FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

PCAST Hears Updates on Education, the State of Energy and Climate, and Forensic Science

Aline D. McNaull
Number 51 - March 27, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Fundamental changes are needed in the education of chemical scientists, said Professor Bassam Shakashiri from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

PCAST held a March 15 meeting at the National Academies of Sciences to review a report by the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Presidential Commission on Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, and a report focused on climate. They heard about a partnership between the Department of Justice and National Institute of Standards and Technology established to strengthen the role of forensic science in criminal investigations. Tom Luce, Chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, also gave a presentation on best practices for implementing PCAST reports.

The Energy and Climate Change letter-report was written by PCAST.  It focuses almost exclusively on climate issues and provides options to the President on how to address the subject of climate change in his second term.  This presentation included information about national climate issues and provided specific cases of climate drought, floods, and other examples of climate variability that recently impacted the U.S. 

Concerned about the potential long-term viability of its field, the American Chemical Society formed a Blue Ribbon Commission charged with answering two questions: what are the purposes of graduate education in the chemical sciences and what steps should be taken to ensure that graduate education in the chemical sciences addresses important societal issues while also acknowledging the needs and aspirations of graduate students.  The Commission was also asked to consider the structure of academic departments, compare employment of students in industrial versus academic settings, examine student financial support mechanisms, address student diversity issues, and deliberate on whether the aspirations of graduate students are being met. 

While “the state of graduate education in chemistry is healthy in many respects,” economic changes have occurred which are influencing the pace of developments in chemistry, said Shakashiri.

Jackie Barton, Professor at the California Institute of Technology spoke about two of the five conclusions from the ACS report.  She discussed the report conclusion which states that the current educational experience does not provide adequate preparation for careers after graduate school.  In order to improve preparation for employment, she suggested that there needs to be more buy-in from professors as they mentor students.  Professors need to provide students with advice on how to deal with learning new and emerging science once they are on their own she said, and should provide advice on how to collaborate as a part of a global team of researchers.  In addition, ethical conduct when performing research should also be a topic of discussion between graduate students and professors.  Barton proposed that there is a need for graduate students to have a shorter time to degree.

Barton also discussed the second of the five report conclusions which states that the financial support system for graduate students needs to be revised.  She provided details about this recommendation stating that student financial support rests too much on individual grants, and that funding for individual research projects should be decoupled from student funding. This would effectively allow students opportunities for professional growth in many other research areas and not just those tied to their projects.  Barton said there needs to be a discussion on how international students are funded. Barton ended by emphasizing that the report’s recommendation regarding financial support does not imply the need for more funding.   

William Banholzer, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of the Dow Chemical Company highlighted the importance of the third recommendation which is that students need to better understand the culture of laboratory safety.  He stated that scientists are “11 times safer in an industry laboratory than in a university laboratory.” 

Banholzer also discussed the fourth recommendation, which he acknowledged is a contentious issue:  that there are too many PhDs being granted for the number of jobs available.  He noted that students are taking two or three postdoc positions following graduate school to make up for the lack of permanent jobs whether in industry or academia.  To address this issue, he suggested that not every chemistry department be focused solely on research and that more departments should be focused on teaching. 

Regarding the last recommendation on the subject of the postdoc experience, Banholzer stated that it should be treated as an apprenticeship.  He suggested that postdocs should be mentored and that funding agencies should require this mentorship. 

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
amcnaull@aip.org
301-209-3094