Skip navigation
1 2 3 Previous Next

Industry Voices

107 Posts authored by: ACS Industry

The latest from the Bureau of Frightening Statistics is that within 20 years, almost half of all U.S. jobs will be automated.  Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) routines are now able to tackle many routine tasks.  The technology continues to improve, tackling more and more routine tasks and displacing the workers employed doing those tasks.  I don’t fancy myself a Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology), and I have embraced the benefits of technology at work and in my personal life.  My thermostat adjusts itself to save energy.  The microwave knows how to warm foods best, but I still have to tell it what the food is.  My house could be vacuumed by a robot, though it currently isn’t.  I time shift TV programming to fit my schedule.  My new car actually watches the road, adjusting speed, watching my blind spots and telling me if I begin to venture out of my lane.

  

We are, it is said, on the verge of an inflection point.  Self-driving cars are on the road today, harbingers of a driverless world.  I attended an ACS strategy session today and experienced Washington, D.C., traffic.  A world of self-driving cars is certainly appealing. The time I just wasted in traffic on I-95 would have been put to better use. However, wide spread use of self-driving cars would also mean those professional drivers that were trapped in traffic with me would be out of work.  There are 1.7 million truck drivers that stand to lose their jobs when self-driving trucks become the norm.  Driving is pretty difficult, and I know from personal experience that driving an 18-wheeler is even more challenging.  If drivers can be replaced, what other careers are in jeopardy as a result of new technologies?

  

It is a long list.  A list that is beginning to be revealed as telemarketers, fast food employees, insurance underwriters, warehouse workers, and tax preparers join buggy-whip makers, record store employees, library workers, and photo technicians--occupations made obsolete by the march of technology.  The list of obsoleted occupations is sobering, and the future promises that robots and AI will be taking on more challenging, higher skilled tasks.  Robots perform surgery as computers diagnose disease.  Doctors, it would seem, may be at risk for replacement.  Physicians, chess champions, and poker players all could be replaced by computers.

  

Robotics long ago invaded the chemistry lab.  Recent advances have me pondering whether chemistry’s Luddite moment is ahead of us or behind us?  Has chemistry embraced robotics and AI, using it to greatest benefit, or are chemists on the verge of being replaced, too?

  

Laboratory automation is important in my life.  I am not the first generation that employed computers to obtain and analyze data.  The venerable DEC MINCs populated the labs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, when I got there.  The new computer on the scene, the IBM PC, promised to be the workhorse of the future.  There was no Lab View, only early generation IO boards that didn’t have drivers for the compilers of the day.  Coding in assembly code, writing drivers for the first generation data acquisition boards was required. I met the woman who would become my wife while teaching her how to write the assembly code drivers she needed for her experiments. As I said, lab automation is important in my life.

  

I came to Dow and confronted many problems that were solved with automation.  I worked on automating water analyses in my first Dow job, replacing hand titrations done by an operator; these were very boring, repetitive hand titrations of waste water.  It was not necessarily a job folks clamored for, making it a reasonable job to automate.

  

In fact, the industry that I entered was already automated.  Long gone were the days of the operator controlling a process from a one-legged stool to insure alertness.  Control rooms were already computerized.  I have observed consolidation as multiple plants are now operated from the same control room. Chemical industry productivity continues to steadily climb as the combined impact of increasing scale and automation lets fewer employees make more products.

  

There is a stark difference between academic and industrial labs, a difference that was far narrower when I joined industry. Academic labs are still manual operations.  Labor is in excess in academic labs and productivity is not a key metric in academic research. As the combinatorial wave began influencing industrial research, I observed strong academic pushback.  Edisonian was used as a pejorative, the opposite of rational approaches.  I observed first hand Dow’s embracing of high-throughput experimentation, playing a small role in our transformation.  The discovery and development of heterogeneous catalysis, the area in which I spent most of my career, embraced faster analytical methods, automation, and even robotics.  The number of experiments under the control of an individual chemist increased and the pace of discovery increased as more options could be tested in a given time period.  We moved from being severely equipment-limited to having lots of equipment capacity.  Gallows humor predicted management’s embrace of automation was a way of reducing employees. However, the  resilience of chemistry prevented it.

  

The fancy equipment hasn’t outrun the creativity of chemists.  We weren't idea-limited when we did a reaction a day.  We aren't idea- limited when we can run 100 reactions a day.  The creativity of chemists keeps us ahead of technology’s march.  The fancy tools are just tools, only able to deliver in the hands of a skilled chemist capable of devising the pathways and compositions worth testing.

  

I attended a Green Chemistry Gordon Conference in 1996 where I first confronted the concept of computer algorithms for design of synthetic pathways. Present a target molecule and the computer would use its database of reactions to provide the best route.  Routes could be optimized for the parameter, or set of parameters, of choice.  Cost or fewest steps were the obvious choices, but the algorithm could also be taught the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry.  Once taught, it could optimize on Green Chemistry.

  

A talk by James Hendrickson remains a memory after many years.  The memorable part of the talk came in response to a question about successful application of the code for route selection.  The answer was sublime. The algorithm was being used, but Dr. Hendrickson reasoned, no one was admitting it.  He reasoned that chemists were recognized for their creativity in finding better routes to known molecules or new routes to new molecules.  Ceding this important role would devalue the chemist using the code and, ultimately all chemists. No one was willing to discuss successes meaning that there had to be successes.

  

Over 20 years has elapsed and I have not observed algorithms taking over.  Chemists still find employment. Great synthetic chemists are still in demand, as are formulation chemists with great hands. It could be that IBM’s Watson just hasn't gotten around to chemistry yet and that the moment when machines replace chemists will soon be upon us.  I think not.  One of my main reasons for optimism is the Tricorder.  Even in the future when the miraculous Tricorder is standard equipment, there will still be a Science Officer.  Machines can't do it all. In my vision of the future, chemists will live long and prosper.

 

LiveLong.jpg

 

References:

Thompson, Clive; "Rage Against the Machines", Smithsonian, January/February 2017, page 21-25. [www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/when-robots-take-jobs-remember-luddites-180961 423/#TY8VWDSdgsLcJhKy.99]

  

Frey, C.B. and Osborne, M.A., 2017. The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, pp.254-280.

  

National Intelligence Council; "Global Trends: Paradox of Progress", January 2017.

  

Chabris, Christopher; "Computers Get Closer to Mastering Poker", The Wall Street Journal, 4 March 2017.

 

 

                                                                              ------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

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.

In my final blog post, it seems sensible to pull together some of the key themes of the past 2 years, and use this perspective to look forward at the likely outlook for 2017 and beyond.

I have argued that ‘demographics is destiny’ (ACS blog, June 2016).  In a consumer-led economy such as the USA, today’s ageing society means that we are seeing a secular change in the economic and political landscape.  Growth is inevitably slowing, and sustainability is moving up the agenda to replace globalization as a key drive for the economy.  We can summarize what this means by bringing together two models which have stood the test of time:

  • Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed her ‘Paradigm of loss’ model in 1969, where she described the process by which people come to terms with loss
    and death.  It has since been widely applied to financial market developments, and we can see that it fits very well with the post-2008 experience
  • Bob Farrell is a member of Institutional Investor’s all-time Hall of Fame He realized early in his career that “If the majority of economists agreed on something, I knew I had to watch for something different”, and was an early advocate in the 1990s of seeing ageing populations as an investment theme

 

 

We are now 8 years later from the start of the financial crisis in 2008, and it is clear that this was not a “normal” downturn, swiftly followed by recovery.  Yet it does seem to be following the patterns described by Kübler-Ross and Farrell.  Trump’s victory, and the Brexit vote, suggests that we have finally left Denial behind and are now moving into the Anger stage of Kübler-Ross’ sequence, and Farrell’s Drawn-out Downtrend:

“As I look at these endeavors, what springs to my mind is a vision of a plumber trying to force water into a domestic waterflow system whose pipes are badly clogged, if not broken.

In terms of Bob Farrell’s concept, the Denial stage also encompassed the first two phases of a typical bear market in financial markets as he described it:

“Bear markets have 3 stages – sharp down, reflexive rebound and a drawn-out fundamental downtrend (with intermittent rallies)”.

Farrell’s “sharp down” period after the start of the Financial Crisis was duly followed by a “reflexive rebound”, which then ended in August 2014 with the start of the Great Unwinding of policymaker stimulus. 

  • Anger.  It therefore seems likely that we are still only at an early stage in the “drawn-out fundamental downtrend”.  This will become more apparent as we go into 2017, as the global economy seems likely to move into recession.  Further support for this analysis comes from the fact that we are also still early in the Anger stage, which only became more widely apparent with the Brexit vote in June.  Trump’s election confirms that it has spread across the Anglo-Saxon world, and the recent Italian referendum result means that the same issues are likely to impact the Eurozone during 2017.
  • Bargaining.  This is the next stage of Kübler-Ross’ ‘Paradigm of Loss’.  It is important to remember that her analysis was never meant to assume the existence of water-tight compartments between the 5 stages.  Instead, she believed that people were likely to fluctuate between them, as they tried to mitigate the pain they were feeling by testing out possible new ways forward.  Thus after 2008, some countries such as Greece moved between Denial, Anger and Bargaining.  President-elect Trump’s 100-day plan, announced at Gettysburg in October), suggests that the US is now likely to see the same pattern develop, with some still in Denial, and others in Anger, whilst he makes some preliminary moves into the Bargaining phase.
  • Depression and Acceptance. We are clearly a long way away from reaching the final 2 stages of Kübler-Ross’ analysis, even if it turns out that Trump’s policies do mark the start of a successful Bargaining stage.  It therefore seems likely that Farrell’s “drawn-out fundamental downtrend” may well continue for perhaps a decade, albeit with “intermittent rallies” along the way.

 

This is not a comfortable outlook.  But I would argue it is better to look facts in the face and prepare accordingly.  The alternative, of wishful thinking followed by an abrupt awakening, is likely to prove far more painful.  The other advantage of this approach is that it highlights the need to look forward and try to identify the opportunities which will likely develop in this New Normal world.  My view of these is summarised in the second chart.

Essentially what I am suggesting is that the successful businesses of the future will be those that move from providing products to supplying services – where the value proposition is based on the value provided, rather than just the physical product.  Instead of buying a car, for example, more and more people will buy a service that provides them with mobility – which may come from a car-sharing service, or from an Uber-type taxi service, or from autonomous vehicles or public transport. 

In turn, this means that companies will move towards being designers of materials and solutions, rather than simply supplying a physical product.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

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.

ACS Industry

Favorite Patents

Posted by ACS Industry Jan 4, 2017

Favorite Patents

 

As a boy interested in  science, I read voraciously on the topic.  To this day, I can still see the images of the pages in books that  taught me about the great men of science and technology.  Thomas Edison, I learned, was the king of inventors, with more patents than anyone else.  His inventions also are tops when it comes to everyday impact.  Electric light is at the foundation of modern life.  Edison, as young boys both before and after me learned, was the most prolific inventor, racking up 1,084 U.S. patents.  In July of 2015, the 1,085 U.S. patent was granted to Lowell Lincoln Wood Jr.  Edison was dethroned and the fact I have carried for decades is no longer a fact. 

 

I didn't actually comprehend Edison’s, now Wood’s, achievement when I was a boy.  I didn’t really understand what a patent meant.  I thought, incorrectly, that if
you had a great idea, you got a patent.  I must have construed that there was some kind of patent elf that, like Santa, watched over the world who gave out patents.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  I’ve patented inventions.   I’ve led the patenting efforts on several projects.  I have been responsible for intellectual capital management for both technology areas and organizations within my employer.  Patents are a lot of work.

 

There are many misconceptions about patents. I was fortunate to have good teachers to teach me about IP law.  I learned early in my career that patents actually don’t give you the right to make something, only the right to stop others from using your patent in their manufacturing.  To spur commerce, the government grants a monopoly period to an inventor.  After the patent expires, no more monopoly.  The government only grants patents after you apply for one.  Many times you have to argue with the government to get them to grant you a patent.  A jolly old elf giving out patents might be an improvement. 

 

I have surely read more than my fair share of patents.  I’ve read thousands of patents.  I have worked on right to practice opinions, reading and explaining complexities to patent counsel.  I have done analysis and mapping of technology areas.   Most patents aren’t fun reading, but there are certainly exceptions.  The work of Russell Morris Selevan, in particular, is both memorable and fun.

 

I am actually in awe of Russell Morris Selevan though I have never met him, have never seen a picture of him, and actually know very little about him.  It is through a single invention that I know of Russell Morris Selevan, and it is an invention that leaves me in awe.  It is a beautiful piece of work.  I wish I had thought of it.  To a certain degree, it pains me that Ididn't think of it.  It is one of those perfect inventions that, once you see it, is obvious, but no one else thought of it.  I clearly hadn’t thought of it.

 

You can’t patent something that is already known or is obvious.  Many patents are for the assembly of something useful and new made by combining well known pieces.   Assembling three well known technologies to create a new invention is how Russell Morris Selevan got his patent.  In putting three technologies together, he created something far greater than the sum of the parts.  I was well acquainted with the three technologies, and fully recognized the problem his invention solved.  I am still kicking myself for not making the connection.

 

Russell Morris Selevan assembled three main components in a way that is shear elegance. I actually saw Russell Morris Selevan’s invention of a store shelf, emblazoned with the patent number.  I slapped myself on the forehead when I first saw the invention because I hadn’t thought of it.  I knew about all the components.  I have a Ther-A-Rest® mattress.  This is a self-inflating mattress that compresses to almost nothing for backpacking.  Open a valve and the foam inside puffs it up, inflating it with no pump or lung power needed.  I am well aware of check valves from exposure to hydraulic, pneumatic and laboratory systems.  I know how check valves only allow gas to flow in one direction. 

 

What caused me to slap my forehead in the store was the perfection of Russell Morris Selevan’s coupling of a foam core and a check valve with a third component that I also knew well.  I knew all I needed to know, yet the inventive moment that came to Russell Morris Selevan eluded me.  By combining a piece of compressible foam, a check valve to allow self-inflation, and a whoopee cushion, U.S patent 6,331,131 granted to Russell Morris is for the "Self inflating noise maker”.   Russell Morris Selevan invented the self-inflating whoopee cushion. 

 

Other patents, and especially patent drawings, have made me smile.  US 20050064789, US 3,216,423, US 6,473,908, US 5,971,829 A, US 7,255,627 and US 7,745,197 all made me smile. Share your favorites.

 

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

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.

Sourcing resumes, preparing reports, and meeting with team members, it’s another busy day at work for Kara Allen. After multi-tasking for a couple of hours, Allen decides to take a short break and walk around.

Kira Allen2.jpg

In the forensic labs at Aegis Sciences Corporation where Allen works, the scientists and technicians are busy at work. The familiar faces of those whom Allen helped recruit and promote put a smile on her face. Knowing that she has made a positive impact on these people’s career development, Allen feels a great sense of satisfaction.

 

Allen loves her job as a scientific recruiter for Aegis, a role that allows her to combine her love for science and her passion for helping others to succeed. Those who know her well think that Allen is naturally talented for her job.

 

But it took a life-changing event for Allen to switch her career path from scientific research to recruitment.

 

Gluedto science

 

Like many chemists, it was easy for Allen to fall in love with science at a young age. The source of her inspiration? Her scientist father who loved to conduct fun scientific experiments at home.

 

“My father was a polymer chemist! It absolutely affected my career choice,” says Allen. “I remember all of his adhesive ‘projects’ around the house. What kid doesn’t want to play with glue?” Allen recalls her childhood memories with a smile.

 

Naturally, Allen pursued a scientific degree in college, studying microbiology and chemistry. After graduating in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Mississippi University for Women, Allen landed a temporary job as a microbiologist for a food manufacturer. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that she loved analytical chemistry more than microbiology work. Thanks to the research experience and the analytical skills she harnessed while interning at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital during her undergraduate years, Allen easily ventured into the chemical industry. After working as an analytical technician at Valley Products Company for a few years, she joined GlaxoSmithKline as an analytical chemist. Along the way, she joined ACS as soon as she was eligible, and has been an active member ever since.

 

A change of heart

 

While Allen was enjoying her scientific work in the pharmaceutical industry, an unexpected event forced her to rethink about her career path.

 

The turning point came when her oldest daughter was ill. Allen needed time off to take care of her child. But unfortunately the pharmaceutical job she held at the time didn’t offer her the needed flexibility. After some soul-searching, she came to a conclusion that she wanted to change the direction of her career path. She wanted to work on something that was bigger than just a job, something worthy of her time away from her daughters.

 

“Sometimes life steers you in a different direction,” says Allen. “My oldest daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness at an early age, and when she started chemotherapy, I realized I wanted (and needed) to do something different.”

 

A passionate move

 

It wasn’t difficult for Allen to figure out what she really wanted to do, thanks to her long-time involvement in ACS activities.

 

As an ACS volunteer, one of Allen’s early efforts was serving as a professional advisor for students at a local college. “I really enjoyed working with the students and helping them with their career paths,” recalls Allen. So when the opportunity to recruit chemists for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened up, she “jumped in with both feet.” 

 

And the transition from analytical chemistry to recruitment was surprisingly smooth.

 

“When you have a passion for something, you work a lot harder for it,” Allen explains.

 

Making a positive impact

 

With her solid scientific background, extensive experience in analytical chemistry, and strong passion for making a positive impact on others’ career paths, Allen has been thriving in her new roles.

 

After working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for about 3.5 years, in 2008 Allen moved to Vanderbilt Medical Center to assist the hiring officials in all matters related to recruitment as a senior level consultant.

 

In 2012, Allen joined Aegis Sciences Corporation to help develop a college recruitment program for the rapidly growing forensic toxicology company. Her job is demanding at times, but Allen loves it. Over the past 6 years at Aegis, she has successfully identified and recruited candidates for all toxicology laboratory positions, established solid relationships with universities and professional societies, and built a strong recruiting team.

 

Today Allen leads Aegis’ recruiting team and guides its University Relations program as a manager. She still loves to recruit team members herself, and she is passionate about helping others grow in their roles.

 

“We not only recruit from the outside, but do a lot of internal promotion,” explains Allen. “We focus on not only finding the right people, but getting them in the right place.”

 

A skilled juggler

 

Despite her busy schedule at Aegis, Allen is still heavily involved in a wide range of ACS activities. From volunteering for the National Chemistry Week to serving as a Career Consultant, Allen has organized countless events since joining ACS 18 years ago. Over the years, she has served as the Chair for two local sections, and has been a member of three national committees, including the Younger Chemists Committee, the Committee on Community Activities, and the Committee on Technician Affairs. For her additional contributions as an ACS Volunteer Career Consultant, in 2015 Allen received the Career Consultant of the Year award from the Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs.

 

With two young children to raise and a demanding job to succeed in, how does she find time and energy to volunteer?

 

Here are Allen’s tips for keeping all the balls in the air.

  • Use your time strategically.  Some people like to say “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” Allen lives by it.

 

  • Get the kids involved.  Allen loves to include her two daughters in her volunteer activities whenever possible. Most of the time, the kids had fun and Allen got her work done.

 

  • Align your volunteer efforts with your career goal.  In Allen’s case, many of the volunteer activities provide her with an access to university talent. She likes to create a win-win for everybody: the students gain valuable advice regarding career choice and development, and she has a pool of talent that she could potentially attract to her company.

 

And what motivates her to do all of these?

 

“At the end of the day, knowing you have made a positive impact on someone’s career,” Allen admits.

 

Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.

carsVhomes.png

US auto markets are critically important to chemists and the chemical industry.  They represent our largest single market and are worth around $60bn in chemical sales, with each auto using around $3500 of chemicals.

Today, as with housing (which I discussed a year ago), the auto market seems to be hitting a cyclical peak, with many players expecting a downturn next year. This would not be unusual, as the chart highlights.  It shows housing starts on the vertical axis versus auto sales on the horizontal axis. It suggests the industry has gone through 4 distinct phases over the past 40 years:

 

  • 1973-84, very volatile, purple. Housing starts and auto sales saw strong volumes in 1973, 1976-9, but crisis levels in 1974-5 and 1980-2
  • 1985-98, very stable, green. Auto sales were generally rising, whilst housing starts were plateauing
  • 1999-2007, Y2K and sub-prime mania, red. Easy money pushed auto and housing volumes to unsustainable levels
  • 2008-16, slowing demand, blue. Low interest rates initially supported a slow recovery in housing and auto sales, but housing starts stalled after 2014 at half the peak subprime level, although auto sales continued to rise

 

What is particularly noticeable is the way that auto sales really began to pick up from 2012, as manufacturers chose to support sales growth via a major extension in the average length of auto loans to a record 5.6 years – thereby reducing monthly payments and making cars more affordable.  Unfortunately, as we saw with the subprime disaster, increasing the number of loans generally means lowering their quality, as credit analysts Experian report:

 

  • Total auto loans reached $1.02tn in Q2 2016, up 22% from Q2 2014
  • The average loan for a new car is now $30k
  • Loans financed 87% of all new auto sales, with 31% using leases
  • Deep subprime loans are up 12% YTD, as lenders maximise interest income
  • The longest loans (up to 7 years) also have the lowest average credit score

 

Now we may be moving into pay-back time, with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon warning that “Auto is clearly a little stretched, in my opinion, someone is going to get hurt”.

One sign of the possible downturn is that auto sales fell 1% in Q3 versus 2015, despite a major increase in incentives.  These rose by $400 per vehicle to an all-time record of $3888 – higher even than in December 2008.  The average car sold over the Labor Day weekend was discounted by 10%, as dealers cleared unwanted inventory. In addition, there appears to be growing competition from the used car market.  All those new cars sold on leases since 2012 (with typically a 3-year term) are now starting to be handed back.  2016 is seeing the number of cars coming off-lease rise by more than a quarter – helping to explain the growing pressure on new car sales and pricing.

There is also a more fundamental question emerging over the long-term outlook for auto sales.  This was foreshadowed back in 2011 in a TED talk by Ford’s chairman, Bill Ford, where he warned that a “business as usual” strategy would inevitably lead to gridlock, and noted that:

“The average American spends about a week a year stuck in traffic jams, and that’s a huge waste of time and resources….

Chemists therefore perhaps need to prepare for not just a cyclical auto market downturn in 2017, but something more fundamental.  I will return to this topic, and what we can do to boost employment despite these adverse trends, in a later post.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------

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.

ParadoxBox.jpg

All that I know is that I know nothing (sometimes referred to as the Socratic paradox).

 

I know how Socrates felt.  Recent research uncovered a new paradox that worries me, one that questions my thought processes.  It is certainly not the only paradox that causes me concern. 

 

I confronted the paradox of plastic in my compost pile.  The paradox of plastic is that one of the advantages of plastic is that it lasts forever and the disadvantage of plastic is that it lasts forever.  Future archeologists will be perplexed by plastic.  Archeologists for generations found artifacts that were the special things, those made of largely immutable gold or stone.  Care was put into the craftsmanship knowing that they would last forever.  Plastic, like gold, can last for centuries.  It is cheap, not at all rare, and allows all matter of things to be made.  Cheap plastic trinkets will last for millennia, confusing future archeologists trying to assign some significance.

 

Biodegradable materials, it would seem, would be a solution. Paradoxically, people are more likely to litter when an item is biodegradable.  I myself think nothing of tossing a wooden toothpick into the shrubbery, but would never toss a plastic item the same way.  Cigarette butts are surprisingly common litter.  Studies have shown that the perception that cigarette butts are biodegradable grants smokers carte blanche to flick them anywhere they please.[i] A UN study concluded that “labelling a product as biodegradable may be seen as a technical fix that removes  responsibility from  the individual.  A perceived lower responsibility will result in a reluctance to take action.  A  survey of  littering  behaviour in  young  people in  Los  Angeles revealed  that  labelling a  product  as ‘biodegradable’  was  one of  several  factors that  would  be more  likely  to result  in  littering behavior.”[ii]  California went so far as to ban the labeling of plastics as biodegradable.[iii]  The paradox of biodegradability is that it leads to litter.

 

Sam Peltzman is credited with noting that added safety equipment leads to more accidents.[iv] Pelzman made his paradoxical observation for automotive safety.  I wouldn’t connect wearing a seat belt directly to more risky driving, but I have certainly observed many cases of personal protective equipment leading to riskier behaviors.  The paradox of added safety equipment is that it invites riskier behavior, leading to more accidents.

 

Crashes of cars on autopilot likely aren’t a manifestation of Peltzman’s paradox, but of the Yerkes-Dodson law.[v] Paradoxically, give a person too little to do and they become complacent. They stop paying attention.  The fix isn’t easy, since, giving someone too much to do overwhelms them and diminishes performance.  Texting while driving being an easy example.   Adding safety equipment, since it encourages distraction, may, paradoxically, actually make us less safe.  Alfred Nobel famously confronted this with the one-legged stool. Making nitroglycerin required an operator to watch a slowly changing temperature while feeding nitric acid. The one legged stool was the way operators were kept alert and awake given the mind-numbing task of slow addition.

 

Ivory and rhino horn are currently both in the news since proposals to farm them seem to be gaining momentum.  Conservation, it is argued, begins by placing a value on a resource.  Public markets define the value and banning the trade of ivory and rhino horn creates a clandestine market.  Clandestine markets rely on breaking laws, such as by poaching.  Opening the market to sustainably harvested materials will cause the value of the elephants and rhinos to increase.  This logic is quite similar to the forestry paradox.  Strange as it seems, it is argued that the best way to save a forest is to cut down the trees.  The paradox hinges on strong markets for wood providing incentive for land owners to keep forested land as forest, managing and harvesting the wood for maximum value. Paradoxically, cutting trees ultimately saves the forest.

 

Jevon’s paradox is equally troubling.  Jevon’s noted that increasing efficiency actually led to more consumption of coal.[vi] Jevon’s paradox, first noted the year the U.S. Civil War ended, prompted over 150 years of arguments.  Studies dissect Jevon’s paradox, or the rebound effect as it is sometimes called, into a summation of effects.  Efficiency increases cause a drop in consumption, leading to a drop in energy prices.  Lower prices lead to more use in what is labeled the direct effect.  Dropping energy prices increases liquidity leading to more consumption of other goods and services, creating an indirect increase in overall energy use.  Other effects have been identified, but are variations at a macroeconomic level of the direct and indirect effects.  No matter how it is sliced and diced, the conclusion is often that we squander efficiency gains, paradoxically using more energy overall when technology improves efficiency.

 

The most troubling paradox is one I ran across most recently.  The Science Literary Paradox is based on the observation that the best educated and most scientifically literate are the most prone to ignore the power of data to inform decision making.  In particular, in politically contentious debates, where science is at the core, the most well-read among us are most prone to what authors call motivated reasoning.  Motivated reasoning is when political or other beliefs trump scientific facts.[vii]  It seems that we are pretty good at finding data that support our world view, ignoring data that disagree.  The most educated among us are, paradoxically, the most willing to ignore data and stick with entrenched beliefs.

 

Public policy discussions rely on scientific data frequently, and seemingly at an increasing frequency.  The GMO debate, the use of vaccines and climate change are just some of the issues we face where a scientific foundation looms large. Discussions inevitably conclude that better education is the solution to resolving differences.  Sadly, the Science Literary Paradox points to education being more effective at solidifying entrenched positions. Recognition of the paradox can have a silver lining. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing the problem.  Assume the paradox is real and take action.  Be more diligent in allowing the power of data to influence your opinion. I know I will.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

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.

 


[i] Kaufman, Leslie; “Cigarette Butts: Tiny Trash That Piles Up”, The New York Times, MAY 28, 2009. 

[ii] United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP); "Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, Concerns and Impacts on Marine Environments",  November 2015, http://unep.org/gpa/documents/publications/BiodegradablePlastics.pdf

[iii] SB-567 Recycling Plastic Products (2011-2012).

[iv] Peltzman, Sam. "The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation." Journal of Political Economy 83, no. 4 (1975): 677-725. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1830396

[v] Barry, Keith; "Too Much Safety Could Make Drivers Less Safe", Wired, 27 July 2011. 

[vi] Gillingham, Kenneth, et al. "Energy policy: The rebound effect is overplayed." Nature 493.7433, 24 January 2013: pages 475-476.

[vii] Nisbet, Michael; “The Science Literacy Paradox”, Skeptical Inquirer, Sept/Oct 2016, pages 21-23. 

The ACS What Chemists Do short videos profile chemists and the diversity of careers in the scientific profession.

 

Fred Jaeger, Ph.D, is Scientist II at Bayer CropScience. Fred was involved in researching proteins that could neutralize HIV and his team discovered one called Tenascin C. Watch Fred's interview as he explains about what he loves the most about being a chemist and the skills students should have to be successful in the industry.

 

 

 

Visit www.acs.org/Industry to discover the various industry member programs at the American Chemical Society.

 

ACS Multimedia does not endorse any products or services. The views expressed in this presentation are those of the presenter and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the American Chemical Society.

protectionism.png

Protectionism is on the rise around the world, as the above map shows from Global Trade Alert (GTA).  Thousands of new measures have been introduced since the start of the financial crisis in 2008.  This is not good news for chemists, who have already suffered from the major R&D cutbacks made by companies who are pressured by investors to boost their share price in the short-term, at the expense of their long-term earnings potential.

 

Protectionism has also come to the fore in the U.S. presidential election, with both the main candidates expressing doubts about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which involves 12 Pacific Rim countries including the U.S.  It is also on the rise in Europe, where leading politicians in Germany and France have come out against the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an agreement being negotiated between the U.S. and the European Union.

 

These views parallel the plateauing that has taken place in global trade itself.  Trade has been a key driver for global economic growth, helping U.S. GDP per capita—a good proxy for living standards—to rise threefold between 1950 - 2010 from $9,651 to $30,491 (in Geary-Khamis dollars) .  Similar improvements took place in the emerging economies, with China’s GDP/capita rising 17-fold over the same period from $448 to $8,032. Even India, which has been far less successful in promoting economic growth, saw a 5-fold increase from $619 to $3,371.

 

One worrying fact is that this plateauing of global trade, and its likely impact, is still not widely recognised.  Most people still think in terms of a slowdown, which would be bad but at least manageable. Instead, countries are closing in on themselves, seeking to preserve local jobs by imposing new restrictions on foreign imports. As Justin Trudeau, Canada’s premier, has warned:

 

When the middle class are anxious about their economic realities in their future, it’s easy to get trapped in demagoguery and protectionism.”

 

Trade has now plateaued for 15 months according to the latest GTA Report, something not seen since before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This means we are looking at a world where the potential market for a new drug or other product or service could be many times smaller than in the past, due to the new barriers that are being put in place on a day-by-day basis. In turn, this makes it more likely that companies will further reduce their R&D activity creating a vicious circle.  Bill Gates recently commented on how protectionist policies will impact R&D:

 

“I wish for a week that we could shut down trade and then, you know, Boeing, Microsoft, Hollywood, pharma would resize their R&D departments for a couple of weeks for fun. And then two weeks later people would go ‘Holy smokes, that was not a very good deal’.”

 

The growth of protectionism is therefore a very serious issue for chemists and ACS members, as well as the wider population.

 

As Gates warns, closing down R&D automatically reduces jobs, something that the industry can ill afford, given the poor job market that chemists have endured in recent years.  And these are not the jobs of the “gig economy,” poorly paid, with few benefits. These are the skilled jobs which have previously been the engine of growth for the economy, and the mechanism by which individuals can create a better life for themselves and their families. Importantly, these are also the jobs that drive improvements to everyone’s standard of living – whether by providing better healthcare or in countless other ways.

 

Of course, the trend to globalisation had its critics, and many of their complaints were justified.  In China, for example, economic growth was accompanied by widespread pollution and a vast increase in corruption.  In the U.S., too many of the gains have gone to a small proportion of the population – which helps to explain why populist pressures are now growing in society.  But the risk in implementing widespread protectionist measures is that we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Instead of resolving the problems that have been created from free trade agreements, we could find ourselves going back to a world where trade and tariff barriers rule.

 

Yet as we know from history, trade wars stifle innovation, and help to create a vicious circle where opportunities for individuals and society become more and more reduced.

 

So how do we break out of this potential vicious circle? R&D is still vitally needed – not just in pharma, but in the vast range of areas that are critical to the continuing improvement of living standards, here and abroad.  I would welcome your ideas on this critical topic.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------

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.

ACS Industry

Going in Circles

Posted by ACS Industry Sep 16, 2016


There was a time when circular was bad.  Going in circles was considered a bad thing.  You had lost your way.  Circular reasoning?  Also not good.  Those times are gone.  The circular economy is popular today, embraced by many, and like so many concepts that have entered the popular psyche quickly, it has no exact definition. Its use is exploding even though most using it and most hearing it don't know what it means. They know it sounds good. But many of the implications of a circular economy are left largely unexamined, as talking points are cherry-picked to support an agenda while ignoring aspects that do not.

WeightOfWorld2.jpg

 

The foundation of the circular economy is that the earth’s resources are finite.  Sustainable use of these finite resources dictates that we leave them for future generations, that we leave Earth with the resources she had at the time of our birth.  From an atomic standpoint, this is easy.  The mass of the earth is changing imperceptibly slowly, with some light elements lost into space, very heavy elements being lost to radioactive decay, some man made elements being conjured, and some elements being delivered from the cosmos by meteors.  The number of atoms of each element – nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and the rest of the periodic table – remains imperceptibly changed from what it was when I was born, or from when the dinosaurs roamed.  The circular economy is not about atoms, but molecules and oxidation states.  That makes it fundamentally a chemical issue.

 

Most elements are not found as lone atoms, they are found as compounds. Society’s use - my use- takes resources present as compounds and chemically transforms them.  We take iron oxide, add energy to convert it to iron, use it in a way that inevitably takes it back to iron oxide.  That is already a circle, but it isn't quite that simple.  First, we take rich ores at the start.  Entropy wins, as entropy always does, and we take a low entropy source of iron and turn it into a high entropy distribution of iron around the planet, leaving it in low concentrations in landfills, by the roadside, or other places.  We also use energy in the process, energy that we can't recover to use again.  This isn’t for lack of trying.  We continue to push energy efficiency, energy recovery, co-generation and other technological solutions.  Entropy wins, as entropy always does, and makes perpetual motion impossible.  We can't start with a Joule and use it endlessly like we can with iron.  We do a really great job closing the circle with iron, if you forget about the energy. Iron is easy to sort magnetically and easy to recycle, provided you have energy. Keeping materials in the economy at the highest value use is what the circular economy strives to do, with materials like steel being successes. With almost all cases, our gaze is on the mass flow, little on the energy flow.

 

Energy can’t be ignored in the circular economy.  Again, it is a chemical problem.  A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. Our problem is that we use materials as energy  sources and, through extraction of that energy, we make them useless.  We take hydrocarbon compounds from reserves and react them with oxygen.  The combustion reaction powers and moves the world.  The reaction products are heat, water and CO2.  Photosynthesis will take the carbon dioxide and water back to carbohydrates and other materials, and geology could take it back to hydrocarbons again.  The problem is that the circle is too big.  It takes too long.  Future generations won't have the high utility resource.  A truly circular economy requires renewable energy.

 

Earth is largely a closed system when it comes to mass, but an open system when it comes to energy.  Energy flows in from the sun, nuclear decay and from gravity.  It flows out as heat radiated to space.  Entropy wins, as entropy always does, and energy is lost during our use.  Try as we might, we can't truly conserve energy.  Chemical energy converted to heat is used for work, light, and warmth, but can't be turned back into chemical energy.  The same holds for nuclear energy.  We can't get it back.

 

The chemical industry, like all other industries, burns hydrocarbon reserves for power.  Future generations are robbed of fossil energy resource, just as they are when we drive our gasoline-powered cars or turn on our gas heat. Unlike most industries, the chemical enterprise covets the hydrocarbons too, keeping more than are burned in the products made.  The largest volume products of the industry are plastics and plastics are, as Paul Hodges pointed out in his recent blog, at the heart of the circular economy discussion. Plastics are used because they cost effectively solve many problems.  They are so cost effective that they allow single use.  The single use, disposable economy is the opposite of the circular economy.

 

The weight of the world is really on us, fellow chemists.  Chemistry is the central discipline in crafting a sustainable future. It is up to us to find the ways that preserve resources and the planet for future generations.  It is not an issue of atoms, it is an issue of molecules and we are the masters of molecules.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

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.

Bevin.jpgBevin Parks cant tell you where her hometown is. Born to a homemaking mother and an educator father whose job frequently changed locations, Parks had gone through 17 physical addresses before she was 17, attending 7 different schools before graduating from high school.

 

The constant moving didnt negatively affect Parks in the way that some might expect, instead it helped shape her love for adventures, ability to face challenges, and confidence in working with people from different backgrounds.

 

A senior scientist at Afton Chemical Corporation, Parks still enjoys adventures today. And the skill set she has acquired over the years is helping her handle challenges that often come along with adventures with ease.

 

But it wasnt all rosy in the beginning.  

 

A bumpy start

 

Many chemists fell in love with chemistry at a young age, but not Parks. A self described non-traditional student, Parks completed her first two years of college study while still in high school. She thrived in all chosen subjects, except for chemistry. It just didnt click, says Parks. 

 

Fortunately, a turning point came when she had to retake general chemistry for her proposed biology major. Thanks partly to the instructors enthusiasm, the course made more sense to her this time around. The positive experience propelled her to take an organic chemistry course, and she was hooked. She loved the subject so much that she subsequently changed her major from biology to chemistry.

 

It just made sense in a way that math and physics never did to me, Parks recalls. Organic chemistry felt at once more like an art and an untapped talent.

 

Pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, with a push

 

Once she realized that chemistry was actually fun, Parks was all in. While studying for her bachelors degree in chemistry at Western Washington University, Parks worked multiple jobs for the Chemistry Department, as a stockroom clerk and a teaching assistant.

 

Noticing Parks drive and passion for chemistry, professor James Vyvyan encouraged her to get involved in research at his lab. Parks jumped at the opportunity and studied the total synthesis of heliannuol C and E, a work that helped her win the Chemistry Departments first Barbara French Duzan scholarship. 

 

Parks enjoyed her early research experience, but she didnt think about furthering her study in chemistry until Vyvyan one day asked her why not.

 

If he hadnt asked me where I was going to grad school and then challenged my reasons for not considering it, Id not be here now, Parks admits with a profound gratitude.

 

When asked why he encouraged Parks to pursue an advanced degree in chemistry, Vyvyan says, Bevin was one of my most enthusiastic students from that time period. It was her passion for all things chemistry that led me to encourage her to pursue graduate studies.

 

Striving to make an impact

 

By this time, Parks was deeply in love with everything associated with organic chemistry, but for her graduate study, she wanted to focus on research that could potentially make a real-world impact. Her desire to find her place in both synthesis and application fields led her to James Hutchisons lab at the University of Oregon, where she synthesized and studied the physical properties of bicyclic malonamide ligands preorganized for binding f-block metals.

 

With the support of the National Science Foundations Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, Parks also worked two summers as an intern at the Radiological Processing Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and taught a chemistry course at Central Oregon Community College while working on her dissertation. The unique, multidisciplinary program helped Parks acquire essential skills that could help her start a career in either research or teaching. By the end of the program Parks was well positioned to make the real-world impact she had dreamed of.

 

From academia to industry

 

Upon graduating from the University of Oregon, Parks taught full time at California State University in Chico for one semester before deciding that she wanted to give industry a try. In 2007, Parks moved to Houston to work for Champion Technologies.

 

Today, Parks believes a career path in either academia or industry can be satisfying, but back then, the decision of switching her career path from academia to industry was made easier by the perks that came with an industry position, such as more time to interact with her family.

 

After working for Champion Technologies for about 2 years, Parks in 2010 moved to Richmond to work for Afton Chemical Corporation, where she has been joggling multiple tasks as a senior chemist, a group leader, and a project manager.

 

Currently she is helping her company develop new chemicals for industrial applications, and commercialize two novel products, one of which is new to the company and the other new to the industry.

 

Open to new adventures

 

Parks says she loves chemical research and product development, either alone as an individual contributor or working with others as a team member. But in recent years she has realized that she may love the latter even more.

 

Reflecting upon her work, Parks says, the successes I have had have stemmed from my love of people and the joy I get from figuring out how we best work together to achieve our goals.

 

And that seems to be a recipe for successfully managing scientific projects.

 

Would she switch her career focus from R&D to project management then?

 

I absolutely could see my career bending in that direction, given the opportunity, Parks admits.

 

----------------------------------------------------------

 

Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.

brex.png

 

"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.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------

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.

Compost.jpg

 

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.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

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.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- --------

 

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.)

FirePic.jpg

“Stay away from the fire” was a common refrain on my recent camping trip.  We camped with a group of friends that included a family with 5-year-old and 2-year-old boys. “The fire will hurt you!”

 

Fire certainly can hurt you, yet every night we made a fire, frequently a raging fire.  We sat around it in chairs, bearing scars from the embers of past fires, wearing our camping clothes, similarly marred.  We spent the days hiking, kayaking, fishing, swimming and sailing, all activities that carry risk. I observed, for the first time ever, a giant water bug while swimming.  I didn’t know what it was when I observed it and tried to capture it for a closer look. It was Google that helped me identify it and told me about the potential for the inch long predator to deliver a painful bite, one I avoided only through luck and the water bug’s first line of defense, playing dead. 

 

I am safe and sound, a couple of blisters and mosquito bites the only negative reminders of a fun weekend.  It was a relaxing time and a time for thought. Camping is one of the few times I have to be conscious of energy.  Effort is exerted both in getting wood for a fire and also in making and maintaining the fire.  Shows like Naked and Afraid demonstrate that fire making is quite an ordeal without the fire starters, lighter and blowpipe we use.  Camping brings both energy and water to the foreground.  The flip of a switch or the turn of a tap isn't possible, even in the cushy state park campground we visited.

 

Fire is common to both home and camping.  We have a gas stove, gas water heater and gas heat. A simple turn of a valve gives me fire, but it is still fire.  We had a house near us destroyed by fire due to a faulty gas hose.  Fire is, both at the campsite and in the house, risky, yet we still use it.  We still have fire in spite of society’s quest to de-risk. 

 

Many now agree that mastery of fire is one of the things that served to make us human.  The logic goes that big brains require too much energy for a diet of only raw foods.  Anthropologists and paleontologists are doing fascinating work comparing our physiology to our ape relatives and studying why the more brawny Neanderthals were outcompeted by modern humans, with fire being one of the variables. 

 

The world of our early human ancestors was certainly riskier than ours today.  The lack of car-sized predators eyeing me as a snack is a risk I don't face. I don't face the risk of hunting game with sharp, yet still ineffective weapons.  Fire consuming the collection of sticks passing for shelter is also something I don't face. Weapons and fire are likely some of the earliest technologies humans mastered, both being major contributors to us becoming human.  Both technologies are themselves risky and both are risky in use. 

 

Humanity developed technologies and most, if not all, came with new risks. We like going faster than our legs carry us.  The horse, the wheel, the car, the plane, the Zeppelin and others are all riskier than not moving or walking, yet we overcame any risk aversion in all cases.  To this day, transportation is risky.  I take satisfaction in the materials of our industry playing a big role in improving safety of travel.  Automotive fatalities per mile driven continue to drop, enabled by better materials enabling better engineering. 

 

Car travel is likely as safe as it has ever been. It is also a place where we have raised the bar.  I remember cars without seat belts.  I remember the world before airbags and the Rube Goldberg contraptions devised as passive restraints in the pre-airbag era.  I remember thinking it sounded paradoxical to improve safety by adding an explosive device in the steering wheel – only inches away from my face.  We raised the bar on our expectation of what constituted a safe vehicle.  NASCAR drives vehicles meant to look like our street-legal cars, yet the expectation for safety is elevated.  Installing a roll cage, using a harness rather than a seat belt, and wearing a helmet will certainly increase the safety of car travel, as NASCAR proves.   I am fairly certain that electing to wear a helmet in order to increase personal safety while driving would result in adjectives like “crazy”, “looney” or the now archaic “touched” being used to describe me.  Helmets while driving, surely improving safety, raise the bar higher than we’re willing to endure.  Subjectively we determine there is too little benefit for the extra effort. Zero risk is impossible and not a useful definition of safe. Setting the bar is always subjective.  Risky technologies are at the very core of what makes us human. The history of mankind is one of taming technologies and reducing the risks that came with them to acceptable levels, never zero. 

 

Chemical risks have been on my mind, brought there by both work related and ACS volunteer activities.  Fire and chemical hazards share some traits.  Fire is both an acute and chronic hazard.  It can hurt you right now and also over time through inhalation of combustion products.   Chemicals similarly can be instantaneously dangerous and pose long term risks to individuals and the environment.

 

We have many examples where solving an acute problem creates a chronic one.  DDT killed mosquitoes that present an acute health risk.  Persistence in the environment created a chronic environmental problem. We are becoming far better at predicting risk, with great strides in predictive toxicology allowing focus on technologies where the benefits more than outweigh the risks.  In an era where significant numbers of reasonably intelligent, well-meaning folks question technologies like vaccines and GMOs, we simply have to do better. Human progress is due to assuming some risk for a greater benefit.  We need to get it right.

 

Author's NotePlease consider attending the workshop on the risk of genetic modification scheduled for the Philadelphia ACS meeting.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

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.

I’ve just returned from visiting Yosemite and Lake Tahoe for the first time.  Both places add a new dimension to the word awesome.  One night, I also had a very interesting conversation with our Airbnb host, who pointed out that almost all of his business came from the over-55 age group, a group that is generally neglected in the hospitality business: “We wouldn’t make a living without them” was his summary. And he was amazed that so many businesses still focused on the 25-54 age group to drive their revenues and profits.

The conversation was a living example of the  argument I made in my blog post last month, when  I suggested that the supply-driven models that served us so well during the Baby-Boomer-led Supercycle (when the U.S. economy suffered just 16 months of recession between 1983 and 2007) are now well past their sell-by date.  Economic growth is decelerating under the influence of today’s ageing populations.  Common sense tells us that older people already own most of what they need, and their incomes decline as they approach retirement.  New business models are needed if the chemical and pharma industries are to continue to grow revenues and profit in the future.

Hodges0707.jpg

As I found on my travels, we have to forget the conventional view that those under the age of 55 are the only demographic that matters when it comes to consumer markets.  This concept made sense when life expectancy was close to retirement age, but it makes no sense at all today.  Latest data from Social Security shows the average 65 year-old male can now expect to live to age 84, and a woman till age 87.

The key issue, as the chart above highlights (based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data), is that household spending patterns change quite dramatically with age:

  • The under-25s have least money, with many dependent on their parents for accommodation, and for financial support through college
  • Between 25 -34, spending increases by nearly 60% as people’s careers develop and they begin to settle down and set up home
  • Between 35 – 44, spending increases a further 25%, as family needs develop, particularly for those with children, whilst their incomes continue to rise
  • Spending then peaks between the ages of 45 - 54, when it is double the spend of the under-25s as family needs and incomes peak
  • Between 55 – 64, spending drops by 16% as children leave home and needs reduce, as people own most of what they need and prepare for retirement
  • After 65, spending is 25% below peak levels, as people move into retirement
  • At 75 and over, spending is almost back to the level of the under-25s

Another critical factor, of course, is that people’s needs change quite dramatically as they get older. The ageing of the Baby Boomers has meant that U.S. housing markets, for example, have seen a reversal of their Supercycle demand patterns.  Large McMansion-size single family homes in the suburbs are no longer the growth area. Instead, apartment-living in city centers is coming back into fashion, as the Boomers prefer to drive less and to be closer to shops, friends and medical services.

In turn, this change is impacting driving habits, with latest Department of Transport data showing average vehicle miles driven per adult have fallen by 6% to 12500 miles/year since the 2004 peak.  And, of course, the decline in spending power with age highlights the need for companies to think in terms of affordability rather than always focusing on opportunities for premium pricing.

Increasing life expectancy is one of humanity’s great triumphs.  If it means lower, or even negative economic growth, then I can’t imagine many of us would worry too much about the trade-off involved.  But it does mean that our business models need to adapt to this New Normal world.  We have to recognise that success will come from developing products that match demand, rather than only focusing on supply.  In simple terms, one-size no longer fits all.

---------------------------------------------------------------

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.

 

Paul's biannual ACS Webinar on chemistry and the economy will be held on Thursday, July 21, at 2 PM ET. Join us for Chemistry and the Economy: The Brexit, Challenges of Over-Supply and the End of Bank Stimulus.https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars/business-entrepreneurship/hodges -2016.htmlPaul Hodges and Bill Carroll, another Industry Voices contributor, will share how the Brexit, oversupply and the demand in emerging markets are shaping the economy for chemists.