Climate Change and Jobs

June 30, 2008

If you’re at all thinking of a career in the chemical industry, or if you already have a job as an industrial chemist (or if you’re a policy wonk like me), then I recommend you download a free copy of a new report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the World Resources Institute ( Titled, “Leveling The Carbon Playing Field: International Competition and U.S. Climate Policy Design,” the report examines the possibles effect of various proposed legislation on energy intensive industries such as the chemical, refining, and paper industries, all major employers of chemists and chemical engineers.

One of the first things that struck me about this report is that the five most carbon-intensive industries other than petroleum refining, which includes cement, steel, aluminum, paper, and chemicals, account for only 5.6 percent of direct U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Yet these five industries would be hit disproportionately by either a carbon tax of $10/ton (the most common figure bandied about) or a mandatory cap-and-trade system. More importantly as far as employment goes, each of these industries would be put at a competitive disadvantage on the world market unless and until a global carbon reduction mechanism was put in place.

Fortunately, policymakers are aware of the potential impact of U.S. climate policy on these industries. The various pieces of legislation making their way through subcommittee hearings all include options for addressing the competitive impact of either a carbon tax or carbon trading scheme. These options include:

· Reducing the cost of compliance for U.S. industries that will be hardest hit;

· Imposing border taxes or other adjustments that would impose equalizing costs on competitive importers; and

· Encouraging other countries to impose similar costs on their industries

Unfortunately, what works for one industry may not work for others, say the authors of this report. And neither of the first two options is likely to work over the long haul unless the nations of the world can agree upon and enact an international framework for controlling emissions.

Back in March, leaders of the U.S. chemical industry testified before Congress that energy and raw material costs will skyrocket if mandatory limits are placed on greenhouse gas emissions. But that doesn’t mean that the industry is stonewalling efforts to craft such limits. Indeed, companies such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, BP America, and ConocoPhillips are members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition that has accepted the fact that regulation will occur.

What concerns the chemical industry the most is that legislation not prompt a wholesale switch to natural gas by the nation’s electric utility companies, which the industry believes – as do most economists – would send natural gas prices soaring even higher than they are today. And given that natural gas is a major feedstock for the chemical industry, any dramatic increase in natural gas prices would pummel the U.S. chemical industry.

While there are too many instances of industries crying wolf when it comes to climate regulations, I have to agree with the chemical industry on this one. Why? Natural gas prices have tripled since the late 1990s and according to estimates from the American Chemistry Council, more than 100,000 industry workers have lost jobs as their employers relocated to countries with cheaper natural gas.

The playing field has to be level. The future of jobs in the U.S. chemical industry depends on it.

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


BE A PART: ACS Careers Job Fair

Are you interested in speaking with employers to discuss employment opportunities? Perhaps you would like to brush up on your interviewing skills, find out how to write a winning resume, or get valuable information on various career management and development topics. The ACS Career Fair can provide all of these things and more!

The ACS Career Fair at the 236th National Meeting in Philadelphia will offer employment services in Hall D of the Convention Center, Sunday, August 17 through Tuesday, August 19 from 8 AM to 5:30 PM, and on Wednesday, August 20 from 8 AM to 12 PM. Job seekers and employers will be provided a venue to meet and discuss job opportunities.

The ACS Career Fair is open to ACS members and national and student affiliates. All job seekers must sign up online to participate from June 23-August 20, 2008 at

If you are not an ACS Member we strongly encourage you to join.

What’s in It for Me?

June 23, 2008

Many undergraduate chemistry majors will at some time in their careers be faced with the question of whether to get a Ph.D. Reasons for considering this question range from a desire for a higher salary (starting Ph.D.s are paid twice what corresponding B.S. chemists are paid), hope for an academic position (about 25% of all Ph.D.s are at academic institutions), or even for personal reasons. In my case, I was more or less programmed from kindergarten to get a chemistry Ph.D. My father had one, and family urging combined with the push for more science majors after the 1958 Soviet launch of Sputnik really left little room for disagreement. Of course, I had seen, too, the benefits of working in the chemical enterprise, because my father had a very good research position in a small town. He worked in polymer chemistry applied to the development of synthetic textile-fiber products. Our family lived a nice life.

When I enrolled in graduate school in the late 1960s, my classmates and I believed we should choose a major adviser who was in tune with our desire to learn chemistry as a means of having a good middle-class career. We thought that a major adviser would be perhaps not a friend, but at least a mentor, in providing us entry to companies that based their products on science and technology. The adviser would help in the assessment of our talents, guide us in our decision on what chemical subdiscipline would best suit our capabilities, and ultimately shepherd us into the club of Ph.D. chemists.

Safe to say, we were rapidly disabused of that point of view.

Graduate school became for us what it is for many who attend: an overwhelming series of hurdles to be jumped in an effort to avoid failure. There were entrance examinations, 300- and 400-level courses, cumulative exams, and ultimately proposal defenses. Our class of 25 steadily dwindled as individuals left, and slowly those of us who remained began to examine our chosen chemical destiny.

One day, after studying an especially obscure organic reaction mechanism, several of us were sitting around after class with our instructor, who was then an associate professor. I asked if the chemistry department had considered offering graduate students the opportunity to take classes not necessarily in the department but that would be applicable to our future life in the scientific world. Perhaps a polymer course from the chemical engineering department, a finance course or two from the business school, or even an introduction to legal theory for those of us who might want to consider a patent-law career.

The professor answered, “What’s in it for me?”

It was a revelatory moment, for suddenly it was clear that graduate school wasn’t about students at all. It was about professors.

While my graduate-school revelatory experience may have been breathtakingly direct, I suspect it is as true today as it was in the 1970s: what most graduate students study is what is best for their advisers. So my advice to anyone considering a Ph.D. program: first, choose your adviser carefully, and second, recognize that much of the knowledge and skills you will need in your employment will have to be learned on the job or through continuing education programs throughout your career. And wake up to the reality of what Ph.D. degrees really are—a testament to graduate students’ perseverance, not their intellect.

This article was written by Jim Ryan, Ph.D. retired consultant and former Assistant Director of the ACS Continuing Education program. Originally published in the Chemistry magazine, Spring 2007.

Help Wanted…From You

June 16, 2008

The American Chemical Society has long prided itself on serving its members as effectively and efficiently as it can. When I was an ACS staff member, in the early 1980s, responding to a suggestion from an ACS member always took top priority, and that same attitude still permeates the organization.


At the same time, those who work for the ACS marvel at how much members give freely of their time and energy to serving the Society. When I was the editor of Chemistry, the volunteer members of the magazine’s editorial board would spend hours helping me generate suitable story ideas and then spend hours more reviewing every story for accuracy and sound writing. I had the distinct impression that there wasn’t much that the committee members wouldn’t do for the magazine if I asked nicely.


Having a helpful attitude goes far in a work environment. Colleagues will come to respect you for pitching in when asked, and bosses will value you for being a team player. Sure, you may end up working a little extra at times, but being known as someone who will lend an extra hand to a project or fill in for a colleagues at a moment’s notice will pay heft dividends down the road, including raises, bonuses, promotions, and above all, in terms of your reputation.


One of the best clients I ever landed said that she picked me over other better qualified candidates (I’d only been writing for four years at the time) because one of my references made a big deal out of the fact that I was always willing to help with a story or a project when asked. On the other hand, I’ve heard of many good job candidates not getting hired because the interviewers had the impression that those candidates were not team players.


That brings me to the real reason for this particular blog entry – we need your help. Yes, you, the members of the ACS, the readers of the ACS Careers Blog. The ACS Careers staff is planning several new programs for members, including two series. The first, which will be known as the ACS Careers Industry Forum, will serve as mechanism for disseminating timely information regarding cutting edge issues in industry that will affect employment. This series will run monthly and will feature moderated discussions with industry leaders in a conference call/Webinar format. I’ll be the moderator, and I’ll be expecting you to call in with your questions and comments. Stay tune for the details.


The second series will address career-related topics, and this is where we really need your input. ACS Careers staff wants to know what you want to know. What kind of specific questions about chemistry careers would you like this series to address? Do you want practical advice on interviewing techniques? What to wear? How to network? Or do you want to know how to deal with a back-stabbing colleague that’s trying to sabotage your career?


Please let us know. You can click on the “comment” button below, or you email your suggestions to ACS staff at In advance, THANKS!


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.

Cancer Research Needs Chemists

June 9, 2008

Earlier this year, I attended an unusual meeting in Washington, DC, convened by John Niederhuber, a nationally renowned surgeon, cancer researchers, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Niederhuber, acting on advice from Anna Barker, the NCI Deputy Director who heads the Institutes many new technology initiatives, was interested in finding out if the physical sciences – physics, engineering, mathematics, and particularly chemistry – could contribute to the ongoing War on Cancer.

After two-and-a-half days of discussion, the question was no longer one of “if,” but one of “why,” as in why has the cancer research enterprise waited this long to actively engage chemists and their physical sciences sisters and brothers.

Of course, chemists have long been involved in cancer research, but mainly in a service role synthesizing thousands upon thousands of organic and inorganic molecules for testing as anticancer agents. Then they’ve gotten involved again when it comes time to mass-produce the occassional compound that shows promise and enters human clinical trials.

What the NCI is proposing is a radical change in how chemists and other physical scientists participate in cancer research. Instead of serving the needs of cancer biologists, Drs. Niederhuber and Barker want chemists, physicists, and the like to become drivers of cancer research, to lend a new perspective – an out-of-the-box perspective – to cancer research. Let me put it bluntly – the NCI wants YOU.

Talking with Dr. Barker during the meeting, I was struck with her success in driving home this point to NCI’s leadership. Though an immunologist by training, she has long succeeded as both a scientist and an entrepreneur by looking at a problem and bringing to bear whatever tools and talents were needed to find a solution, and this is another example of an open-mindedness that, should it pervade more of biomedical research would bode well for the future of medicine.

These days, I hear biomedical scientists give lip service to multi-disciplinary science, but for the most part, those same scientists then go back to their academic silos and keep plugging away in their disciplines, attacking what are increasingly difficult research problems using the same approach that they’ve always followed. In the cancer world, this has led to slow, incremental improvements in diagnostics and therapeutics, but face it, that pace isn’t good enough anymore.

Cancer is largely a disease of older age, and the population of the developed world is aging. Without a radical improvement in the way we diagnose and treat cancer, this collection of diseases will eclipse heart disease as the leading killer, with huge economic costs.

The National Cancer Institute knows this, and that realization is driving world’s largest funder of cancer research to seek revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances. It is that sense of urgency that prompted the NCI to lead the way in funding a huge initiative in biomedical nanotechnology, an effort that has already begun drawing chemists into the cancer research fold.

Kudos to the NCI for doing more than just talking about multidisciplinary research. The NCI is calling – will the chemistry community answer that call?

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

Wanted in Europe: U.S.-Trained Chemists

June 2, 2008

Face it, for many Americans, globalization is a four letter word, and while the U.S. research enterprise has largely been immune to the adverse impacts of globalization, there are growing concerns that science jobs may soon follow the path of information technology jobs.

I say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. As in, join the flow of jobs overseas and grab one for yourself, especially if you’re at all interested in a biotech job.

European biotechnology companies are actively recruiting U.S. Ph.Ds to join what has become a fast-growing industry. Although the United States is still the unquestioned world leader in biotechnology, the past decade or so has seen Europe develop a nascent biotechnology industry.

However, the one thing that almost everyone involved in European biotech agrees is restraining the continent’s growth is a serious shortage entrepreneurially-minded scientists – and they see the U.S. as providing the solution to that problem.

Wolfgang Renner, chief executive officer and founder of the Zurich-based biotech firm, Cytos, told me that entrepreneurism seems to be ingrained in the minds of our American counterparts in a way that’s missing from students trained in Europe.

“Some people, like myself, go to the States for graduate school or do a postdoc in large part to get exposed to that culture, but we need to have more American-trained Ph.D.s here. It’s essential,” Renner said.

European industry leaders and governments alike have recognized the dearth of entrepreneurs and they are starting to take action to promote the development of home-grown talent. For example, universities across the continent are following America’s lead by setting up offices to foster the movement of research discoveries into startup biotechnology firms. Nevertheless, the effect has been less than startling. Herbert Reutimann, managing director of Unitectra, the technology transfer arm of the Universities of Berne and Zurich, told me, “Culturally, we’re fighting an uphill battle. Entrepreneur is still a dirty word among many professors in the chemical and biochemical sciences. Europe is still a couple decades behind the U.S. in that regard.”

The result, say many who are close to the industry, is that investors remain reluctant to provide budding entrepreneurs with the necessary capital to get their young companies off the ground. This tight-fistedness is a major reason why opportunity exists for U.S.-trained chemists. As one venture capitalist told me recently, “When you think of entrepreneurs, you think American.”

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