I’ve had this notion (a conceit, really) that as someone from industry, I should reach out to my colleagues in academia in order to bring some awareness of how chemistry is conducted out in the world.  After many, many conversations, an accumulating pile of work in ACS activities, and a few visits to schools, what I’ve found is not what I expected. I expected a bit more curiosity about how commerce works and perhaps what life is like in a chemical plant. I really thought that my academic associates might be intrigued by the wonders of the global chemical manufacturing complex and product process development.

What I’m finding is more along the lines of polite disinterest. I’ve sensed this all along, but I’d been trying to sustain the hope that if only I could use the right words, I might elicit some interest in how manufacturing works; that I could strike some kind of spark.  But what I’ve found is just how insular the magisterium of academia really is. The walls of the fortress are very thick. We have our curricula firmly in place on the three pillars of chemstry- theory, synthesis, and analysis. In truth, textbooks often set the structure of courses.  A four year ACS certified curriculum cannot spare any room for alternative models like applied science. I certainly cannot begrudge folks for structuring around that reality.

It could easily be argued that the other magisteria of industry and government are the same way.  Well, except for one niggling detail. Academia supplies educated people to the other great domains comprising society.  We seem to be left with the standard academic image of what a chemical scientist should look like going deeply into the next 50 years. Professors are scholars and they produce what they best understand- more scholars in their own image.  This is only natural. I’ve done a bit of it myself.

Here is my sweeping claim (imagine the air overhead roiled with waving hands)-  on a numbers basis, most chemists aren’t that interested in synthesis as they come out of a BA/BS program. That is my conclusion based on interviewing fresh graduates. I’ve interviewed BA/BS chemists who have had undergraduate research experience in nanomaterials and AFM, but could not draw a reaction showing the formation of ethyl acetate.  As a former organic prof, I find that particularly alarming. This is one of the main keepsakes from a year of sophomore organic chemistry.  The good news is that the errant graduate can usually be coached into remembering the chemistry.

To a large extent, industry is concerned with making stuff.  So perhaps it is only natural that most academic chemists (in my sample set) aren’t that keen on anything greater than a superficial view of the manufacturing world. I understand this and acknowledge reality. But it is a shame that institutional inertia is so large in magnitude in this and all endeavors.  Chemical industry really needs young innovators who are willing to start up manufacturing in North America. We could screen such folks and steer them to MIT, but that is lame. Why let MIT have all the fun and the royalties?  We need startups with cutting edge technology, but we also need companies who are able to make fine chemical items of commerce. Have you tried to find a brominator in the USA lately?

The gap between academia and industry is mainly cultural. But it is a big gap, it may not be surmountable, and I’m not sure that the parties want to mix. I’ll keep trying.

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