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Equipping Chemists To Compete Globally

ACS Meeting News: Presidential session in San Francisco brings industry, academe together to discuss U.S. education needs

by Linda R. Raber
April 26, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 17

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Globalization, a phenomenon that encompasses the blending and interdependence of national economies, cultures, politics, and social norms, is having a profound effect on science in general and on chemistry in particular. The world has changed significantly, just since the turn of this century. In the words of Corning’s science and technology vice president, Gary Calabrese, “The world’s clock speed is a lot faster.”

Globalization is having welcome and unwelcome consequences in the scientific enterprise. The 2008 National Science Board report “International Science & Engineering Partnerships” sums it up clearly: “The U.S. is no longer the unquestioned leader in certain [science and engineering] fields … and must increasingly rely on and learn from other countries.”

As a nation that has all but assumed it would always lead the pack in science, competition is causing anxiety in the U.S. For industry, globalization has opened new markets and significantly increased the size of the job-candidate pool. In this atmosphere, a business-as-usual approach in chemical education may risk putting the nation’s chemistry enterprise at a competitive disadvantage. For the U.S. to maintain its creative and intellectual edge, if not its dominance, in the chemical sciences, students—from undergraduates to postdocs and their professors—must adapt.

A presidential session at last month’s American Chemical Society national meeting in San Francisco served as a forum for industrial and academic leaders to share their opinions about what budding chemists need to know to succeed and lead in tomorrow’s world. The daylong session, “Educating Chemists with the Skills Needed To Compete in the New Global Economy,” was organized by Columbia University chemistry professor and ACS Past-President Ronald Breslow and DuPont chemist and ACS Board member Pat N. Confalone. The session drew an enthusiastic audience who heard a variety of perspectives and offered some ideas of their own.

The program alternated between talks by academic and industrial chemists. According to Breslow, the academics were selected to represent a number of different fields, ages, and countries of education. The industrial speakers were selected from the chief-technical-officer level and are the people “who are on top of the whole hiring question and who are in a position to comment on what, if any, weaknesses they see” in U.S.-educated chemists and to comment on their prospects for hiring.

Some weaknesses in U.S. students are obvious to Luis Echegoyen, director of the Chemistry Division at the National Science Foundation, who set the stage in his keynote address. He shared some eye-opening facts and figures, and then finished by describing international collaborative programs of NSF.

The speed and ease of interaction among scientists today require that we all communicate effectively with the rest of the world, Echegoyen said, but about 82% of U.S. citizens speak English only, a disadvantage. “The majority of Europeans speak foreign languages,” he said, and presented a slide showing that in 2006, 56% of Europeans spoke one language in addition to their first language, and 28% spoke two additional languages. It has been European Union policy since 2002 that “every child in the EU should be taught at least two foreign languages at an early age,” Echegoyen said.

Audience member Roland Andersson, executive director of the Chemical Institute of Canada, the umbrella organization of the Canadian Societies for Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Chemical Technology, argued that learning a second or a third language should be the number one priority for all students. “Europeans have huge advantages over Canadians and Americans who can speak only English,” he said. “China is the big player, so learn Chinese. If you can get a Ph.D. in chemistry you should learn to be able to speak Chinese,” he asserted.

Uma Chowdhry, senior vice president and chief science and technology officer at DuPont, had just arrived back in the U.S. from a business trip to India when she made her presentation. “Never have we seen so many countries and the regions they are in grow so quickly simultaneously,” she said. She pointed out the “very high expectations” of the rising middle class in India, China, Brazil, and Eastern Europe and that DuPont sales are increasing rapidly in emerging regions, more than doubling between 2000 and 2009.

But whose responsibility is it to cultivate communication skills? When former ACS Board member and retired Wyeth-Ayerst researcher Anne O’Brien asked whether the academic speakers believe it is their responsibility to educate their students as global citizens, Stanford University professor Richard N. Zare responded that there are so many students from other countries in his lab group, that “they are getting a global perspective right away.” University of California, Berkeley, professor and symposium speaker Carolyn Bertozzi noted that “the students of this generation, of the last five to 10 years, already think globally. They are already very well traveled, much more so than some of their professors, for their ages,” she said. “In my experience, students are putting pressure on their professors to think more globally. The change is coming from the bottom up more than from the top down.”

Credit: Rick Jackson
Credit: Rick Jackson

Top talent may be moving overseas. Breslow is rattled by the news that several high-profile chemists from the U.S. have recently taken positions at foreign universities, as has one of his best-performing postdocs from China. It’s not that Breslow objects to foreign students getting Ph.D.s in the U.S., he just wants them to stay put afterward. “For a long time, it was all but certain that students from China or India who came to the U.S. and got their degrees here would stay here, and they added to the strength of the country,” Breslow said. “Increasingly, they are going back. Many of them are going because opportunities for them in their home countries are better than they are here. That’s a serious problem; we just can’t let that happen.”

Credit: Dupont
Credit: Dupont

He believes it is also important to make chemistry more attractive to homegrown students. Breslow wants the U.S. Department of Education to fund national fellowships for graduate students. Chemistry professors wouldn’t “move to Switzerland for guaranteed support there if there were all these students here with fellowships,” he said. Another important reason for fellowships, he believes, is they would provide an emotional boost to recipients. “When you get a national fellowship, it means the country considers you one of the ‘stars.’ ” Breslow noted that these fellowships, as he envisions them, would be for U.S. citizens only.

Reinstating foreign-language requirements and restructuring the way graduate educations are funded may help to ready students to complete globally for jobs and enhance the cooperation that will be needed to address global problems. “Energy, the environment, and global conflict are presenting opportunities for future innovation,” Calabrese said. Scientists will have to collaborate across borders and cultures to solve them. “These challenges don’t respect national borders, and the science to face them won’t either,” Breslow said.

Harry Gray, a California Institute of Technology chemistry professor, offered a model for such global collaborative problem solving. He is focused on solar energy and says he wants his “nuclear power plant 93 million miles away.”

Gray is a leader of The Solar Army, a global collaborative effort funded by NSF in search of the optimum metal oxide catalyst to lasso the sun’s power to sustainably meet the world’s energy needs by splitting water. At last count, 17 university research groups, 30 college groups, and “hundreds of talented young researchers are discovering materials for solar water splitting and interacting via the Web.”

ACS President Joseph S. Francisco said the event represented an “opportunity to establish a real dialogue between industry and academia.” He then talked about the role ACS can play in the education of a globally ready workforce through its Committee on Professional Training (CPT).

This august body, now in its 75th year, is charged with approving bachelor’s degree-granting chemistry programs in the U.S. Francisco reported that it is changing with the times. CPT “is making the approval process very flexible for academic departments.” As a result, chemistry curriculum responsibility will now fall more to individual departments. While this means that departments will soon have the opportunity to innovate to best serve their students, it also means they will all be looking to ACS for guidance in preparing a globally ready student, and many involved in ACS governance will be looking toward the chemistry thought leaders speaking at the symposium.


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