A tale of two departments

March 24, 2000

* Department of chemistry, Imperial College, London

1996 RAE rating: 5

Number of lecturers and professors: 41

Number of post-docs:97

Number of PhD students:175

Research income from the funding council via college administration:

Pounds 1 million

Research income from the research councils and industry: Pounds 10 million

Share of external research income for chemistry (1997-98): 7.9 per cent

More and more research money is finding its way into the department of chemistry at Imperial.

At Pounds 1 million, the funding council research grant represents less than a tenth of the department's research income. Yet it is this funding - or, more precisely, the research assessment exercise used to allocate this funding - that levers cash from other sources, according to the head of department, David Phillips.

"The RAE has focused a lot of minds. If you're a high-flier and you want a good career, you had better migrate to a top department. The RAE hasn't altered the volume of research that we publish but it has made people think about where they publish."

The department recently completed its mock RAE for the next exercise in 2001 and awarded itself the top grade of 5*.

"The funding council claims that the RAE is a non-distorting snapshot of what is happening anyway - that is not true. The RAE has become distorting," says Professor Phillips.

Imperial College top-slices the money it receives from the funding council, while departments can keep all the money they earn from the research councils and from industry.

As a result, departments are seeking to increase their funding from these sources.

Five years ago, two-thirds of this cash came from the research councils and one-third from industry. Now funding has doubled to Pounds 10 million with two-thirds of the money coming from industry and one-third from the research councils.

The change is because of a number of strategic alliances that the chemistry department has established with industry.

With the department of chemical engineering, it set up a partnership with Air Products, a supplier of industrial gases. The company agreed to spend about Pounds 500,000 a year for five years on research at the college. In return, college staff proposed relevant research projects, and the company helped to select which should be funded.

The relationship was successful and is now in its second five-year term. The chemistry department has also established similar partnerships with other companies including SmithKline Beecham, Zeneca, Rhone-Poulenc Rhorer and Unilever.

* School of chemical and life sciences, University of Greenwich

1996 RAE rating: 3a (materials) and 4 (subjects allied to medicine)

Number of

lecturers and professors: 36

Number of post-docs: 14

Number of PhD students:60, including 30 part-time

Research income from the funding council via college administration: Pounds 430,000

Research income from the research councils and industry: Pounds 1 million

Share of external research income for chemistry (1997-98): 0.76 per cent

Nestling in the archives of the University of Greenwich is a 1903 photograph of the chemistry laboratory at what was then Woolwich Polytechnic.

The university is proud of its past. It boasts that Arthur Vogel, who wrote the standard undergraduate text on analytical chemistry, headed the department from 1932 to 1966.

As a post-1992 university, Greenwich has been receiving public funds for research for only eight years. "We managed very well without for the previous 100 years," says Ed Metcalfe, head of the school.

Chemistry research within the school focuses on materials and polymers. The subject is fashionable now, says Professor Metcalfe, yet Greenwich has been researching it for years.

In materials, the department's biggest external funder is the US military, which is behind the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It pays for research into display technology, and has spent some Pounds 2.8 million over the past few years. Since 1996, chemistry staff have worked with the Natural Resources Institute.

A strategic link is developing with the University of Kent. "There is the momentum to develop a joint research exercise and maybe even a joint postgraduate teaching programme," says Professor Metcalfe.

The school is now preparing for the 2001 RAE, in which it aims to improve its chemistry rating to a 4. Last week, it recruited a senior scientist. The RAE hastened the appointment as the end of March cut-off date for claiming whole staff numbers for the 2001 RAE was approaching.

"We want to be a centre of excellence. We know we are not Imperial College or Cambridge. We are not going to be

excellent in everything, but we want to be excellent at what we do.

"Nationally, what

is important is that enough RAE money gets into institutions to nurture excellence wherever it springs," says Professor Metcalfe.

Alison Goddard

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