UK chemistry goes off boil

January 10, 2003

Caroline Davis reports on how we measure up to the challenge of innovation.

The UK has a distinguished history of groundbreaking research in chemistry and an excellent international reputation for scholarship, but work in the subject has lost its cutting edge.

An international assessment of university research in the field, coordinated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society of Chemistry, concluded that while some UK research was world class, innovation and discovery were not.

It described UK chemistry as "an environment that favours incremental research (albeit of very high quality) over revolutionary research". The panel suggested that short-termist government policy may be to blame, with no UK body able to fund both specialised research and responsive-mode academic science.

The panel also highlighted potentially damaging close links between industry and academia. About a third of university chemistry research is funded by industry, and the panel noted a shift towards product-focused research at the expense of less tightly directed innovation.

It also found that the UK had failed to embrace two key emerging yet crucial fields: chemical biology and materials science. It said the UK was failing to recruit globally to attract the best talent in staff and graduate students.

David Giarchardi, director of the RSC, admitted that UK chemistry was not as healthy as it had been and that it might have lost its creative edge.

He said: "The reason might be that we have gone from the mode of 20 years ago, when most research was funded in response to applicants' ideas, to things where the Office of Science and Technology and government have well-defined programmes. This possibly inhibits academic creativity and thinking outside the box."

The EPSRC is holding a community meeting on January to discuss the recommendations.

David Clark, director of research and innovation, said: "We will need to take further positive steps to address the panel's concerns about lack of 'adventure and innovation'. There are many pressures on academic researchers to 'play it safe', not least the nature of the research assessment exercise."

Peter Cotgreave, director of the lobby group Save British Science, said that the demise of groundbreaking research was not a problem solely for chemistry.

He blamed centralised government control of research. "British universities cannot afford to put together the packages necessary to attract the world's best, and until recently this has been dismissed by some in government," he said.

Harvard University chemist George Whitesides led the review panel, which included 12 other academic chemists from outside the UK. They visited nine chemistry departments and used data from the EPSRC, the RAE and meetings with industrialists with academic links.

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