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Friday Science Horror Story

The title was suggested by Lambert at Corrente.  I’ll try to keep this short and sweet.

The site, Chemjobber, reported back in January 2012 that the unemployment rate among chemists was at 6.1%.  That’s much higher than the BLS rate from a year earlier when the BLS said it was about half that.  But it’s still nowhere near what we on the ground are witnessing.  I guess a better question would be how many chemists are practicing chemists.  From what I’m seeing, not very many.  The former colleague I met in the grocery store yesterday told me that the biotech my old company bought laid off all but 4 of the chemists they had.  That’s right.  Medium sized biotech laid off all but *4* chemists.

Chemjobber also has some less than encouraging words for the future of chemistry in this country from a candidate for the presidency of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Dr. Dennis Chamot:

Nevertheless, a global manufacturing enterprise with increasing international competition is here to stay. Unfortunately for chemical professionals, it’s not just shop-floor manufacturing and assembly jobs that have moved from the U.S. to Asia and other areas; in recent years the movement has included upper-level, sophisticated work such as chemical research, drug discovery, process design and development, and various levels of management. In addition, domestic capabilities have increased enormously in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as has their output of homegrown scientists and engineers.

What does all of this say about employment opportunities for U.S. chemists? Well, we are probably producing too many chemists for the traditional academic and industrial research labor market, at least for the foreseeable future. To come to any other conclusion would be indulging in empty rhetoric. Note that I did not say we are producing too many graduates with chemistry degrees—more on that later—but we need to be realistic…

[snip] Growth in the U.S. will not be fast enough to make up for all of the lost positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries over the past few years, in part because many of these losses have not been solely determined by economic decline. Rather, there have been strategic shifts to place work in other countries, and there is no reason to expect those decisions to be reversed.

The keys for many chemical professionals will have to be imagination and flexibility. I am a firm believer in the need for all citizens in modern technological societies to have a strong grounding in science and math, so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.

Depressing.  We really love science but we won’t be doing it for a living anymore.

One other thing my former colleague told me was that upper management is now starting to pressure the remaining scientists to cut back on the amount of research they do.  She found this puzzling.  If you are in the research business, it’s going to take research to do it.  There’s no way to predict how many experiments are needed in advance so they can be entered in the spreadsheet in preparation for the next quarter’s numbers.  If costs are driving the move to China and the massive layoffs in America, then I will reiterate my prediction that drugs will not be discovered in either of those two places.  Research needs time, stability and continuity.  It takes as long as it takes and the cells are going to do what they’re going to do.  Any financial analyst who tells you otherwise has probably got a bridge to sell you too.

I’m placing my bets on western Europe where the government has an interest in maintaining the scientific infrastructure and where workplace protections are strong.  Those two factors lead to stability and continuity of research.

The unemployment rate among chemists is not due to structural changes or globalization.  As I have said before, there are so many discoveries in biology right now that there is more than enough work for every scientist in the world to be fully occupied and overwhelmed with work for the rest of his or her life.  The unemployment rate is the result of a calculated but naive set of decisions on the part of management and negligence on the part of our government.

11 Responses

  1. …I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.

    Wow. Rarely does one get such quick confirmation of one’s own thought process from a mover-and-shaker.

  2. One thing Chamot did NOT suggest was that chemists use their skills to found small biotech and pharma start-ups. That omission is quite interesting, actually.

    • You mean because there is no money for it?
      Yeah, startling omission. And quite different than his predecessors. BTW, he was only a candidate. I’m not sure he got the job. Maybe he was too much of a crepe hanger.

      • In an unrelated incident, Dr. Dennis Chamot suddenly announced his resignation to “spend more time with his family”, after waking up this morning to find a severed distillation head in his bed.

        “Tell Dr. Chamot it wasn’t personal. Just business.”🙂

  3. Hmm… perhaps chem classes should include cooking burger patties over a Meeker to prepare graduates for the only jobs left in the U S. Unless they are willing to emigrate to a country that still believes in the Scientific Method.

  4. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg has an article in the New York Review of Books about how in the US Physics and Astronomy are also
    not doing so good.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/may/10/crisis-big-science/

    • Wow, that was a great read. Who else is covering this?

      • There has been coverage in the some of the blogs written for professional astronomers. There was a worry a few months ago, that the national observatories would be closed in order to save money.
        See http://andyxl.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/us-astronomy-crumbling/

        This would have been a disaster since observing time at these places
        are awarded solely on the quality of the proposed project and not on ones affiliation. This means that astronomers at colleges and universities with no scientific facilities can still have access to first class
        equipment and carry out research. If they were closed, than only the scientists at wealthy schools would be doing research. A lot of people would either leave the field or leave the country. That the worst was avoided for this year doesn’t mean it won’t happen next year.

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