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1 in 3 Scientists and Engineers May Not Be Doing Their Best Work

Posted on October 29th, 2015 by in Chemical R&D


In just about any company that develops or manufactures products, scientists and engineers are at the heart of creating what’s next, producing highly-skilled analyses and recommendations that can make or break that new product or process, maximize profits, and minimize EHS risks in production processes.

Unfortunately, companies have a problem. If I had to guess, I would say at least 1 in 3 scientists and engineers in any given R&D or manufacturing team may not be doing their best work.

According to a 2014 report from Outsell, roughly 32-37% of scientists and engineers struggle with not having enough time to deal with information, and 24-37% may also struggle with not knowing what they don’t know.  Of the 10 hours a week that respondents spend working with external information, they spend about half of it just gathering information.

Regina graphicSpending five hours every week just hunting and pecking for elusive data sounds painful, not just for the individual but also for their company. In the chemicals industry, where portfolio churn from M&A activity, growth in emerging markets, and EHS compliance are already straining performance and profit margins, this loss of productivity directly impedes reducing costs, generating new patents, and ensuring a healthy volume of concepts in the R&D pipeline.  

It’s hard to quantify the real cost to a business but consider that industry chemists and chemical engineers in the U.S. have a median annual salary of USD $108,000 and $120,000 respectively, and companies employ dozens to hundreds of such experts. Do a back-of-napkin calculation and you can see roughly how much this efficiency problem could be costing businesses.

Apart from productivity issues, the lack of access to information also heightens compliance and safety risks. Imagine a chemist explaining how a product concept would scale up to full-scale manufacturing this way:

Regina Cartoon

(Source: “I think you should be more specific here in step two” cartoon by Sidney Harris, New Yorker Magazine, 1977)

Working in science and engineering is more exciting than ever today, with product differentiation now achievable at the molecular level and commercialization of game-changing technologies like graphene being aggressively accelerated by industry and government support. However, R&D and manufacturing teams also face unprecedented complexity. Similar to other professionals, they must find their way in a world of ‘big data’ and ‘cloud computing’, figure out how to use new tools like mobile apps and social media, adapt to cultural and logistical challenges within global and virtual teams, and quickly get up-to-speed — again and again — on new research and technology developments that regularly change the playing field.

The scale and complexity of how information is created, consumed and shared across today’s workforce, with its multiple generations of scientists and engineers, is ever-changing. To compete, companies must ensure that their internal experts have the tools, processes and resources to get the job done. In addition, let’s not forget the ‘soft stuff’ like collaboration and creativity – the hard-to-quantify stuff that drives innovation.  

I welcome you to the new Chemical and Materials Now! blog. Through this forum, I hope to share fresh insights on how leading companies are enabling R&D and manufacturing teams in today’s age of information overload and rapid technology change, and how market developments are impacting the work of scientists and engineers in the chemicals and materials space. In the 5 years I’ve worked at Elsevier, I’ve been lucky enough to meet with countless scientists and engineers through interviews, observation sessions, meetings, and even the occasional social lunch and drinks together. Before coming to Elsevier, I worked at digital marketing and technology agencies, helping companies like IBM and American Express create value for their customers through web-based account dashboards, websites, online advisor tools and mobile applications.  

You could say that for the past 12 years or so, I’ve been an avid follower of digital product users. I am endlessly fascinated by what happens before and after they use an application, what drives them, what frustrates them, and how it all rolls up to and cascades down from organizational and industry challenges and opportunities. For me, a good day at work is when we know we succeeded in revolutionizing, or at least, making the working lives of scientists and engineers so much easier. After all, they are the ones that solve the big problems that matter and move businesses and society forward and into the future.  

For now, just think of me as an additional ear on the ground. I look forward to keeping in touch!


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