Web Date: March 29, 2007
Rough Seas Ahead
In the next decade, the U.S., a world leader in chemistry and chemical engineering, will remain strong in these disciplines, but challenges such as growing competition from Europe and Asia threaten to erode its lead. That's the conclusion of two National Research Council reports that were unveiled in preliminary fashion at this week's American Chemical Society national meeting in Chicago.
The title of a presentation on the report "Benchmarking the Research Competitiveness of the U.S. in Chemistry" gave the forecast: "partly cloudy with a chance of showers." Or, as Charles P. Casey, a former president of ACS and chair of the panel that produced that report, put it, "Things are going well for chemistry" in the U.S., "but there are problems ahead." For example, U.S. leadership in generating the mostly highly cited chemistry papers is diminishing, and that trend will continue as other countries increase the number and quality of their journal papers.
Another panel member—Sylvia T. Ceyer, a chemistry professor at MIT—noted that fewer and fewer U.S. students are getting doctorates in chemistry and the U.S. already depends critically on foreign-born graduate students and postdocs to carry out chemical research. As opportunities in other nations blossom, the U.S. may find it increasingly difficult to attract outstanding chemistry researchers from other countries. The sustainability of the U.S. chemistry workforce thus may be in jeopardy, Ceyer warned.
In addition, funding for chemical research has been struggling to keep up with inflation, Ceyer pointed out. That trend is projected to continue. Although the U.S. will hold onto its lead in chemistry for at least the next five years, she said, that lead will continue to shrink as competition heats up.
A similar benchmarking assessment of chemical engineering research was carried out by a panel chaired by MIT chemical engineer George Stephanopoulos, who was not at the Chicago meeting. In looking at 32 topical areas of the discipline, his panel found that the U.S. is in the forefront or among the world leaders in all the areas. But in 12 areas, such as catalysis, bioprocess engineering, and composites, the U.S. is losing ground, according to panelists L. Louis Hegedus (retired from Arkema) and Eric W. Kaler of the University of Delaware. In nine areas, such as nanostructured materials and green engineering, the U.S. is gaining ground. In the remaining 11 areas, the U.S. position is stable.
Thus, although the U.S. is expected to maintain its strong position in all areas of chemical engineering, its leadership in the field is not guaranteed, and in several areas it will be strongly challenged, panelists warn.
Because of research funding policies, Hegedus reported, chemical engineering studies are shifting into the micro, nano, and molecular realms, and as a result, macroscopic processes are receiving less attention. This imbalance, the study concludes, could put the U.S. position in certain areas at risk.
The NRC reports do not offer any recommendations. As Casey noted in his presentation, the panelists were charged with providing "just the facts."
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