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Chemistry is a physical science concerned with what matter consists of, what its properties are, and how it behaves. The scientists and technicians who do chemical research focus on the different kinds of atoms, how they interact and bond with one another, and how they interact with energy. Chemistry is an important subject in high school and postsecondary school because it provides many insights into the processes that sustain life and health in plants and animals. Studying chemistry also contributes to understanding of other physical sciences, such as geology, and to the knowledge base needed for careers in many industries.
Chemistry is a popular college major. Roughly 670 colleges and universities currently offer bachelor's degree programs approved by the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the graduates of these programs accounted for many of the 23,000 students who were awarded a bachelor's in a physical science during the 2009–2010 academic year. The ACS also approves about 300 master's degree programs and about 200 doctoral programs.
Chemistry grew out of an older field known as alchemy, which attempted to develop techniques for transmuting base metals into precious metals such as gold, or for creating an elixir of life that would restore youth and confer longevity. Modern research and development in the field of chemistry pursue much more diverse goals, making vital contributions to the United States economy. Chemical discoveries help solve problems in diagnosing and treating disease, cleaning up the environment, generating and conserving energy, inventing new materials for manufacturers, sustaining agriculture and food production, solving crimes, and defending the nation. Chemical research and development are responsible for about 10 percent of U.S. patents.
The United States leads the world in chemistry research, publishing more technical articles on the subject than any other single nation. When chemistry researchers worldwide cite publications in their field, roughly half the papers they footnote are the work of American chemists (or of foreign chemists working here). One reason for this dominance is the multiple funding sources that finance chemical research in the U.S., including industry, federal and state agencies, foundations, and universities. The research community here also is very open to collaborating with other scientists, technicians, and engineers across disciplines and across international borders. The U.S. scientific culture encourages investigators to do independent work early in their careers and creates few barriers to mobility between academic institutions.
More than 80,000 people work as chemists in the United States, and about 9,000 work as materials scientists, a related discipline. More than 60,000 chemical technicians are currently employed. Chemical engineers, who number about 31,000, are not engaged in doing chemical research as much as applying the principles of chemistry to solve problems. Most of the 20,000 postsecondary chemistry teachers do research as part of their jobs, as well as teaching.
Many chemists and chemical technicians work in postsecondary institutions, where they teach and do research. Others work in industry and government. Very few chemists and chemical technicians, less than 1 percent, are self-employed as consultants or entrepreneurs.