Misguided Advice | July 23, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 30 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 30 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: July 23, 2012

Misguided Advice

By Madeleine Jacobs
Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: chemical employment, innovation, chemistry

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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Kenneth Wong (July 23, 2012 12:34 PM)
I totally agree with Daniel Jordan's comment that "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.". We are scientists not only because it may provide us with decent careers but it is also something we love to do and learn every day. There was a point in time in my career that it was at the lowest point. I thought of giving up science. However, when I thought about it more carefully,I realized that science is something I enjoy most in my life. Even though I was experiencing hardship, there were no reasons to giving up something that gives me so much joy in my life.
Disgusted (July 24, 2012 11:42 AM)
This is one of the worst opinion pieces I've ever read. Please get yourself informed about the realities of the employment situation before trotting out this tripe. Prove to the members of ACS that you're more than just a talking head trying to preserve your cushy, high-paid position.
Joshua Telser (July 25, 2012 9:12 AM)
I also agree that one should not discourage a child from science or anything academically oriented. Indeed, one should not discourage a child from anything productive (sports, arts, etc.). A child should be discouraged only from hanging out on the street corner and getting shot at or shooting at other children, as is the case on the South Side of Chicago, where I live (albeit not in my immediate, heavily policed neighborhood). (If you don't believe me, just read on-line any issue of the Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times this summer).

That said, Ms. Jacobs is grotesquely overpaid (don't take my word for it - go ask Bob Bergman, UC-Berkeley, who led a futile campaign for accountability in ACS upper management) and out of touch with the situation for most chemists. A current job search for a one-year replacement position in organic chemistry at my institution has brought this home to me.
H. L. (July 25, 2012 12:01 PM)
Are you freaking kidding me, Ms Jacobs? I am a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in chemistry, and I am about to finish my 3rd year as a post-doc. I've been looking for a full-time position in the industry or academia for over 6 months now, and have so far been utterly unsuccessful. The only things available to me are a few part-time lab instructor positions at the local colleges and perhaps another post-doc.

Call me selfish and unpatriotic if you wish, but, being that I am now reaching my 30s, I would like to obtain a job that pays a reasonable salary and hopefully stretches beyond the 3-month part-time contract.

Perhaps Ms Jacobs should realize that in our society being a starving unemployed scientist is not considered a worthy life goal. Also, before she starts lecturing people on their patriotic duty and the "unselfish" duty to humanity, maybe she should try resigning from her useless cushy position and go out there and try to actually find a job in the real world... or maybe she should adjust her pay for actual performance, getting payed $1 per every new chemistry graduate who lands a job in the first year after his/her graduation. It would be fair and patriotic for her to do so, or am I mistaken.
G0OS3 (July 26, 2012 12:47 PM)
Mrs. Jacobs has no idea what it takes to acquire a PhD and how hard it is to find a job with a decent salary. Her opinion is grossly disconnected from the current job market and should not be taken seriously.
Jon C (July 27, 2012 12:32 PM)
To put the wonderfully low ("HALF of national average!") unemployment rate in context:

* ACS membership (in 2010): 64% PhDs, 18% of MScs, and 18% BScs.
* US national average education attainment (in 2009): 3% PhD & eqv., 7.6% MSc & eqv., 39% BSc & eqv.

Mrs Jacobs' column title could have been Misguided Comparisons.
are you freaking kidding me Jacobs (July 30, 2012 8:00 PM)
Mrs Jacobs does not have a PhD and she does not know what students have to endure at the hands of their advisors.Some od the professors should be sued. A biology undergraduate and a ACS executive should not speak for PhD chemists and postdoctoral fellows.
How much does Jacobs make? how many PhD's make 600,000 to million $?
null (July 31, 2012 3:56 AM)
I think this is odd that I read this now. I am a Ph.D chemist and member of the ACS. However, each of my three children has made a conscious decision to avoid the sciences as a career. They see the joy my job can bring to me. My son has said he is so proud to have a Dad who does the work I do now. However, they also see the difficulty of holding a job as a scientist and of making ends meet when companies are laying people off. Science IS a calling and not for the faint of heart and definitely not for the idealist. Science is not so special that your job is at all secure, and in fact is probably less secure than being an electrician or carpenter.

Some of the other posters or Ms. Jacobs may be fond of quoting statistics. I have my own statistics in my head. This is my 288th month as a professional chemist. Scattered over that, I've been unemployed 18 months for a "personal unemployment rate" of 6.3%. I sometimes wonder what I would've done if I had decided to be something other than a scientist and I have difficulty imagining this. On the other hand, I am also VERY TIRED of being told lies like: a) our people are our greatest asset (when we are really just vendors with benefits); b) it's not personal, it's business (it's as personal as a divorce filing, just cleaner and besides if it's business, why do you need scientists).

Being a scientist means you wonder why things work in this world the way they do. You ask questions and go looking for answers. Then you try the answer out in the world to see if it can predict an outcome or explain a mystery. This scientist wants to know why it is that someone would have a problem with warning a child away from a profession that may not feed them. My daughter wants to be a teacher, a most honorable profession indeed, but in my state of California, teachers are treated even worse than scientists.
Steven S. (January 8, 2013 11:46 PM)
I am a chemist with an MS and I feel absolutely fine with telling bright young college students that perusing a degree in science will most likely ruin their lives. There is nothing right or noble with giving these bright people a false picture about the future of science in the USA, fill them with propaganda, happy-face spin, and tell them they will have a great job doing vital and interesting work when they graduate and that they should work hard in college and grad school for a decade when the person who skipped college and worked his way up in one of the trades has infinitely better prospects of decent employment. That to me is the moral equivalent of offering to guide a blind person and sending them in front of an oncoming truck.

It is great that they have a passion for science, I'm sure it won't last long collecting carts at Walmart or working without health insurance for $15 an hour via a temp agency which seems the latest way many companies have found to rape their science staff.

I think it is tragic that there is no place nor future for scientists in the USA anymore but putting more innocent youngster on the road to ruin will not help things. It will just create more suffering and enable this broken system to continue. Let them use their intelligence and energy in a field that rewards hard work and innovation rather than abuses them.

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