Harry Kroto

April 18, 2003

Cut small research teams and there will be no more buckyballs - or even balls for Beckham to bend

These are fantastically exciting times for chemists - in particular for those who are creating magic molecules that "do crazy things". These new creations can juggle electrons and photons in novel ways, presaging revolutionary electronic and photonic devices. Soon molecules will seek and destroy defective sites in the body, making even the best modern-day brain surgeon appear like Conan the Barbarian. The humanitarian impact on the future will be at least as dramatic as that of the technologies of the past. I wish I were starting again.

The first age of chemistry peaked when the periodic table was discovered in the 19th century. The second age encompassed much of the 20th, during which we learnt how to make complicated and useful molecules and quantum mechanics explained the table and the chemical bond. We now have a fundamental understanding of chemistry, biology (and therefore life) and the useful bits of physics. As the third age dawns, a paradigm shift is taking place, and the "chemistry of complexity" has acquired a new name: nanoscience and nanotechnology - I call it N&N - not to be confused with Eminem, who is prosecuting another sort of revolution.

The third age may well turn out to be a golden one. But whether the UK will benefit is in the hands of a small number of people, many of whom appear to have no understanding of how scientific advances are made. The "reorganisations" now sweeping UK universities are unlikely to improve matters. Many are knee-jerk responses to short-term market forces.

We are implementing a strategy for providing university education that finds its parallel in McDonald's strategy for providing food. There is a quotation, often attributed to the Roman Gaius Petronius, that is appropriate to the turmoil in the universities undergoing reorganisation:

"We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form teams we were reorganised. I was to learn, later in life, that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."

To reverse this strategy, we chemists should strike by withdrawing our contributions to everyday life. Politicians and vice-chancellors should be targeted and especially individuals such as Simon Jenkins, Billy Connolly and Jeremy Clarkson, who take delight in rubbishing science education, glorifying ignorance and effectively deriding the efforts of those children who love science and on whom our future will depend.

Next Sunday, no shampoo, just grated carbolic soap; Monday, no anaesthetic at the dentist; Tuesday, no food produced with inorganic fertilisers - 80 per cent of the world will starve, but I guess Prince Charles will not be among them; Wednesday, no purified water but a cholera cocktail with a dash of typhoid, "shaken not stirred?"; no adhesives on Thursday so wooden furniture will fall apart; Friday no contraceptives; and on Saturday no modern sports equipment - let's see Beckham bend a ball with the boots I had when I was a kid.

By comparison, what have economists, politicians and lawyers done for us? Well, we appear to be on the verge of global economic meltdown, politicians have dragged us into yet another war and we are living in the most litigious era ever.

Scientists develop by "osmotically" absorbing the essence of creativity that suffuses laboratories where research is done - not in teaching-only institutions. It is vital that the UK encourages science but, unfortunately, the present policies are prompting v-cs to eliminate smaller departments and destroy an intrinsic component of our ability to compete as chemistry is still a field where individuals and small groups can make massive impact. Our high and medium-tech world is dominated by the US and the Asian Tigers, and China is galloping past us with hundreds of laboratories beavering away at N&N.

We should use the research assessment exercise as an incentive and find imaginative ways to strengthen the research and teaching capabilities of our universities in these exciting times. But I fear that many vice-chancellors are all too ready to use it to justify a slash-and-burn policy in the UK's traditional scientific heartland. If research disappears from our smaller universities and is concentrated in half a dozen ponderous battleships, as now appears likely, it will be goodbye to the sort of laboratories where some of the UK's finest chemistry has been done: where the molecules that made modern liquid crystal displays possible were designed, where genetic fingerprinting was invented, where the measurements that revealed the structure of DNA were made and the experiments that paved the way to the discovery of the buckyball were done.

Sir Harry Kroto is professor of chemistry at Sussex University. He won the 1996 Nobel prize for chemistry.

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