I note that one of the biggest topics in the "What To Tell the C&E News People" comment thread is chemical employment. And it should be - there are far fewer med-chem jobs out there today than there were five years ago, and it's getting harder and harder to imagine things coming back to the way that they once were.
In fact, I don't see any way that they can, at least if by "the way they once were", you mean the number of well-paid US-based positions at large pharma companies. I hate to sound like this, but I think there's been too much of a shift in recent years for anything to undo it. Costs have gone up, drug-development success rates have (at best) not increased, and there are cheaper ways to get a good amount of work done which used to cost more. Which of these things are going to change back, and how?
We can argue about how effective some outsourcing is, but it's definitely not worthless. And we can certainly argue about whether companies have cut too far back in the current downturn. But (and I've said this before around here), what I really have trouble with are two solutions that get proposed every time this topic comes up.
The first of these is "Cut back on work visas". Well, that's the milder form of it - this point of view has a way of slipping down to "Ship 'em all back" sometimes. Either way, what people who advocate this seem to believe is that companies will gladly hire American-based scientists if they're just, you know, forced to. I can't see it. And as I've said here before, I'm not particularly focused on bettering the lives of American scientists as opposed to those coming in from other countries. Many of them become Americans themselves, and I'm glad to have them. We can use all the intelligent, resourceful, hard-working people here that we can get.
The second solution that gets aired out is "Form a Union!" And I have to say that I have even less patience for this one. I'm not a big union fan in general, actually, and I think that in this case it's an even worse idea than usual. What leverage do employees have? Here's the problem that sinks many such ideas: the US is not an island nation, in any sense of the word. If you force the cost of doing business here up even higher, the jobs will leave even faster. There are now places for them to go, which is the biggest change of the last ten or twenty years. Those places are often not quite as good in some ways (for now), but they're a lot less expensive, and that's where the money will flow if the deal looks reasonable. The only thing that will slow this down is if things get cheaper here (which isn't too likely), or if they get more expensive over there (which is quite likely indeed, actually - a topic for another day).
So to me, both of these proposals boil down to forcing companies to pay more for what they can get elsewhere. In my opinion, they're both unworkable and likely to make the situation deteriorate even faster than it is already.
Update: fixed typos, I think. Views remain the same! As to the "scientist shortage" talk that keeps popping up, I agree with the people who are ticked off about that one. We clearly have no great shortage of scientists at the moment in the fields that I have personal experience of. But this is (or ideally should be) something of a separate topic from immigration, and will be the topic of a future post. . .