Call for chemistry shake-up

June 23, 1995

Many chemistry departments cannot survive in their present form, says a report by the Royal Society of Chemistry. There are too many undergraduate places; insufficient money to keep up the research facilities; and too many departments aspiring to the traditional mission of integrated teaching and research, ignoring changes in demand which mean that they must diversify, the report says.

The claims are the result of workshops held by the society at which 100 senior United Kingdom chemists from industry and universities gave views leading to Chemistry in the UK: will it survive?

The report says: "The suggestion was made that action now might help align chemistry in universities with current and future educational and industrial needs, thereby avoiding a painful, demoralising and costly process of attrition."

The chemists have predicted that the fall in job opportunities for professional chemists is probably long term, as technology replaces people and the chemical industry becomes more global, leading to economies of scale. Meanwhile, the number of chemistry undergraduates increas- ed by a quarter between 1987 and 1992.

But the report says "these changes do not mean that there are poor job prospects for chemists". Instead there are new opportunities in specialised areas such as clean technology, pharmaceuticals and specialist coatings, so graduates must be able to hop over disciplinary boundaries. And many graduate chemists now go directly into non-technical jobs.

To move with the times, chemistry degrees should be longer and broader, developing "life" skills and producing graduates aware of "commercial/industrial realities". They should produce fewer but very high quality research chemists with "leading-edge knowledge".

The chemists criticise the research assessment exercise and funding arrangements, saying that they often force universities and departments to compete with each other when they should be collaborating. The RAE also penalises industrial collaboration, the authors claim, and distorts departmental strategies, resulting in "uniformity and convergence".

The report calls for a national plan for chemistry, which "could help the process for departmental restructuring, encouraging universities with similar missions to collaborate more closely or merge".

It wants each department to "review its role and choose its most appropriate focus, whether on teaching, investigative research or a mixture of both".

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