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Misguided Advice

by Madeleine Jacobs
July 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 30

Bad news often comes in threes. The crisis at the University of Virginia revealed harsh economic realities at our public research universities. Then, the National Academy of Sciences’ report “Research Universities and the Future of America” detailed dangers our public research universities must overcome to retain their preeminence (C&EN, July 2, pages 5, 28). Within days, an article by Washington Post reporter Brian Vastag revealed the plight of many talented scientists and students, including chemists, seeking employment (“Scientists heeded call but few can find jobs,” July 8, page 1). That article focused on job losses in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, with devastating impact on the careers of chemists and biologists.

I am deeply concerned by the disturbing portrait that Vastag paints. Although unemployment for ACS members is only 4.2% compared with the national average of 8.2%, that rate is among the highest in 40 years (see page 6). Moreover, those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.

As chemists, we like to think we’re unique. And in some ways we are, because when chemists lose their jobs, or can’t find one, they cannot develop the innovations and new products that create new jobs. We’re not imagining this: Studies have shown that more than 50% of U.S. economic growth in the past 60 years came from scientific and technological innovation.

Some manufacturing jobs lost abroad have begun to return to the U.S., and that’s the good news. Further, nearly 96% of manufacturing involves the science of chemistry, according to the American Chemistry Council, so although pharmaceutical companies are not hiring chemists in the numbers they once did, chemists still have job opportunities. Indeed, industry has always employed the vast majority of chemical scientists, who can pursue many employment paths, especially if they are willing to use their talents in a wide variety of interdisciplinary scientific fields.

Passionate, creative scientists are this nation’s greatest hope for generating the economic prosperity innovation creates. But without trained scientists, we will have no discoveries, no innovation. And that brings me to the part of the Post story that most disturbed me. Vastag ends his article with a quote from a laid-off pharmaceutical chemist who tells him about her high-school-age daughter who “loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”

This misguided advice so stunned me that I began crafting a response, but Daniel Jordan, a biology major, beat me to the punch with a superb letter to the Washington Post. He wrote: “Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons. Energetic men and women must be encouraged to enter the sciences despite these obstacles. In fact, those individuals who are passionate enough about their work to stick with it during times of hardship and who hunger to expand their, and our, knowledge of the world are the very ones we most want. … This prognosis of doom and gloom should be seen as a catalyst to redouble our efforts to foster creativity, ingenuity and admiration for the sciences.”

Right on, Daniel! The U.S. must support and produce the most-talented, best-trained scientists in the world to drive U.S. innovation. In the 1960s, in the aftermath of Sputnik, being a scientist was a noble calling. Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields. Their talents are needed at home, and if we, as a nation, have the courage to support science and technology, they will create a brighter future for all of us.

ACS executive director & CEO

This guest editorial is by Madeleine Jacobs, executive director and chief executive officer of the American Chemical Society.

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


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