Answers from Prof. Tom Barton, Candidate for ACS President-ElectOctober 5th, 2012
Earlier this week, I sent a questionnaire to the two current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The first candidate to respond is Tom Barton, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Iowa State University. I have posted his responses below, in full.
Thank you, Professor Barton, for responding and engaging the online community of chemists on these matters of great importance to the society!
Response of Prof. Tom Barton, Candidate for ACS President-Elect
Thanks for giving me an opportunity to take a shot at these important questions. You will see in my responses that I don’t have the complete picture on any of them. If elected I would plan on spending a significant portion of the first year getting that picture and probing membership on their views on these and other concerns.
1. What are your thoughts on the ACS vs. Leadscope case? Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?
For those who are not up to date on this case, as I wasn’t when first asked about it, there is an excellent summary by Marianna Bettman, an Ohio law professor to be found at http://www.legallyspeakingohio.com/2012/09/merit-decision-am-chem-soc-v-leadscope-thumbs-up-on-unfair-competition-claim-thumbs-down-on-defamation-claim/. I found it to be an excellent discussion. As only a candidate, I do not know the intimate details of how and why ACS got into this, nor of the situation that they face at the moment. Thus, I must reply with the general statement that I have always believed and always have acted on the principle that openness is the best policy. In my lifetime, the most dramatic examples of the dangers of secretiveness were perhaps in the behavior of the Atomic Energy Commission, who wrongly believed and operated under the premise of “the public doesn’t need to know”, when in fact the public had a desperate need to know. There are many more examples where secretive behavior by parts of government ultimately created situations far worse than complete openness would have produced. Thus, as ACS president I would want to see all the history and strive to make all that was pertinent and not legally encumbered available to the entire ACS membership. Yes, that includes legal fees.
2. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?
I have received a number of enquiries as to my views in this arena, and conclude that a lot of people feel rather strongly about this issue. In tracking down the actual numbers I found different ones in different sources but they are all awe-inspiring. It is important to remember that executive compensation operates within a market. If your compensation is not competitive, there is real risk that you can lose the type of talent that you need for the organization to succeed. That said, the membership of ACS has every right to request and get an explanation for the magnitude of these salaries. There is an annual process by which the salaries are set and thus, the ACS can provide the rationale(s) involved and report to membership (via C&EN) why the salaries are what they are. Said report should provide examples from similar societies, keeping in mind that ACS is not only the world’s largest scientific society, but certainly the most complex (and D.C. is hardly the least expensive place to live). I would support a policy that in the future, salary histories of all employees making over some minimal level would be annually reported to the membership in C&EN. Again, this is a simple matter of openness. If one is not prepared to justify how one is spending someone else’s money, one should not spend it in that fashion.
I would add that where I have worked for the past 45 years, Iowa State University, all faculty and staff salaries are published annually in the newspaper (now on paper’s website). The only time this has bothered me is when I was not included because my salary did not reach the minimum!
Lastly I would note that I do not see the logic in giving everyone a bonus every year. The only reasonable justification for a bonus is that the employee exceeded your expectations. If you are giving bonuses every year, you need to rethink your expectations. Once again, if there are good reasons, all that is needed is to inform membership of them
3. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS publications charges companies and universities to access journals?
I don’t have the data to take a reasoned stance on this at this time. I’ll have to get it, however, as I have had a couple of interesting emails about this in the past few days, which have caused me to have some potential concerns. It is hardly unreasonable for users to be concerned about the costs of necessary materials, and ACS needs to be sensitive to the real fiscal constraints in the budgets of their members/subscribers. Using profits resulting from ACS publications to fund other parts of the operations, considered to be of significant value, up to a point seems reasonable to me. I can see no reason not to inform membership of the details, specifics and magnitudes, and then try to get feedback via the local sections. Once again it is a simple matter of openness. If you are not proud to tell people what you are doing with the money, you need to rethink what you are doing with the money. Actually I imagine that ACS has an admirable story to tell here. As I said, I don’t have enough information to provide a detailed answer at this time, and that is largely because such information is difficult to obtain. There clearly is considerable concern about pricing out there (e.g. www.attemptingelegance.com and www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/12/02/acs ) but “tiered pricing”, “value-based pricing” and confidential negotiations with individual institutions have made it difficult to see a clearly defined pricing picture. One group truly stands out as having serious problems and that is small liberal-arts colleges with quite small chemistry departments, who have to pay what to them are very large sums of money to subscribe to the number of credible chemistry journals required for ACS accreditation. With the fiscal situations of these institutions being often dire, it has become difficult if not impossible for them to comply. I strongly believe that we need to work on a solution to this problem. I also believe that there must be solutions, as our reason for existence is to serve our members.
A question I have, and have not yet found an answer, is has there been an accounting of the actual costs of publication now versus the pre”technology-revolutionized” costs. Surely the costs have been lowered by electronic publishing, and one might have expected that to be reflected in subscription costs. Maybe it has been, or perhaps the loss of revenue from individual subscriptions has more than offset any savings. I don’t know, and I’m sure many members would like to see a C&EN article addressing this situation.
4. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?
I would prepare a series of profound video vignettes of the great successes of chemistry which have benefitted the world (and the U.S. economy) to be shown via every possible media outlet, and to be used for workshops for Congressional legislative staffs. The purpose is to help the general public, and quite importantly, lawmakers understand that support of chemistry is an investment with a long history of success. This is of course not a new idea, but is the best one of which I know. A key will be how to find affordable ways to get the message out. Purchasing commercial broadcast time is very expensive, so leveraging new media like social media and the blogosphere would have to part of the answer. While I don’t consider the public’s perception of chemistry to be quite the problem that once was the case, this effort to get the word out that ours is an enabling science will always be with us.
5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?
I realize that it is comforting to hope that there is one silver bullet or some magic pill that will make everything alright again, but it just isn’t going to happen. In recent months I have spoken and written about my belief that it is entrepreneurship which has the best chance of building a new employment base for chemistry in America. However, for this narrowly focused question I would try to address the issues that have caused and are still causing our jobs to depart our country. Although I am usually loath to address a problem with a meeting, I would propose a summit meeting of the industrial leaders of chemistry to develop a list of factors that make leaving America attractive; kiss off the ones we really can’t deal with (e.g. lower wages elsewhere) and get to work on the ones we can. Understand that lower labor costs are not the only issues in this game. As I discussed a bit on my website, there is no surer route to moving jobs out of America than to impose unreasonable regulations on American industry. This may be an unpopular subject to raise, and I am sure will engender some cries of anguish, but if there is anything within the bounds of ethical behavior that can be done to produce and protect jobs for American chemists, we must do it. The health of the American chemical industry is of utmost importance to us and we must not forget this.
6. What is your favorite element and why?
Hey! I thought the softball question is supposed to come at the beginning of an interview. That having been said, I’ll answer it. Silicon. Why? Because it is so close to carbon, yet so far away in its behavior. I am particularly enchanted by the richness of its thermochemistry as compared to that of carbon. For example, the isomerization of the carbene analog, R2Si:, to a silene analog of an olefin, RHSi=C<, is essentially isothermal! Or that SiH4 thermally decomposes to H2 + :SiH2 in a single concerted step. Compare these observations with the drastically different cases in organic chemistry.
Note: Any response provided by Prof. Barton’s opponent in this election, Prof. Luis Echegoyen, will be posted within a day of its receipt.