Why I believe UK university chemistry is in need of a complete overhaul

May 23, 2003

The low rumble of despair and the silent panic attacks that have gripped the academic chemistry community have begun to spill out into the open. You know you are in trouble when Laurie Taylor writes about you.

The immediate causes of the problem for UK chemistry are clear - the absolute decline in undergraduate student numbers, the relative decline of research funding and the impending drop in postgraduate numbers, the last a much more significant component of chemistry funding and research output than most people are aware.

How did we get here? It's partly our own fault. The Whitesides report - an international assessment of UK academic chemistry published in January - challenges everyone in the field. It concluded that, on the whole, we are doing incremental, not innovative, science. Too many of us pursue safe research because we lack the confidence to ask and answer the big questions.

The Whitesides report notes that we as a community have been too keen to work with industry for relatively little money. This has led to short-term fixes. Our loss of confidence comes in part from the decline in undergraduate numbers, which is a problem in many countries. But this crisis saps morale, time, energy and talent.

Furthermore, universities are tackling the financial shortfall created by falling numbers in piecemeal fashion. Their response has been to wind down research in departments. But can we really claim in chemistry to teach students to the edge of the subject without a 5 or 5* grade in the research assessment exercise? I don't think so - otherwise, we explicitly concede that research and teaching in chemistry can be uncoupled.

Those departments that the RAE judged to have little in the way of international-quality research were graded 4. The financial situation facing them is so awful that most will not survive as independent units.

They will close, and chemistry will vanish from the university in question.

This is a disaster. Chemistry is a pillar subject that no university with a claim to scientific excellence can be without. Its loss will impoverish the teaching of biology and physics, while the wholesale closure of departments will further reduce the total number of students.

But before they finally shut, these departments will ferociously recruit students. This will destabilise stronger research-intensive departments. In a limited pool of candidates, this puts pressure on research-led institutions, which could lead to cuts in their staff, hence diminishing their research output and blighting teaching quality.

If we don't address this problem, chemistry will be confined to a small number of 5 and 5* departments. These departments will themselves have been damaged by the crisis. We are not innovative enough as it is, so going backwards is not an option.

I suggest that we identify a dozen or so research-intensive beacon departments around the country. These could link with nearby universities that would become feeders, offering between them a full range of degrees.

Students could study at the feeder institutes in junior years and then spend their senior year(s) in the research-intensive department.

This would preserve small chemistry units at many universities and ensure that the subject continues to contribute to other science subjects. It would also maintain local access to chemistry teaching and help to support and persuade school pupils to choose chemistry. This approach would also bring the beacon departments the stability that would allow them to grow and concentrate on doing innovative chemistry.

I can see no other solution that is financially viable, increases innovation and keeps chemistry at dozens of universities across the country. We are in terrible trouble. It is time for radical thinking.

Jim Naismith
Professor of biological chemistry
St Andrews University

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