Archive for the ‘Chemistry & The Public’ Category

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Diane Schmidt, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark is publishing each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. Dr. Chuck Kolb’s answers and Dr. Bryan Balazs answers ran in previous posts. The next candidate to respond is Dr. Diane Schmidt (whose response was delayed due to jury duty). Her answers appear below.

Don’t forget to vote in the ACS national elections!

 

Response of Dr. Diane Schmidt, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

Apathy is difficult to cure. One suggestion would be to have greater publicity in C&EN (perhaps a cover article) to raise the profile and awareness of the national elections. The option to vote electronically does not appear to have had the impact of  greater participation in the national elections that was expected.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

Journal pricing is complex and is probably best understood by dealing in specifics for specific schools and companies rather than generalities.  When I get these questions, I always refer people to Pubs.  In many cases there are custom solutions that can be crafted for individual circumstances.

My view is that ACS journals offer high value and high impact at competitive pricing. The quality and the value of the trusted, peer reviewed information provided by ACS journals is a very good value vs. other publishers.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

Full transparency is important. Perhaps a C&EN comment on the process that is used would help get everyone on the same page as to what is actually in place and the process that is used to determine compensation.

You may remember that the Board held a town meeting on Executive Compensation after Council in Fall, 2005, and perhaps a refresher is in order via a C&EN comment. C&EN calls attention to the ACS Form 990 filing each year and tells readers how to access that document on acs.org. Here’s the link to the 990 notice on page 6 of C&EN.

http://www.cendigital.org/cendigital/20121210??pg=8&search term=990&doc id=-1&search term=990#pg8 

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case? Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

Full transparency is important.

The background as I recall is that all public reports on Leadscope in the early days were modulated by the fact that it was active litigation.  The events relating to the litigation go back to 1998. For a long time, virtually nothing happened, then there was the trial.

For nearly a year after the settlement in 2012, an extensive Q&A was advertised on the front page of the ACS website. It can still be found at:

http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/aboutacs/acs-v-leadscope-questions-and-answers.html

One of the difficulties I think with this case is it spanned quite a number of years perhaps making it difficult to follow. My impression is there were regular updates in C&EN over the course of the legal proceedings as the case unfolded, reports in Council of the case status by the Chair of the Board, as well as updates in the Councilor Bulletin. Perhaps a summary in C&EN tying all of the bits and pieces together that were published over time as the case unfolded would be helpful with links to the publically available information. My understanding is that the Chair of the Board reports which include Leadscope are posted on the ACS website.

The most recent report on Leadscope and the financial impact on ACS was by the Chair of the Board  and was presented in Council last Spring. I believe his remarks are posted on the ACS web.

My understanding is that the proceedings of this case are in the public record. To read a summary of the case prepared by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Office of Public Information, click here: http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cases/2012/SCO/0918/101335.asp

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

Outreach. Chemistry improves the lives of all. Communicating specific examples such as chemistry’s role in clean water, food safety, medicinal improvements, diagnostic techniques, etc.  that the general public experiences daily, but does not identify as chemistry. This would help make the connection between the role of chemistry and the improvements the general public experiences in daily life because of the contributions of chemists and chemistry. The ACS Landmarks Program does this to some degree. During the International Year of Chemistry, many examples of how chemistry improves life daily were posted on the ACS website. There is an opportunity to go the next step and more broadly communicate these.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

Ensure that all members and all chemists know of and have access to the many ACS employment tools and services already in place. Work with staff and members to further enhance, expand and improve these tools.

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

My favorite chemical compound is caffeine, especially delivered in chocolate. It was my first total synthesis as an undergraduate.

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Bryan Balazs, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark will publish each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. Dr. Chuck Kolb’s answers ran last week. The next candidate to respond is Dr. Bryan Balazs. His answers appear below.

Don’t forget to vote in the ACS national elections!

Edit: This post has been corrected to include the correct spelling of “Balazs”. (We regret the error!)

 

Response of Dr. Bryan Balazs, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Hi Paul,

With the excitement of the Nobel prizes now (somewhat) behind us, here are my responses to your questions posed below.  Let me know if there are any statements that need additional clarification, and thanks for the opportunity to address your readership on these important topics.

Cheers,
Bryan

PS:  If the answers are too long, I can shorten them.

 

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

I wish this were a higher percentage, as elections are the opportunity for all members to have a voice in who will be the representative of their Society to the membership, to the public, to government, and to other countries.  The ACS is the largest scientific society in the world and with this size come challenges in effective engagement with the membership.  The candidates do have different strengths, backgrounds, and platforms, and the ACS President definitely can influence the future of the Society.  What the low turnout tells us is either: A) members do not follow the elections or care about the outcome, B) the reason they are ACS members is unlikely to be influenced very much by who the President is, or C) members do not know any of the candidates and don’t wish to participate in an election without having an informed vote.  If would like to understand the relative influence of each of these three possibilities, and if there are other reasons  Until we get this information, what can we do in the meantime to improve this?  Here are a few ideas I would like to suggest:  1. The members don’t get many opportunities to interact with the candidates and vice versa. The current election rules are very restrictive and so, we should explore ways for the candidates to reach out to members, and the ACS could provide more resources for the candidates to facilitate this; 2. To make it easier to vote, ACS should move towards a default of electronic voting rather than the current paper ballot with an option to vote online; 3. Members who vote can influence and encourage friends and colleagues to vote.  This sounds simple but can have a huge effect in the voting rates; and finally 4. We can nurture voting regularity in younger members by providing some kind of membership incentives as a result of voting.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

I have heard from many members, especially those at small colleges or companies that the journal prices are raising at an unsustainable rate for them and they wish that there were other pricing options.  This is indeed a problem not only for ACS publications but also other publications like Nature, to the point where universities are considering boycotting journal subscriptions.  Also, there has been an increase in open access journals, a trend ACS has to keep in mind. While there should be no restrictions in the spread of knowledge, unfortunately, publishing and circulation of these journals (both online and physical copies) does come with costs.  We need to explore ways to keep these costs under control, and academia, industry and the scientific societies need to have a serious dialogue on this issue.  This needs to happen because it directly affects our members.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

Within any organization, the pay that an employee receives should correspond to the value that this employee provides to the organization, and the ACS should be no different.  All salaries must be benchmarked against market conditions, keeping in mind that the ACS is a complex non-profit organization with over 160,000 members, about 2000 staff members, and about a billion dollars in assets.  Executive compensation packages should reflect this, and the ACS has been very transparent about this information; see https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/aboutacs/financial.html (see part VII in the 2011 IRS Form 990 for info on executive compensation).

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case?  Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

I am familiar with only the basic facts of the case, such as those published by the ACS in C&EN or in the Councilor bulletins.  To be honest, I really don’t have a strong opinion in this case, but it sounds like the ACS made logical decisions as the legal process unfolded.  The ACS has said that the legal judgment against the ACS will not affect member dues or benefits, and I take their word on this.

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

The public listens to celebrities and other people in the public spotlight, and I believe we should tap into this.  Many of these people are enthusiastic about science, so why not partner with them to help spread the message about the value of chemistry (science in general)?  I think having actor Alan Alda at the recent national meeting in Indianapolis was a superb idea, and I would do more of this.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

This is a complex issue, but ACS can do a better job of bridging the employers with new opportunities (employees).  My thoughts are as follows:

There is no doubt that chemists are in a competitive job market in the current challenging economic times.  In my opinion, applicants need three things to land a job: 1) they need to find out about job openings (this goes without saying), 2) they need to have the required skills for the job, and 3) they need to outshine the competition when it comes to the application and interview process.  The ACS needs stronger efforts for its members in each of these areas.  Quite frankly, the ACS does not do a very good job at identifying for its members where the jobs are and who IS hiring (item number 1).  This can be improved by coming up with a database of websites that ACS member can use to locate the jobs that they might be qualified for, including companies that are “non-traditional” employers of chemists.  With item number 2, skills, I feel that in the fast changing competition from talent around the world, we need to constantly encourage our students and work force to keep learning new skills, even while in a job.  One of the latest trends in our education system is the onset of online courses.  I will extend my efforts to explore collaborations between ACS and institutions offering such courses to benefit our members.  For item number 3, the ACS has good resources to help members polish their resume, work through the application process, etc., but surprisingly few members take advantage of these resources.  We need to find out why, and we need to improve this.  One of the areas we can improve is to offer online services for those seeking help with item number 3.

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

I have lots of favorite chemicals and elements, but one that comes to mind is malachite green, or [C6H5C(C6H4N(CH3)2)2]Cl.  My organic chemistry professor in college, who had a rather mischievous sense of humor, had the students synthesize malachite green in the organic lab around St. Patrick’s Day.  Malachite green is a very intense dye, and the end result of all these students synthesizing this compound was that the hallways of the chemistry building turned green, and students’ furniture, clothes, bedsheets, and so forth had a green tinge.  Pretty amusing, unless of course you had a car with white leather seats…!

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Charles Kolb, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark will publish each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. The first candidate to respond was Dr. Chuck Kolb. His response appears below. (The answers of Dr. Bryan Balazs can be found in this thread.)

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Response of Dr. Chuck Kolb, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Paul:

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to the important questions you have distributed to candidates for 2014 ACS President-Elect. My initial responses are listed after each of your questions below. If I am fortunate enough to be elected, I expect to be more deeply involved with the ACS Board of Directors and executive staff as we deal with several of the issues you have raised. I look forward to learning more about them during my “apprentice” year as President-Elect.

Regards,
Chuck

 

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

A much higher voter participation rate in ACS elections would be a very healthy development. It would help ensure that issues of direct importance to members, not just to ACS’s governance volunteers, have the highest priority. Some ACS governance debates have an “inside the beltway” flavor that might seem strange to a majority of our members. However, this is not just and ACS problem, I belong to several other scientific societies with similar voter participation levels in their elections. Scientists and engineers are busy people and will not spend time on things that believe might not be very important or where they do not know what is at stake.

To do better we need to be sure the voting procedure is easy and quick and that the voters know what is at stake. I think that recent advances in on‐line voting are addressing the first requirement. I believe that greater transparency and more effective communication from the ACS Board of Directors, including the presidential succession members, might address the second requirement. If elected, I will advocate that ACS’s Board prepare and publish an annual “report card” to the members where they summarize the major issues they are addressing, what they have accomplished in the reporting year and what they intend to do in the coming year.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

I am very concerned about the escalation in journal subscription costs. Particularly their impact on both smaller and/or poorer academic institutions and smaller businesses, that need access to compete effectively, but really struggle to meet ever increasing fees. This is a serious problem in the U.S., but an even more serious problem in the developing world. For this and other reasons I believe that scientific publishing will soon be dominated by open access journals and that the ACS needs to work very hard to figure out how to meet that challenge while maintaining adequate revenue to sustain the quantity and quality of our publications.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

ACS’s senior executive staff is very well compensated. To some extent this is understandable because ACS is a large and complex organization that requires highly capable full‐time professional management, despite the uncompensated leadership and management skills of its thousands of volunteer members who play key governance roles. Also, ACS must compete with both for‐profit and other non‐profit science based organizations for executive talent, and their leaders’ compensation is generally at historic highs.

Organizational transparency is required to keep this issue in perspective and under control. I agree with Tom Barton, ACS’s current President‐Elect, who recommended an annual report on ACS executive staff compensation levels and their rationale, including available comparisons with similar positions at other major scientific societies, be published annually in C&E News, when responding to ChemBark on this question last year.

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case? Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

A similar question was asked of each of the four initial 2014 President‐ Elect candidates at our candidate’s forum during the 2013 Spring ACS National Meeting in New Orleans. I was the only candidate who stated directly that the Leadscope suit was a clear and costly mistake. It resulted in very serious monetary losses, for both judgment penalties and legal fees. It also tarnished the ACS’s reputation for fairness and sound business practices.

Since then, Bill Carroll, Chair of ACS’s Board of Directors did publish, in C&E News, a summary explanation of the case and its costs addressed to ACS members. At this point I am less interested in debating whether Bill’s summary was fully transparent than I am in working to ensure that both ACS’s professional and volunteer leaders learned from this mistake and that both will react more effectively if facing similar challenges in the future.

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

Many ACS members are skilled teachers, educating both future chemists and a much larger number of future voters and societal leaders. Recognizing their importance, I proposed the following in my candidate’s statement:

“ACS needs to continue helping educators at all levels to effectively present the beauty of fundamental chemistry. But we also need to help them convey the critical role chemistry can and must play to sustain and enhance our economy, security, health and environment. ACS’s education oriented staff and committees have started addressing this challenge; their efforts need to be supported and expanded, so the large fraction of ACS members who teach can be engaged and empowered.”

If elected, I will work hard with other interested members to promote this strategy.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

I will work to ensure under-employed and unemployed chemists, as well as ACS members in general, are informed enough by ACS programming, publications, webinars, etc. to exploit the opportunities they will have to address critical societal challenges that require need better chemistry to be successfully addressed. My candidate’s statement describes the challenge of helping ACS members be prepared to “seize the future:”

“Nearly all of the critical challenges facing our world have significant chemical components. ACS must help our current and future members better understand how their vision and their skills can contribute to a more prosperous and sustainable future. The fact that too many ACS members are unemployed or under‐employed, while most global challenges need chemical insight and innovation to be addressed successfully, is a travesty. ACS needs to develop more effective ways to help current and future members orient their interests and capabilities to successfully address critical problems. ACS also needs to motivate both private and public investments to ensure resources exist to fund the science needed for progress.”

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

My favorite chemical color is the blue-green patina of copper sulfate that I first noticed on the architectural surfaces in the coal-burning town where I grew up. That colorful corrosion first showed me that the atmosphere contained invisible, but powerful, chemicals that probably had other important effects beyond turning church roofs blue-green, leading to a career long fascination with atmospheric chemistry.

Nocera on BBC Horizons

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Nice…

 

Of course, it’d be even nicer with safety glasses.

Also, beautiful new labs. Yum.

Awful Idea: Liquid Nitrogen at a Pool Party

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

There is video circulating tonight of a summer party in Mexico where organizers poured liquid nitrogen into the swimming pool. They weren’t messing around, either—you can see a number of ~10 L dewars being upended into the water.

 

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Of course, this is a very, very bad idea. Under these conditions, the nitrogen (b.p. = −196 °C) quickly boils and displaces all of the oxygen present, causing people in the area to asphyxiate. Remember, it only takes 28 g of liquid nitrogen to displace 22.4 L of air at standard temperature and pressure. The fact that you are asphyxiating is masked by your ability to exhale carbon dioxide normally, so the burning sensation you experience when holding your breath or drowning is absent. Furthermore, the thick fog produced upon mixing the liquid nitrogen and water conceals any distress.

It looks like multiple people were hurt at the party and needed to be rescued.

News reports, updated 21 June 2013: Daily Mail (corrected most of the wrong chemistry, but a caption referencing a reaction with chlorine remains), Latin Rapper Blog (corrected to get the chemistry right; gives ChemBark a shout out, see comments), International Science Times (gets it right, credits ChemBark), Excelsior (gets the chemistry wrong), Fox News (gets the chemistry wrong), MSN Now (gets the chemistry wrong), Huffington Post UK (gets chemistry mostly right, credits ChemBark, but still needs to correct photo captions), NY Daily News (gets the chemistry wrong), The Sun (gets the chemistry wrong), The Telegraph (gets the chemistry wrong in the headline), Popular Science (gets the chemistry right, includes interview and link to ChemBark), Slate (corrected the story to get the chemistry right).

Deborah Blum covered the misreports by the media of the chemistry at play on the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) site. The post links to ChemBark.

Updated note to media: Many outlets have reported that liquid nitrogen will react with chemicals in swimming pools to generate a poisonous gas. This is almost certainly incorrect. Molecular nitrogen is relatively inert and should not react with anything present in the pool, like “chlorine” (mostly, NaOCl) or water. The danger of adding liquid nitrogen to the pool stems simply from the nitrogen’s boiling and pushing away all of the oxygen around, leaving none for the swimmers to breathe. The cloud that is present has nothing to do with poison gas. Rather, it is the same thing as fog. The liquid nitrogen is cold and cools the air close to the pool to the point that water vapor in the air condenses into very tiny droplets that stay suspended. The cloud is fog, generated from the same effect responsible for your being able to “see your breath” when you exhale on a cold day. The visible cloud is not nitrogen and it is not smoke; it is droplets of water suspended in an atmosphere of air that is heavily enriched in nitrogen.

Sue the “Chemical-Free” Bastards

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Chemical Free Beauty ProductsWhile I’m an idealist at heart, in my old age, I’ve increasingly found myself giving in to apathy and letting things slide more often. In the shower this weekend, I saw another one of my fiancée’s hair-care products advertised as “chemical free” and was soon awash in the same frustration expressed in this old post. The phrase “chemical free” is profoundly stupid, it is damaging to our field, and the problem is getting worse. While a lot of frustration has been expressed by a small group of chemists online, I’ve seen no effective campaign against the stupidity of the term “chemical free.” On the flip side, you’ve got another group of chemists who find the argument against “chemical free” to be pedantic, and some have even embraced the term for use in lab.

While I might be closer to abandoning this cause in favor of apathy, I don’t think the problem is worth giving up on just yet. Previously, I have lobbied bench chemists to become more involved in educating the public, suggested that the ACS develop a “war room” to address misinformation in the mainstream media, and volunteered a first draft of a pro-chemicals ad campaign. But maybe that’s my idealism talking. “Positive” approaches, where we tout the benefits of chemistry, require a lot of effort and take time to bring about change. Perhaps it would be more effective to adopt a negative approach? And, of course, what approach could be more negative than to sue?

SUE, SUE, SUE!

Yes, let’s start suing companies that advertise their products as “chemical free”. Make the dummies hurt where it counts: their wallets.

You see, there are laws that require truth-in-advertising, and many of them should be directly applicable to “chemical free” cases. The Federal Trade Commission has explained its policy for how it judges whether or not it will act on potentially deceptive ads:

Certain elements undergird all deception cases. First, there must be a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer. Practices that have been found misleading or deceptive in specific cases include false oral or written representations, misleading price claims, sales of hazardous or systematically defective products or services without adequate disclosures, failure to disclose information regarding pyramid sales, use of bait and switch techniques, failure to perform promised services, and failure to meet warranty obligations.

Second, we examine the practice from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances. If the representation or practice affects or is directed primarily to a particular group, the Commission examines reasonableness from the perspective of that group.

Third, the representation, omission, or practice must be a “material” one. The basic question is whether the act or practice is likely to affect the consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to a product or service. If so, the practice is material, and consumer injury is likely, because consumers are likely to have chosen differently but for the deception. In many instances, materiality, and hence injury, can be presumed from the nature of the practice. In other instances, evidence of materiality may be necessary.

Thus, the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.

So, there are three major criteria for an ad to meet: (i) it must be deceptive, (ii) it must have an impact on a “reasonable” consumer, and (iii) it must induce a material change in behavior on the part of a consumer. Any product which advertises itself as “chemical free” easily meets these three criteria.

First, everything that I have come across as “chemical free” (e.g., cosmetics, fertilizer, sunscreen) has contained chemicals, so the claim is a false written representation of the product. Second, the fear of chemicals is so widespread in society that it is more than reasonable for an average, uneducated consumer to care whether something is “chemical free”. Finally, a “chemical free” label can easily have a material effect in that a chemophobic consumer could choose to purchase a falsely labeled product over a competing product that is not labeled “chemical free” yet contains the same active chemicals.

Unfortunately, it is probably unreasonable for any halfway-decent chemist to claim he was fooled by something as scientifically nonsensical as “chemical free.” But, a class-action lawsuit waged by a group of typical (chemophobic) consumers who’ve purchased a chemical-free product could easily have merit.

Perhaps even more effective would be for a major company (with hefty legal resources) to file lawsuits claiming damages due to unfair business practices. It is unfair to have to compete against rival products that benefit from advertising with false claims. Let’s see these smaller companies have to defend themselves against the giants. Unfortunately, there’s no single chemical-free product on the market that is successful enough to make such a lawsuit a worthwhile cause.

Outside of lawsuits, what can you do? Well, the FTC has an FAQ about what sorts of ads are potentially deceptive, and you can contact them to register a complaint about products making false claims. Some complaints they pursue and some they don’t, but their decisions carry the weight of the law and they can issue cease-and-desist orders as well as fines. You can also register complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and state/local consumer protection offices.

I’m not saying that lawsuits are the best approach to solving the problem, but in some cases, insisting on the enforcement of existing laws might be an effective solution to the proliferation of all this “chemical free” nonsense.