Shine a light on bright future for chemistry

June 21, 2002

Chemistry in higher education needs to be exciting and realistic, according to David Giachardi

In the 21st century, chemistry will be the pivotal science. It will underpin and drive advances in the life sciences and healthcare through the field of chemical biology; develop new materials; secure our energy needs; and safeguard our natural environment for future generations.

Chemistry is in good health. There are 40,000 A-level and 11,000 Highers students studying chemistry every year. The quality of teaching in higher education is high. In 2001, more than 3,000 chemists graduated, down from a high of 4,000 in the mid-1990s but up from 2,300 in the mid-1970s. The quality of research in chemistry departments has risen over the past five years with more departments rated 5 and 5*. Demand for chemistry graduates among employers in science-based industries and outside is strong and unemployment is low. Independent research shows that science and scientists are well regarded by the public.

It is an exciting time to be involved in the subject. And yet what do we read? Unjustifiable gloom and doom. But the future holds out the prospect of many more positive than negative developments. The Royal Society of Chemistry tries to ensure that all chemistry schoolteachers are motivated and qualified to teach the subject. Fortunately for students aged 14 and over, the overwhelming majority of chemistry is taught by those with a chemistry qualification. We need school laboratories that are modern and well equipped - the government needs to invest in this area and indications that it will do so are welcome. The RSC spends more than £1 million a year supporting the teaching of chemistry in schools and colleges through continuing professional development opportunities, curriculum resources and careers materials for students. Our research shows that students like chemistry - it can be hard but they recognise the career opportunities that can result from studying the subject. It is on these views we must build.

Recent undergraduate numbers in chemistry have declined and the trend is a concern. But, ultimately, the issue is where the numbers level off. So where are all of the students with chemistry A levels and Highers going? The broadening of the 14 to 19 curriculum is feeding through to a greater diversity of first-degree choices, with increasing numbers being attracted into law, economics, management, medicine and computer-science degrees over the past five years. It is important that an appreciation of science is represented across the economy and in the general population, so this diversity of student choice is to be welcomed.

Chemistry in higher education needs to be exciting and realistic. Universities need modern laboratories and up-to-date equipment for research and teaching. Each year, about 1,200 students go on to study for postgraduate degrees in chemistry. Securing a high-quality flow of graduates is essential to top-quality academic research in the UK. Better stipends and more openness about the career opportunities and significant salaries on offer for the best students would send positive signals to those planning their careers in schools.

Change comes to every area of life; it provides opportunities and the chemistry community should not be afraid of it. Budgets are finite, so continual expansion of the subject is unrealistic. Some traditional chemistry departments may close but we should celebrate new departments that - while they may not have chemistry in the title - "do" chemistry. The community must become openly inclusive.

And being inclusive may come down to what we mean by "chemistry". Chemical science is a better term to use as it encompasses chemistry and areas such as materials, biomolecular sciences, environmental sciences and nanotechnology. Many perceive that it is in the last areas where the exciting science lies. But it is the chemistry at the heart of these areas that is exciting. Perceptions of chemistry and the reality are hopelessly mismatched. We have an extremely successful industrial base and lots of talented people. The UK is home to world-class industries based on chemistry with worldwide sales of more than £34 billion; pharmaceutical companies are strong; and the growth in chemical science start-ups has been exponential in recent years.

Changing attitudes is possible. The RSC is trying to galvanise the chemical science community into a more positive view of what is happening. Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto becomes president of the RSC next month and his presidency will champion the profile of chemical science, especially among the young, using new media. He wants to break down the old view of the subject and shine a light on the stunning future. We hope that the community will come together to support his aims. Never has the future looked so promising.

David Giachardi is chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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