Chemists raise lab alarm

November 10, 1995

Top chemists in industry and academe have warned the Government that deterioration of laboratory equipment in universities is rapidly approaching "crisis proportions" and that an urgent national review of facilities is needed.

In a letter to science minister Ian Taylor, the chemists say most university chemistry buildings are 30 to 40 years old and many have had little more than essential maintenance over this period.

The group has told Mr Taylor that problems linked to deterioration of laboratories include general concern over safety standards and "ancient fume cupboard technology". They point out that few, if any, grade 5 university laboratories are of 1990s standards.

The concern of the chemistry community over laboratory equipment was raised at a recent meeting of industrialists, heads of university chemistry departments, officials from research councils and representatives from bodies including the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Monty Frey, professor of physical chemistry at Reading University, cited the Pounds 68 million provided by the Universities Funding Council in 1990 to upgrade housing of laboratory animals. "If a similar amount were to be made available to chemistry departments, it would go a very long way to bringing laboratories up to present-day best practice."

The letter also alerts Mr Taylor to "increasing anxiety" among chemists about availability of sufficient funds for research funded in response to normal grant applications to the Economic and Physical Sciences Research Council, as opposed to managed or directed programmes: "This should be closely monitored, for example, to prevent further major inroads being made on these funds through technology foresight implementation."

The chemists say that the Realising Our Potential Award initiative was successfully implemented but they are concerned that "different assessments/criteria have been given to the ROPA peer review panels than are normally used by the research councils to assess other research proposals".

Lord Lewis of Newnham, past president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, says that Ropas are a "fair response" to the 1993 science White Paper. "As far as I am aware, we were never told that funding for them was to be top-sliced from research council budgets," he says.

He is concerned that Ropas will "perturb the balance" between short and long-term work in the research portfolio of departments. "There are a lot of young researchers putting in applications that are given alpha ratings and then being told that there is no money to fund their work. It is highly frustrating for them."

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