BOSTON—We've been covering the important report of the American Chemical Society (ACS) presidential commission tasked with coming up with ways to improve graduate education in the chemical sciences; see our coverage here and here. Several members of that committee came together Friday morning in a panel at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston. A few ideas emerged during the session that, if not entirely new, at least deserve more attention than we've given them so far.
At the session, Paul Houston, dean of the College of Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and executive director of the committee's report, emphasized the economic value of improved safety training for undergraduate and graduate students. Safety is a "career progress issue" for those who seek to work in industry, he noted. Companies on average spend the first 6 weeks of a new employee's tenure instilling safety training, Houston said, which results in lost productivity for the company. A recent Ph.D. student who was trained in a strong safety culture could begin work projects much more quickly and therefore would be a much more attractive hire for many companies, he said.
Gary Calabrese, senior vice president at materials manufacturer Corning Incorporated in Corning, New York, and a member of the ACS committee, reaffirmed this point, adding that graduate students would do well to acquire a "bone-deep culture of safety" while in school.
The report recommended that chemistry departments do their best to align their graduate enrollment numbers with the number of genuine employment opportunities in the field. But, as of our last reporting, it was unclear who would assess the job market and what metrics would be used. Science Careers asked University of Oregon, Eugene, chemistry professor and committee member Geraldine Richmond for clarification. Her response: Assessment of employment opportunity would largely be left up to individual departments, since employment very frequently is tied into local opportunities and departments would be better at assessing those than would a centralized body like ACS.
Committee chair Larry Faulkner, president emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin, added that such assessments are tricky because "the timescale of the business cycle is shorter than grad school," making it impossible to perfectly align graduating Ph.D.s with the needs of the market. Still, he said, it's possible for departmental heads to pay attention to broad trends and get an idea of the trajectory of certain fields and subfields.
Minorities aren't minor
AAAS Head of Education and Human Resources Shirley Malcom said that although the committee's report didn't focus specifically on the inclusion of minorities in chemistry, it's imperative to raise the proportion of minority participants in the chemical sciences, both to improve diversity and to ensure that the field has access to a wide pool of ideas. "We can develop more innovative solutions with a more diverse team," she said. And while there may indeed be more Ph.D. chemists graduating than the market knows what to do with, that's emphatically not the case for minority Ph.D. chemists, she said. To better integrate minorities into the chemical sciences, she recommended more effective recruiting, better connections to minority-serving institutions, building a community of minority graduate students and faculty, and reassessing the value of admission tests for determining what makes an effective scientist.