Issue Date: June 27, 2011
The Politics Of Chemistry
The May 9 issue of Newsweek lists chemistry as the ninth most useless college degree, worse than theater (12th), photography (14th), art (16th), and psychology (18th), proving that the laws of supply and demand are universal.
When I graduated in 1948, chemist supply balanced demand, so I had constant employment with one company at one site for 60 years, which gave me a stable life. After 56 years, I still live in the same house; have experienced financial stability; learned an enormous amount about my company’s widespread technology, allowing me to contribute to many areas; and enjoyed some successes during my career.
This would be a rare expectation for today’s graduates who, in their career, may be constantly moving from job to job and have no substantial roots. This situation will hasten the sinking esteem of chemistry in general because a chemist with only temporary roots in many communities will not be permitted to make significant contributions to local problems.
In Delaware in the past, chemists sought involvement in community affairs, usually starting with the Parent-Teacher Association. Some moved on to school boards where they forcefully influenced our schools’ science curriculums. From 1950 to 1990, every local school board had at least one chemist on it. Another favorite goal was improvement of inadequate library facilities. Some chemists had stronger ambitions and successfully entered politics in both parties; a few won elected offices. We had a chemist on the Wilmington City Council, another in Delaware’s legislature, and even a chemist governor, Russell W. Peterson (1969–73). And what a governor he turned out to be! He instituted environmental laws protecting our wetlands along the Delaware River from over-industrial development.
One influential politician with a chemistry background can have more influence than all the promotional programs ACS can produce. He or she can preach chemistry and protect us from the outrageous antichemistry statements circulating today in the media. Such local involvement is impossible for chemists whose roots are no deeper than those of itinerant farmworkers. Even those with permanent employment are so heavily loaded with work today that an exceedingly small number enter politics—it takes courage to request the necessary time off from work to enter politics at the risk of facing unemployment.
The American Chemical Society should be commended for its programs to help students, but the society should revisit the programs. Is it right to encourage the young to expend years devoted to the study of chemistry, plus the personal sacrifice, only to end up selling tools or appliances at Sears? Is it right for ACS to request financial support for these programs from chemists who are searching for employment? Is it possible that ACS might put the program on hold until equilibrium between supply and demand is reestablished?
In summary, we need to encourage chemists to enter the political arena to protect our reputation, and it cannot happen in today’s environment where only ephemeral employment exists.
By Edward G. Howard
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society