another telling indication. Considering the headache we had the next day, I don’t see how any human can take 80 ppm, as noted in the article. Years ago, two phosphate workers died from just opening sulfuric acid railcar lids without a respirator, due to H2S gas.

Louis Irwin
Winter Haven, Fla.

The other side of the electrospray battle

As a student and coinventor who worked on electrosprays for more than five years in John B. Fenn’s lab, I would like to make readers aware of the truth as I know it behind the recent lawsuit between Fenn and Yale University’s administration regarding an electrospray patent (C&EN, Feb. 21, page 11). Your article says, “Unbeknownst to Yale administrators, Fenn applied for a patent,” which, in my opinion, does not present the other side of the story.

First, this is not the first electrospray patent Fenn had applied for. Two earlier electrospray patents were indeed assigned to Yale. Second, Fenn had to retire from Yale at the age of 70 in 1987. He was told to reduce his laboratory to free up some lab space. Yale showed no interest in his groundbreaking research work. Third, Fenn presented the multiply charged electrospray results at the 1988 American Society for Mass Spectroscopy (ASMS) meeting in San Francisco.

At the time, we knew the work was important but did not think of it as an invention. In fact, before I left Yale in December 1988, we never even discussed applying for a patent. It was only later, after Fenn saw the response of the scientific community, that he realized the multiply charged ion results were patentable. He then submitted an invention disclosure to Yale. However, because of the one-year limit (after the ASMS meeting) for filing a patent in the U.S. and the Yale administration’s slow progress, Fenn had to file the patent himself.

Fenn invites students to his house for holidays and picnics. In the ’80s, he lived very modestly, and anyone who knew him knew that money was not his primary motivation. He is a true scientist and scholar who believes that finding the answers is the most important and rewarding thing in life. He is a man who is admired and respected by his colleagues and friends for his scientific accomplishments and who has done so much for Yale. Why can’t the university’s administration see what a disservice they have done to the school and the community?

Chin-Kai Meng
Hockessin, Del.

We need good scientists

The concern expressed by ACS President-Elect E. Ann Nalley and others about the low percentage of women and underrepresented minority men in scientific positions is understandable (“Alternative sources for recruiting,” C&EN, June 20, page 8). Of greater concern should be the advancement of science in the U.S. This can only be achieved if we attract more of our better students to careers in science regardless of their gender or ethnicity.

In selecting a major course of study, U.S. students look at the financial return that awaits them at the completion of their studies. If, after graduation, they complete three years of law school and obtain good grades and recommendations, students can expect a starting salary with a prestigious law firm that exceeds $100,000.

Contrast this with students who major in chemistry. After graduation from a rigorous program that demands many hours spent in the laboratory, they attend graduate school, which may require three to five years to obtain a Ph.D. If they spend an additional year as a postdoc, they will earn $30,000. If they then select an academic career, they may start at $50,000 per year.

In the face of these inequities, we must find a way to increase the number of scientists who will contribute to the solutions of problems that will strengthen the stature of the U.S. and improve the lives of its citizens.

George J. Beichl


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