Lancaster team attempts to steal away to Sheffield

September 10, 1999

Sheffield University is trying to clinch the transfer of a top-rated chemistry research group from Lancaster in a deal that could boost its research assessment exercise ratings.

The proposal to transfer up to six researchers from Lancaster's successful polymer group is causing "disquiet and differences of opinion at the highest levels", according to reports from Lancaster University this week. The researchers are understood to have approached Sheffield where they believe they will be more generously funded. Chemistry is currently 4 rated at Sheffield, towards the top of the RAE scale.

A Lancaster spokeswoman said discussions were still at an informal stage: "A transfer is one of the options being considered and might give Lancaster a chance to refocus its chemistry in line with its strategic plan."

She stressed that Lancaster was committed to chemistry teaching and said the funding council was not, as yet, involved in the discussions, although it must approve any such transfer.

But reports circulating within the university indicate unease with the proposal, which is being seen by some as driven by financial rather than academic priorities. There is also concern about the effect of a transfer on student numbers in chemistry and about the lack of investment that has led to staffing problems in the discipline.

John Wakeford, of Lancaster's Association of University Teachers, said the university was particularly vulnerable to poaching because it was relatively small but had a significant number of impressive research groups.

"The RAE has forced this competitive edge into research, and this is distorting the whole research activity into football club-type behaviour. What we need to be asking is, is this in the best interests of polymer science? The net result is certainly questionable," he said.

A report soon to be published by the AUT nationally will highlight the vulnerability of many small physics and chemistry departments, which are being closed or merged because of the way the RAE is concentrating cash in strong institutions.

The report will show that although the number of students applying to study chemistry has grown, as a proportion of all undergraduates they have declined markedly. In 1989, 1.8 per cent of all undergraduate applications listed chemistry as the preferred subject. This fell to 1.1 per cent in 1995 and to 0.8 per cent two years later.

"The threat to both chemistry and physics departments comes from a triple whammy of increasing concentration of students in the largest departments, a selective approach by the funding councils to the funding of research and the majority of research income being allocated to a small number of research-strong universities," the report says.

Sheffied University declined to comment but confirmed that discussions over the transfer were taking place "at the top level".

A university spokesman stressed the strength of the chemistry department at Sheffield, which houses 378 undergraduates. He pointed out that the department had produced two Nobel prize-winning chemists in the past decade: Richard Roberts in 1993 and Sir Harry Kroto three years later. Lord Porter, a Nobel prizewinner in l967, also studied in Sheffield.

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