Skip to Main Content

Cover Story

January 4, 2010
Volume 88, Number 1
pp. 2 - 5

Being Competitive In The Global Marketplace

Joseph S. Francisco

  • Print this article
  • Email the editor
Renaissance couple: The Franciscos, Joseph and Priya.
Renaissance couple The Franciscos, Joseph and Priya.
Peter Cutts Photography (Both)

Text Size A A

Peter Cutts Photography Peter Cutts Photography

It is an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the 2010 American Chemical Society president. The coming year will be exciting as together we explore new opportunities that will further define ACS as the premier organization for chemists and chemical engineers and help position us as a pivotal partner in ensuring our members are ready to take their place in the global marketplace.

My role, and the role of all ACS elected officials and staff, is to serve our members and improve our society. Of course, that must be done in accordance with ACS’s congressional charter, which states, in part, that we also serve the overall chemical enterprise. In short, ACS has a dual role: to advocate for its members and simultaneously to serve the overall chemical enterprise. I believe there is congruence in these two aims.

A key part of my decision to seek the society’s presidency was my desire to be a catalyst for helping our members and future members develop the skills necessary to meet the needs and expectations of employers, especially those in the global chemical enterprise. There are four areas that I will focus on that will have an underlying global perspective: education, innovation, employment, and partnerships.

New Age For Global Education

It’s been more than a quarter century since the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its dire warning about a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the U.S. in its seminal report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” Although we have made strides toward reversing that trend, we now face another equally critical education challenge: preparing our chemistry and chemical engineering students with the skill sets necessary for them to be competitive and successful amid a growing tsunami of globalization.

One way for us to prepare for and be competitive in the global marketplace is to ensure that ACS takes a strong leadership role in the education system for the chemical sciences. To start, we need to determine what we can do to better prepare our students for a chemical enterprise that requires global skills. I propose three steps:

■ Engage leaders of the global chemical enterprise and ask them what training we need to give our young students so that they can be successful employees in the global marketplace. This might involve bringing together chief technical officers and heads of R&D from some of the leading global chemical companies and asking them to identify the skill sets they value and look for when they are recruiting new scientists and engineers.

■ In concert with the input from industry leaders, engage leaders of academia and government in a dialogue about new curriculum directions that can best prepare students for the challenges they will face in the global marketplace. It would be beneficial to also include in this dialogue young entrepreneurs who have achieved success through their introduction of new ideas and innovations. Sometimes I think we are stymied by trying to recycle old ideas rather than looking at new out-of-the-box ways of doing things.

A Profile Of Joseph S. Francisco

It is my belief that an individual’s character and life decisions are developed through opportunities they are provided, along with the abilities to capture those opportunities when they are made available. Looking at my life, I realize these opportunities are what helped me grow into the person I have become today.

As I was growing up in Beaumont, Texas, my possibilities were limited because of who I was and what I looked like. My life consisted of day-to-day tasks and was never about future planning. College was a far-fetched dream, so I never paid much attention to it. In short, I didn’t have a clue of where I was going or what I would be doing. Despite the uncertainty, my grandparents—in particular, my grandmother, Sarah Walker, who was a strong woman and a great role model for me—were supportive and encouraged me to get an education.

I was blessed with opportunities that helped shape my career and life, one of the earliest occurring when I was a teenager. One Sunday after dinner, I noticed a man standing with a map in the front yard. I went outside to inquire if he needed any assistance. Instead of just pointing to the destination on the map, I decided to walk with the man, who happened to be Richard B. Price, a mathematics professor at Lamar University. In our brief conversation, we discussed future opportunities, and he encouraged me to pursue a college education.

Several years later, I entered the University of Texas, Austin. It was, and still is, an excellent large university, and growing up in a small town in Texas, I had never experienced anything like that before. I have to admit that it was frightening because it put me outside my comfort zone; however, I was fascinated to be in this new environment. My agenda was simply to attend class, do my work, and go unnoticed. My first chemistry class had 350 students, which was perfect. I thought I could be lost in the numbers. Unlike a lot of kids, I never wanted to be singled out. But it didn’t work out that way.

One day, I picked up my exam, and my professor, Raymond Davis, said he wanted to talk to me. I thought, “I couldn’t have done that bad.” To my relief, though, he took me into his lab and showed me an X-ray spectrometer. He explained how researchers use it to find the structure of chemicals, something that can never be learned simply through textbooks. After a fascinating discussion, he asked me if I wanted to do an undergraduate research project for him—as a freshman!

I solved my first crystal structure and loved it. I realized then that I would be happy with a career in research, and I decided to pursue a graduate education. I did graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Jeffrey I. Steinfeld, who has helped me through my years as an adviser and mentor.

An Australian chemist, Robert G. Gilbert, invited me to spend six months in Australia, following up on a collaborative research interest. After a fun and successful research experience at both the University of Sydney and the University of Adelaide with Keith D. King, I was not sure what to think when my Australian colleagues suggested I look outside the U.S. for postdoctoral work. They reasoned that in addition to the postdoctoral work, the experience would expose me to a much broader point of view. I received three offers and ultimately chose Cambridge University.

I met people from around the world at Cambridge. We talked about science over tea, generating ideas and discussing what were the important things to do. These discussions also made me think about what I considered to be important problems. I would soon be an assistant professor somewhere; what problems did I want to work on? In what way did I want to contribute? At the time, atmospheric chemistry was a fairly unusual area for physical chemists—although there is a natural fit—and I saw others struggling to understand how to judge this interdisciplinary field. I joined the faculty at Wayne State University, in Detroit, which was a great place for me to start my career. It was a chance to forge my own uniqueness, and I considered the area of atmospheric chemistry to be a field in which I could make a unique and important contribution. I had some important help along the way from Stanley P. Sander and the Lab Studies & Modeling group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology.

As I gained experience at this interface, Purdue University provided me with an opportunity to integrate my experience in chemistry with the atmospheric sciences through a joint appointment in the departments of chemistry and earth and atmospheric sciences. This has been a very important opportunity because it has allowed me to combine the best of both disciplines to stay on the cutting edge of the field of atmospheric chemistry.

I have been very fortunate to have had some great students work with me, and together we have mapped the complete pathway for chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) breakdown in the atmosphere using state-of-the-art techniques in experimental and theoretical physical chemistry. The Francisco group, along with collaborators, discovered a whole new class of fluorinated radicals. This work provided new avenues for further experiments by other scientists; it also laid the foundation for understanding the chemical consequences of new materials that were being considered as replacements for CFCs.

Currently, my research group is tackling the problem of understanding the role clouds play on chemistry in the atmosphere. I used to be able to go on an airplane and say, “Oh, look at the nice clouds.” Now I look out the window and say, “Look at all the fantastic and fascinating chemistry going on there, in and on those clouds.” My group’s focus is on understanding what chemistry takes place on the surface of a cloud droplet and how that chemistry is different from chemistry taking place in the gas phase. This research complements our previous and ongoing research studies of atmospheric oxidation mechanisms.

When I learned that I would be promoted as a distinguished professor, I requested that the professorship be named after William E. Moore, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Purdue. I feel strongly that we have to do more to honor our African American pioneers. Having this professorship named after Moore enhances the sentimental value behind this achievement. “There are very few African Americans who hold chaired positions or professorships at major research universities, especially in the sciences, and even fewer for whom a distinguished professorship has been named,” says Willie Pearson Jr., a professor of history at Georgia Institute of Technology. For me it was a small tribute to all those who have gone before and sacrificed to create opportunities for me, and others like me, to succeed.

Congratulating me on the honor, a colleague told me, “You did it, and you did it your way.” I laughed, not because it was hilarious but rather because of the truth behind that statement. I did not take the straight path. Nor did I take a path that my professors had conceived for me. I traveled the world and pursued opportunities I never thought possible. This wonderful journey took an unsuspecting 17-year-old boy from Beaumont to places he never would have dreamed of.

The moral of this story is that I am a result of the opportunities I was provided. In addition, I gained the proper skill sets through my education, experiences, and mentors to achieve things I never thought possible. Now I believe it is my turn, along with the people of my generation, to use knowledge, resources, and influence to be mentors for the next generation, across the full demographic range, to stir their imaginations about the excitement of math and science, especially chemistry. Not only do we have the power to make a difference, but I believe we also have a responsibility to do so.

■ Finally, determine what competitors in other countries are doing to better prepare their students for the future global workplace and, at the same time, what we might learn from their approach to innovate our growth and future.

Once we have taken these steps, we need to develop a document that spells out the changes needed in our various academic institutions for training and preparing our students to be successfully competitive in the world marketplace. I have asked Ronald Breslow of Columbia University and Pat N. Confalone, vice president for global R&D at DuPont, to bring in the key players from academia and industry who have been thinking about these issues. They will begin discussions and come up with a road map of what we need to do to ensure that our future graduates are going to be prepared for and competitive in the global marketplace. In addition, the Committee on Professional Training is going to organize a symposium at the Boston national meeting in August on “Excellence and Rigor in Undergraduate Chemistry Education: A Global Perspective.” It will also examine what our international partners are doing to prepare their students for job competition in the global chemistry marketplace, something that will play a complementary role with future global skills.

Academia, Industry, And Government Sustaining Innovation

To me, the big picture on the horizon for chemists and chemical engineers and our country’s overall chemical enterprise boils down to what we need to know to be competitive and to be a leader in the global marketplace. We need a meaningful dialogue among the leaders of academia, industry, and government. The challenge is figuring out how best to bring these three pillars together to work on the challenges that our country faces in the fields of chemistry and chemical engineering.

In 2005, ACS released a forward-looking report entitled “The Chemistry Enterprise in 2015,” which anticipated how chemistry will change by 2015. The objective was to gather information about what the 2015 landscape will look like so that chemical scientists might better prepare for those changes and take appropriate action. Among the projections made in the report is that our enterprise will expand globally.

“Many companies traditionally thought of as American or European have built capacity in developing countries to serve both developing and traditional markets—a phenomenon called globalization,” the report cited. “Globalization has led some companies to utilize contract organizations in developing countries for research or other technical functions—a process commonly called contract manufacturing. Large companies are also building research laboratories overseas, integrated within their global enterprise.”

Underscoring the report’s projections was the notation that “approximately 95% of the world’s population, and thus 95% of the potential market for products of the chemical industry, lies outside the United States.”

ACS International Center

Today, more than ever, research is international. But, as I have stated on more than one occasion, declining funds for research in this country are compromising our contributions to discovery, leadership, and innovation—areas in which the U.S. traditionally has been an unquestioned leader. If the shortage of research dollars continues, I believe it will strain our ability to attract new talent into the chemical sciences pipeline, both from within our domestic base and from other countries. Added to this is the fact that many foreign students and scientists, whom we have routinely relied on to augment our research labs, are electing to return to their own countries. Because they are leaving, we are losing a valuable knowledge base.

One of my goals is to work toward creating an ACS International Center. The focus for the center would be to look at how we can keep the pipeline populated and keep ideas for innovation flowing into the U.S., either by exchanging our own talent or by bringing in talent. This would involve not only students but also researchers who are doing innovative things that they could share with our domestic students. The center, which would be chemistry-centric, would provide our students with experiences they will need to be competitive in the international workplace and give them an awareness of innovative advances being made in other countries. I envision that our International Center might provide cultural training for researchers, entrepreneurs, and students across all disciplines, helping ease their transition into the global workforce.

I have put together a working group to be led by ACS Board of Directors member Peter K. Dorhout, vice provost for graduate affairs and assistant vice president for research at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, to look into the idea of an ACS International Center.

■ Phase one: Evaluate the idea of such a center and how it would fit within the ACS direction, as outlined by our strategic plan, assess whether to proceed with establishing a center, examine how it might operate and function, and how it would serve the chemical enterprise and ACS members.

■ Phase two: If the findings are favorable, our strategy would be to develop an actionable plan on how to go about implementing such a center.

Creation Of New Job Opportunities

In the final analysis, after all the assessments, evaluations, dialoguing, and training are done—all with the goal of better preparing our students and country to be competitive in the world marketplace—the realistic questions remain:

■ Will there be jobs in the chemical enterprise in the future, and are we preparing our students with the right skills?

■ What will the job landscape look like?

My response to the first question is, yes; I believe there will be plenty of job opportunities for the well-prepared future chemist or chemical engineer. As to the follow-up question, I imagine some of those jobs in the future landscape will be very different from what we are accustomed to and will require tomorrow’s job seeker to be interdisciplinary, versatile, flexible, and a global thinker, and perhaps a little untraditional and entrepreneurial.

President Barack Obama’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 created a goal of saving more than 3.5 million jobs over a two-year span. It is lauded as a strategic and significant investment for our country’s future growth and innovation. One of the purposes outlined in the act is “to provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health.” A quick scan of the actual legislation enacted by Congress and signed by the President shows billions of dollars slated for science and technology in various federal agencies, including the National Institute of Standards & Technology, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy.

This recognition of the need to support science and technology both fiscally and through the creation of new jobs represents an opportunity for the chemical sciences that we must seize. ACS should be proactive in taking advantage of this new climate in Washington on behalf of our current members as well as future members coming into the chemical enterprise.

I have brought together a task force headed by George Whitesides of Harvard University, who, with his team, will be tackling the daunting task of answering:

■ What will our chemical enterprise look like 25 years from now?

■ Will new entrepreneurs change the current landscape, and how can ACS be a catalyst for those entrepreneurs?

The future landscape of the chemical enterprise will be defined and shaped by entrepreneurs. When I look at the next generation, Generation Y, this group will make up a component of the U.S. workforce equal in size to my own generation, the baby boomer generation. This new generation will also dominate the workforce for the next 40 years. One in four of the Generation Y group wants to be an entrepreneur or own a company, according to a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, “The Outlines of Your Generation: Demographic Characteristics of Generation Y.” So, what is ACS doing today to help create these opportunities for the next generation? As I mentioned earlier, one of the first places to start is to bring together the leaders from academia, industry, and government for meaningful, progressive discussions. Collectively, they hold the pieces to the puzzle that will allow us to develop a viable plan for the future success of our country’s contributions to the chemical enterprise on the world stage.

Looking To The Future: A Sense Of Excitement

As I have traveled around the U.S. during this past year as president-elect, talking with members at local sections and regional meetings and outlining my proposals for this global focus, I have made it a point to ask for feedback and input. The response has been wonderful. I have seen rooms full of members having spirited discussions among themselves and tossing around novel ideas about a potential ACS International Center or more expansive curricula that offer instruction on how to work in a global marketplace, or the prospects of opportunity that small businesses hold for the future in the chemical enterprise. I have received e-mails from people asking what they can do to contribute. From this, I have come away with a sense of real excitement and enthusiasm among our membership, especially about the International Center and the need to integrate global aspects into the chemistry curricula.

As I mentioned earlier, my job is to represent you, the ACS member, so that the society has overall growth and sustainability. We need to give our members the skills, opportunities, and guidance to succeed and advance chemistry. I hope you will take the time to let me know your thoughts about what I have discussed in this article. I encourage you to use C&EN’s Letters to the Editor section to tell us about these ideas or send me an e-mail. If you see me in the hallway at a meeting, do not hesitate to take a moment to tell me what you think.

I also encourage you to share your love and knowledge of the chemical sciences with youngsters. We need to provide opportunities and develop skill sets to capture those opportunities to ensure a continuous flowing pipeline of students who represent the full demographics of our country. I urge you to be a role model, a mentor, or both. Together, I believe we can ensure that our country’s chemical enterprise will continue to prosper and that our future generation of chemists and chemical engineers (or interdisciplinary chemists) will have opportunities to enjoy what we all love—chemistry.

Editor’s note: Dr. Francisco can be reached at joefrancisco@sbcglobal.net. To read further about Francisco, go to web.ics.purdue.edu/~francisc.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
  • Print this article
  • Email the editor

Services & Tools

ACS Resources

ACS is the leading employment source for recruiting scientific professionals. ACS Careers and C&EN Classifieds provide employers direct access to scientific talent both in print and online. Jobseekers | Employers

» Join ACS

Join more than 161,000 professionals in the chemical sciences world-wide, as a member of the American Chemical Society.
» Join Now!