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"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?" -Joni Mitchell

 

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union (commonly known as Brexit) is set to have far-reaching impact around the world.  As President Obama said before the vote, “This is a defining moment and what happens in Europe has consequences around the globe."  And as Reuters has warned earlier this month, the Brexit vote may also signal a shift in the tectonic plates that have driven the movement towards greater European unity over the past 50 years:

 

“Brexit is the most visible sign of a wider decline in the ideal of ever closer European integration around the continent”.

 

One of the major concerns is the likely long, drawn-out timescale for the exit.  New premier Theresa May has sensibly postponed pressing the actual “exit button” (which is achieved by invoking Article 50 of the EU Treaty). But her main reason for postponement is that nobody has yet defined the UK’s objectives in negotiating the necessary post-Brexit arrangements.  Those proposing Brexit during the referendum never got around to explaining their plans for the UK outside the EU.  And since the vote, it has become clear this was because they couldn’t agree amongst themselves on a potential way forward.

 

A veritable smorgasbord of options are now under discussion as a result:

  • At one end of the spectrum there is “EU-lite”, where the UK would accept current EU rules but not be able to influence any changes that are made
  • At the other, there is the option of total withdrawal from all current EU arrangements - after which, the UK would then apply to join the World Trade Organisation
  • A further practical problem is that the UK has not actually negotiated any trade deals on its own since joining the EU in 1973.  Not only does it not have any experience of how these are conducted, but it doesn’t even have any trade negotiators

 

Brexit is therefore almost certainly going to be a major self-inflicted wound for the UK economy. Already some foreign-owned companies are preparing plans to exit the country in order to maintain their access to the EU’s single market.  They fear that UK-based companies could lose their current right to sell products and services across the EU’s Single Market of 500 million people without tariff or regulatory barriers.

 

Another key area of concern, particularly for ACS members, is clearly around the future status of the research money that the UK currently receives from the EU’s Horizon and other funding bodies.  It has received €6.7bn ($7.5bn) since 2013, and currently gains about one-fifth of all European Research Council grants.  The vice chancellor of one top UK university told me shortly after the Brexit vote that two potential European partner universities had already withdrawn from joint funding applications, citing the uncertainty over whether the UK will still be eligible to participate.  And he is not alone, with Prof. Philip Nelson, chairman of Research Councils UK, telling the UK Parliament that 6 vice chancellors had received similar messages.

 

A further problem arises over people issues.  2.1 million EU nationals currently work in the UK, due to the freedom of movement guarantees.  1.8 million UK citizens also live and work in other EU countries on the same basis.  But as of today, nobody knows what their status will be post-Brexit.  This is already becoming a major barrier to future recruitment, as there are no guarantees that peo0ple moving countries will be able to stay post-Brexit.

 

If you think this is all potentially shaping up to become a complete mess, you would not be alone.

 

Even where positive noises are being made by government, there are few details available of what is being considered.  The UK’s science base is widely recognised as being Number 2 in the world, after the USA. It currently spends around £6bn/year ($7.8bn) on research and innovation, and May has pledged to maintain government funding at this level in real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) terms.  But this doesn’t mean, of course, that everything will simply continue on the same basis as today.

 

The UK is heading into a very uncertain world, where there are no precedents for what might happen.  I discussed some of the wider economic and political issues involved in last month’s “ACS Chemistry and the Economy” webinar, and you can listen to the recording and download the slides by clicking here.

 

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Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem (www.iec.eu.com), trusted advisers to the chemical industry and its investment community. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Industrial Council on chemicals, advanced materials and biotechnology, and presents the ACS ‘Chemistry & the Economy’ webinars.

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I dumped my compost pile today.  It is a filthy activity, yet one that is strangely pleasant. Part of the pleasure is being outside.  Part is that it is an optimistic activity. I need the compost for my garden, limited as it is.  Planting a garden is optimism tempered by delusion.  Optimism because I anticipate the fruits of my labor, far off in the future as they will be.   History teaches that deer, slugs and any matter of other garden-wrecking vermin are more likely than a bountiful harvest.  Several years ago I estimated that each of the cherry tomatoes I harvested likely cost me more than $2 each, not accounting for my labor.  Happy in my delusion and bathing in the optimism of Spring, I enjoyed it.

 

Additionally, I enjoy compost pile archeology.  The soil in my gardens was awful when I moved into my house over 25 years ago.  I began aggressively composting to generate material to improve the soil.  Yard waste, leaves and all manner of kitchen scraps, supplemented a time or two with manure, are churned into usable compost on a two year cycle with a combination of a rotating composter and a stationary bin. Spreading the compost is a trip back in time.  I uncover the occasional fragment of lobster claw, the rest consumed by the aggressiveness of the bacterial action.  Mussel shells occasionally peak out.  The occasional mouse skull, too.

 

It is a time when the circular economy comes to mind. It comes to mind because of plastic, not because of the circular nature of composting.  I am not an industrial composter, but I do actively manage my compost, aerating and providing water.  My yearly archeology tells me I do a pretty good job since things like lobster and shrimp shells are consumed.  My most common archeological find is plastic.  Every shovel full has multiple, brightly colored pieces of plastic peeking out of the rich, dark compost.  Most are labels, the vast majority avocado labels, white plastic printed in yellow, blue, red and black.  We do love our avocados and the labels are hard to get off the skins. Avocado skins and pits are pretty recalcitrant, yet microbial action has consumed them while leaving the labels pristine.  I pulled nearly a hundred labels and other small pieces of plastic from the quarter yard or so of compost I harvested.

 

We understand past generations through the artifacts they left behind: statues, jewelry and special household items.  Considerable labor was put into the making and crafting.  Crafting objects meant to last required persistence and craftsmanship. There was nothing that was both durable and cheap. 

 

That is the paradox of plastic; the blessing and the curse of plastic are the same. The blessing of plastic is that it is cheap, easily manufactured and lasts forever, making it a great material for my compost bin.  The curse is that it is cheap, easily manufactured and can last forever, which is why my compost has so many plastic items in it.

 

This year was my first experience with biodegradable cutlery.  In the hundred or so pieces of plastic I removed from the compost, I also pulled out some surprisingly complete biodegradable cutlery. It turns out my compost pile isn’t quite the destructive force I imagined.  There was some degradation, but forks were still clearly forks and knives still clearly knives.  I am not alone in having my composting efforts influenced by biodegradable plastic. Boston is experiencing difficulties.

 

Commercial composters have issues with compostable cutlery and packaging.  Too much of it messes up the composting.  Boston restaurants that had shifted to compostable materials are incredulous over the revelation that loads of compostable materials containing too much plastic are being sent to landfills.  They are venting their frustration over absorbing higher costs for compostable materials and paying more to have the separated stream hauled away.  Ayr Muir, Founder and CEO of Clover, a Boston area chain of restaurants, vented his frustration over compostable material going to landfills. He makes the claim that Clover was the first restaurant to go 100% compostable packaging in 2010.  He actually worked with suppliers to develop a suitable lids.  Massachusetts enacted an organic waste ban in 2014, forcing all disposing of more than a ton of waste a week to compost rather than landfill.  Clover didn’t produce tons of waste, but  elected to compost because of Ayr’s determination that it was the right thing to do.

 

It came with a cost.  Compostable cups cost sixteen cents.  Traditional plastic only three.  Traditional trash bags only a nickel, compostable, a dollar.  Clover paid 60% more to have compostable trash hauled that “normal” trash.  Muir was aghast to find that he was absorbing higher costs for nothing, learning that his compost hauler deemed the compost too dirty and, rather than composting, simply dropped it in a landfill.  The issue is much larger than Clover, affecting greater Boston.  Composting is being replaced by anaerobic digestion for disposal of food waste.  Conversion to energy is replacing composting and eliminating an outlet for the compostable packaging.  Muir guesses that Clover will move from compostable to post-consumer recycled packaging.

 

I wish him luck with that too. Prices for recycled materials are forcing some recycling centers to close and some recycling programs to falter. It does appear that there are no easy answers.

 

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Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.

One of the blessings of working in industry is the diverse array of career paths available to employees. One trained in the chemical sciences has at their feet the obvious opportunities in research and development. As I look around at Monsanto, I see my chemistry-trained colleagues excelling in non-research areas of sales, marketing, corporate communications, intellectual property, operations, and a host of other non-traditional chemistry careers. A sound training in the chemical and biological sciences provides a framework for questioning and understanding that, when paired with an intellectual curiosity, positions an individual to succeed in diverse areas critical for commercial success.

 

Navigating your career away from your area of training can often be a tricky proposition. In industry, the myriad of career paths can provide opportunities to tap into other passions within. A scientist with an interest in law might pursue roles in patent science. A data scientist could find a fit as a business analyst. A group leader with a penchant for writing could become a public relations specialist. After years of education and training to become a technical specialist, moving out of the field of expertise can often be a daunting experience. Making such a career move feels like starting over from the beginning and many times your technical credibility may bring little stature in the new field. A palpable enthusiasm will rarely cover for tangible results and many times the road to your new career may not be straight. You might have to build credibility in a role that bridges where you are and where you would like to be.

 

One key to successfully navigating such a transition is to know exactly what you are. In a discussion about my own career aspirations, a mentor once asked me the question, “What are you?” It seems like such a simple question, but I admit that I stumbled in answering. The obvious answer was biochemist. That is the area of my formal training and expertise. But this discussion was about careers in international development and agriculture, my other passion. I stumbled because it was not obvious that a biochemist was a person needed in the area of international development. If I were a plant breeder, that would be a no-brainer answer. After the discussion, I thought a lot about my answer. In online profiles, I describe myself as a dad, a biochemist, a blogger, and a humanitarian. All of those descriptors are accurate as are many more. I have varying passions for all of them. But they are not all weighted with equal proportion when it comes to career choices or current opportunities.

 

It’s this inequality of passion and job options that can create a career trap. This especially becomes an issue when we get so wrapped up in defining ourselves as a particular person at the expense of ignoring all of the other traits that make up whom we are. When you see yourself as A (your passion) while the organization sees you as C (your expertise) all the while you are stuck doing the bridging role of a B (neither passion nor expertise), it can become so easy to lose sight of what you are that you can become invisible. It is this invisibility to the organization that can become the career death trap.

 

Successfully avoiding this trap may be determined by your ability to know and demonstrate that you are both your passion and your expertise and that this combination is what the organization needs to be successful in the role that you desire. If a bridging role in the organization is the path that you choose, keep your passions at the forefront of your thought. People seem to be happiest and most productive in roles that match their passion. If there is a degree of mismatch between your role and your passion, it is easy to become frustrated and non-productive, a potentially career-derailing combination. New opportunities are seldom given to mediocre performing employees.

 

As an alternative to the bridging role, consider gaining relevant experience in an organization outside of work. Volunteer opportunities are excellent for gaining and documenting expertise and will also fulfill that passion that will keep you engaged. Becoming an externally recognized leader in an area of common interest with your employer may allow you to demonstrate your value outside of your training and create internal opportunities that allow you to more easily make the transition to your new career path. Above all, do not forget what you are.

 

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Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)