King's punished for closure

February 18, 2005

The dangers of axeing science departments were driven home to universities this week when it emerged that King's College London had lost out on a multimillion-pound research partnership because it had dropped chemistry.

For months, King's has been pitched against University College London to secure a groundbreaking merger with the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research.

Last week, the MRC announced that the prestigious institute - which has produced five Nobel prizewinners - would move to UCL, with a new focus on patient-based research. Council members told The Times Higher this week that chemistry had been the deal breaker for King's.

Michael Wakelam, professor of molecular pharmacology at Birmingham University and a member of the MRC council, said: "There is a clear lesson for universities here. If you look at the most successful science-based universities in this country, they have a wide breadth of science."

He confirmed that while King's was "very impressive", its decision to close chemistry in 2003 had been a key reason for declining its bid.

King's tried to salvage the deal at the beginning of this year with a drive to recruit academics for a new chemical biology programme. But this was perceived as too little too late.

Professor Wakelam said: "My feeling and that of academics I spoke to around the world was that you need to build chemical biology out of very strong basic chemistry."

Although King's was offering a tempting £40 million package to develop the new NIMR site, UCL was able to capitalise on its rival's scientific shortcomings because it has a thriving chemistry department as well as strong physics and engineering departments.

Kay Davies, professor of anatomy at Oxford University and another council member, said that universities such as King's needed to realise they could not do biological or medical research in isolation.

"It is shortsighted. Even medics need to have an understanding of the basic sciences," she said.

She warned that universities should think of their long-term research strategy rather than simply reacting to falls in student numbers by scything less popular science departments.

Chemistry at King's had always enjoyed a high profile due to its association with Rosalind Franklin, whose work at the university contributed to the ground-breaking discovery of the structure of DNA.

The news that a traditional research-based university was abandoning chemistry reverberated across the sector in 2003.

But it is far from an isolated case. The Royal Society of Chemistry reports that 28 institutions have dropped undergraduate chemistry courses in the past nine years.

The picture is similarly bleak in physics, where 30 per cent of departments have been axed since 1992.

Simon Campbell, the president of the RSC, said: "We often hear of universities that want to put their efforts into medical schools and close chemistry, but that is a fundamental misunderstanding of how closely the two disciplines are linked."

He added: "Small molecules control many of the biological processes in the body and most of the medicines we take are small molecules."

Sir Tom Blundell, head of the department of biochemistry at Cambridge University, said: "The problem we have is that students are tending to move away from the physical sciences without realising that to be a successful biologist or neuroscientist one needs chemical skills."

He said: "The critical point is that this mixture of science at a very high level will be difficult to fund at all universities in this country."

Rick Trainor, who took over as principal of King's last year, declined to comment on whether he would have taken the decision to close the chemistry department had he been in post at the time. But he defended his university's scientific record, saying: "Even without an undergraduate chemistry programme we have many research chemists operating in various parts of the college."

He added: "The key point is that King's is on a markedly upward trajectory academically - and that very much includes science, technology and medicine."

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