The STEM industries are in the midst of a skills crisis. Across all branches, companies are struggling to recruit new entrants into technical and research roles. At the same time, schools and universities are finding it difficult to interest young people in studying STEM subjects, in particular, failing to encourage women and minorities. The STEM recruitment crisis is particularly pronounced in certain disciplines—including chemistry. A recent survey of 186 chemists from the private sector and academia found more than a third (36 percent) believe the lack of new chemistry students constitutes a crisis for the industry. The survey, undertaken in 2017, sheds light on the state of recruitment and interest in the chemistry industry; and chemistry’s contribution to the STEM skills crisis is notable for a number of reasons.
Chemistry’s public image problem
Chemistry has an image problem. It’s not as ‘sexy’ as biology with its high-profile programs like the Human Genome project, or successful attempts at cloning. Physics has also had its share of the spotlight, with initiatives such as the Large Hadron Collider often making the headlines. In fact, 78 percent of chemists believe that part of the recruitment issue is attributable to chemistry’s perceived lack of ‘newsworthy’ innovations compared to other sciences. Although the chemistry industry makes invaluable contributions to providing clean water, engineering better medicines, and renewable energy, many of these achievements are made behind the scenes and are not widely publicized.
This lack of recognition is because the role of chemistry is typically misconstrued. More than half (51 percent) of chemists think the public has no understanding of the role chemistry plays in solving some of the biggest challenges society is facing, such as combating the effects of climate change. There is also false public perception that some of the most visible scientific breakthroughs are more closely associated with biology than chemistry. However, many of the biggest chemistry breakthroughs of the past century have had a wide-reaching impact—from LCD screens to plastic and penicillin. While penicillin was indeed a huge breakthrough for biology, the ability to purify it and make it usable was enabled by a group of chemists. All these factors combined have led to the erroneous idea that chemistry is somehow not as innovative as other scientific disciplines.
Building a Silicon Valley of chemistry
As a result of this image problem, the chemistry industry is losing students and graduates, with more than three-quarters (76 percent) of chemists stating there is either a long-standing or growing problem in attracting new talent to the industry. Often, these potential students and employees are looking to industries which are seen as more exciting, such as technology. To combat this brain drain, chemistry businesses and institutions need to build environments that scientists of all ages want to work in. Today, that means maximizing the use of technology to drive scientific discovery and innovation. This is particularly important, because according to the overwhelming majority (84 percent) of chemists, being ‘tech-savvy’ is fundamental to progression in the chemistry industry.
In today’s data-driven world, a tech-focused environment must equip chemists with tools that help them to cut through the noise – which will only grow as chemists generate, and gain access to, ever-more data. There are, for instance, approximately 2.5 million new scientific papers alone published each year. Taking the lead from the tech sector, this means adopting the user-friendly style, speed, and delivery of content of technologies used in a personal capacity (such as Google and Facebook), and applying the relevant features to workplace tools. Chemists must be able to quickly search massive data repositories and have the most relevant data presented to them via intuitive tech tools. Access to necessary information on-demand is particularly important in the increasingly competitive world of research, where chemists must keep up with their peers.
Attracting the chemists of tomorrow
To attract the chemists of tomorrow, the industry must do better at presenting itself as innovative. Chemistry must begin talking about its accomplishments as an industry, as well as highlighting the role it plays, and the good it does, in society. The future of science is now firmly in the hands of the next generation. Today’s student chemists and new entrants into the industry will be the ones to apply new thought processes and tools to existing research, and bring an innovative approach that will be vital for future breakthroughs. To facilitate these advancements, chemistry must offer a welcoming, dynamic and future-gazing environment. This means giving chemists the means to accelerate research—via purpose-built solutions that can search, retrieve and present data in minutes rather than days—in order to solve the challenges faced by our changing world.