Dissolving Borders | October 29, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 44 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 44 | p. 33 | ACS Comments
Issue Date: October 29, 2007

Dissolving Borders

By Dennis Chamot, Director-at-Large
Department: ACS News
We need to be even more actively involved in the policy debates swirling around the globalization issue.
We need to be even more actively involved in the policy debates swirling around the globalization issue.

THIS COMMENT is being written around the time of the contract negotiations between the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the major Detroit auto manufacturers (thus far, General Motors and Chrysler, with Ford on the way). Job security in the face of globalization is a major concern of the union. I don't know how many chemists were involved, but UAW does represent some professional-level employees, so there may well be some. Certainly, chemists were involved in the cutbacks at Pfizer announced earlier this year, including at locations in Michigan, as well as in other recent corporate "restructurings" going on around the U.S.

A short time ago, I attended an interesting conference at the National Academies on innovation and development in India and China. Although I have been following these issues for some time, I was still impressed with the pace of change in these countries and with the growing level of sophistication and R&D capacity each is developing, especially China. For example, while both countries are in the business of manufacturing generic pharmaceuticals, they are also encouraging foreign companies, including those from the U.S., to establish R&D facilities there. Their domestic innovative capacity certainly will increase over time as foreign-owned organizations are joined by more homegrown facilities.

Most of the net job growth over the past several years for chemists in the U.S. has been in the pharmaceutical industry. Do the recent cutbacks in the U.S. and increased investment abroad signal the beginning of a shift of these jobs to Asia, following the pattern set earlier by various manufacturing industries and information technology services? This appears to me to be the case. While there is also foreign investment in the U.S., thus far, the net effect seems to be job loss.

As I noted in an earlier ACS Comment (C&EN, Jan. 26, 2004, page 51), the world is continuing to change. Globalization is here to stay, whether we like it or not, and we have to learn to deal with the negative consequences as well as the positive effects. The Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs (CEPA) has been following these developments for some time. Recently, I chaired an ACS Board Task Force on Globalization, which was charged with looking at what ACS could do to help our members deal with the changes going on throughout the chemical world. The short task force report suggested some possible avenues for various ACS groups to pursue (www.acs.org/committees), and this was followed up with a meeting of council and board committee chairs at the national meeting in Boston. But there are limits to what individuals, or even ACS, can do.

Much of the national policy debate on globalization has been centered on the need to improve science and math education in this country, including at the K-12 level, and to increase both government and private R&D investment. However, as noted by the National Academies' report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" and elsewhere, improving education and stimulating research is not enough. We also need to stimulate innovation (putting new ideas into practice), and even more important, I believe, as a nation we need to figure out how to retain more of the benefits of innovation in the U.S. Far fewer people are employed in R&D than in production, marketing, and distribution of the resulting products and services, and while successful commercialization necessarily follows invention, the revenue and wealth comes from sales. Where the innovations are put into practice matters.

Science knows no borders, and corporate activity is becoming increasingly global. However, nation-states still exist throughout the world, and the security and welfare of their citizens are ultimately the responsibility of national populations and individual governments. While we cannot, and should not, try to reverse the growing interdependence of national economies, we do need to increase our debate on how, within a globalizing world, we can create more good jobs in the U.S. (including for chemists and other scientists and engineers); improve the economic well-being of our residents; and create sufficient wealth to repair and improve our crumbling infrastructure, aching health care system, and deficient schools and to address other urgent problems.

AS SCIENTISTS, we get excited by new discoveries no matter where they come from. We find it much easier than politicians to form international collaborations. As a professional organization, ACS actively works with sister societies around the world. Yet we are all citizens of one country or another, as well. (The bulk of ACS members are U.S. citizens, as one would expect, but our membership also includes many colleagues who are citizens of other countries.) We need to be even more actively involved in the policy debates swirling around the globalization issue.

I invite you to become personally involved. Join the ACS Legislative Action Network (LAN), if you have not already done so; promote discussion of these issues at local section meetings and in division-sponsored symposia; and share with your colleagues what you learn. Certainly, share with me any thoughts or ideas you may have on these issues (dennischamot@yahoo.com).

These are important issues that affect us all.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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