Political Chemistry

I’ve never wanted to be “The Guy.” You know, the person sitting behind the desk where the buck stops. No, I’d rather be “The guy who makes The Guy (or The Gal) look good.” I’d rather be the wise counselor than the public face, the source of information rather than the mouthpiece.


Understanding the difference between being the “Big-G guy/gal” and the “little guy/gal” is important to finding peace and satisfaction in whatever career path you choose. If you strive to be the Big G, you’ll need to cultivate your networking and public speaking skill. You’ll need to develop a thick skin and the ability to delegate authority and resist the temptation to micromanage. You’ll want to insinuate yourself with the powerful in your field, and at your company or university, and you’ll most certainly need to fine-tune your political senses.


None of that is for me, which is why I’m a little g-type guy. Instead of learning the fine details of networking and schmoozing, I’ve focused on developing my research skills; when the Big-G wants information, she always wants it sooner rather than later. And forget about delegating authority – little g’s take responsibility and run with it.


I’ve found myself thinking about this lately because recently someone asked me if I’d be interested in running for our local school board. This person thought my background as a scientist and my understanding of many things technical would add an important perspective to a school board filled with business folks and lawyers and former liberal arts majors.


I considered this offer for about 20 microseconds before declining, because I know in my heart that I’m a”little g”, and elected office is not for me. But I also threw in that if the school board was ever in need of an advisor on science and technology issues, I would jump at the opportunity to serve my community in that way.


So what does that have to do with careers and chemistry? Bear with me.


Nearly 32 years ago, on a frigid Friday afternoon over a beer at the Badger Tavern in Madison, WI, one of the wisest people I’ve known was commenting on recent inauguration of Jimmy Carter as the 39th President of the United States.


In response to a wisecrack about how amazing it was that someone with a bachelor’s degree in science and a former nuclear engineer was about to become the President, Heinrich Schnoes, now an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, said in his typical droll way, “Just think how much better off this country would be if 50% of the members of Congress had science degrees instead of law degrees.”




As much as I’d like to see more scientists and engineers run for Congress, I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon, and I think it’s because the vast majority of scientists and engineers that I’ve known are “little g’s”, not “Big G’s”.


But there are huge opportunities today for technically-minded “little g’s” to make a career as a science advisor to all those politically minded “Big G’s” out there. If that’s something that appeals to you, both in terms of intellectual curiosity and the ability to influence public policy without having to run for office, this is the time to approach your local candidates to see if you can help the one from your favored political party.


“Little g’s” of the world unite! We can – and do – make a difference.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS Journal of Analytical Chemistry.

One Response to Political Chemistry

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