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Recently, some soul searching has been going on in US graduate chemistry education circles. PhDs have been taking on average six years to finish up, the unemployment level of chemistry graduates has hit record highs of 4.6% and safety standards in university labs have been under the microscope after the tragic death of Sheri Sangji. These problems have been gone over in some detail in a recent report from the American Chemical Society.
The recent symposium on graduate chemistry education at the AAAS meeting went back over these points again, but I was drawn to write about an analysis by the always thought provoking George Whitesides at Harvard.
Whitesides started by making many of the same points found in the ACS report, that US chemical industry jobs had fallen by 300,000 in the past 20 years and that the pharmaceutical industry lost the same number of jobs in the last decade. But he went on to say that chemistry has had a ‘pretty fantastic run’ over the last 50 years pointing to the development of new drugs and materials and new techniques to characterise them.
He also notes that many of these wonderful developments came from industry. Inventions like ROMP, NMR (he acknowledges that this was invented in academia but that industry made it user-friendly), superacids and asymmetric epoxidation. So, if chemistry has been having such a great run, why is there any need to fix anything?
Whitesides says that the Goldman Sachs of the world have now made it impossible for industry to do long-term research of the kind that produced the above advances. Companies need to answer to shareholders simply makes it too difficult to justify expenditure on programmes that aren’t going to deliver a return in the short-term.
This is where he says that universities must step up. They must fill this invention gap that industry has vacated. And graduate students will be an important part of that.
So how do you get graduate students to be more inventive? Whitesides suggests that universities need to teach for breadth and creativity. Universities also need to be unafraid to let old fields die. Quite which fields he has in mind I leave you to guess as he didn’t volunteer any!
Education needs to be reinvented, Whitesides says. He points out that much of what students are taught is archaic and wrong – simplifications that are unhelpful later on. Textbooks are designed to sell, not to help students carry out creative research. Replace them with the web, he suggests, and says this will happen anyway in the next 10 years or so. He also says that grad students need to reduce the extent to which they specialise as 4 years just isn’t enough to get an in depth understanding of an area. At the same time grad students need to prepare to tackle the big problems. If students don’t see what they’re doing is important then why should they value it, and come to that why should anyone else?
He ended by talking about risk. If students don’t take risks and tackle safe problems, that are unimportant and no one cares, then even if they succeed no one takes any notice. If they fail then the consequences are even worse for them. But, if they take on an important problem then it’s a win-win result for them. Even if they don’t succeed they will have provided data that other people are interested in and opened up new avenues to explore.
This all sounds well and good but my question is can everyone really be working on the big problems? So much of scientific discovery has been serendipity. Don’t we need some people looking at the smaller problems, as we never know if they’re more important than we think and feed back into these grand challenges