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Royal Society of Chemistry head tells Paul Jump about the discipline's fight to raise its profile

February 10, 2011

Researchers at US institutions may have dominated chemistry in the past decade, but China is catching the eye of one prominent observer.

The list of the 100 most cited chemists in the past decade (see related article, right), produced for Times Higher Education by Thomson Reuters analyst David Pendlebury, features 70 researchers based at US institutions.

Germany, with seven researchers, and the UK, with four, are the only other countries with more than two representatives.

China is not represented, but Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, believes that the world's most populous country - and the nations that successfully collaborate with it - will flourish best in the coming years.

In an interview with THE, he said China was set this year to become the leading source of papers published in the society's journals.

"It has long submitted many papers, and the quality is going up and up," he said.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has also begun to accredit Chinese university courses and to offer assistance to Chinese researchers who want to write and present their work in English - partly to ensure that the "best chemistry" is being communicated to UK chemists.

Dr Pike noted that funding for both US and Chinese science had increased, but said the Americans were "worried" about the rise of China. They recognised that US researchers must develop language and other intercultural skills alongside their scientific expertise if the nation's global dominance were to continue, he said.

British students' "notorious" reluctance to study abroad also needed to change if the UK were to benefit from chemistry's growing internationalisation, Dr Pike added.

But he celebrated the rise in the number of UK chemistry undergraduates in recent years, a trend that may be boosted by the rise in tuition fees. As students are forced to think harder about which degrees will offer the best job prospects, chemistry could benefit, he said.

Dr Pike pointed to a report commissioned by the society in the run-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review, suggesting that chemistry-related activities contribute 21 per cent of the UK's gross domestic product. But he admitted that the country's poor showing in the top 100 table suggested that it needed to "do more".

He said that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's drive to award fewer, larger grants might bring the UK into line with its competitors, which typically fund small numbers of larger groups.

But he warned the EPSRC against squeezing out blue-skies research, which typically takes decades to make an impact.

He hoped that the International Year of Chemistry, launched at the end of January at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's Paris headquarters, would boost chemistry's public profile, increase university applications to the discipline and, ultimately, deliver more funding for research.

But he said it would be vital for the campaign's organisers to decide who their audience was and tailor their message accordingly.

"Even to the general public, we need to say more than 'chemistry is important'," he said. "We need to explain, in simple terms, how it solves certain problems. Not enough of that sort of thing is done."

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