Friday, May 05, 2006

Re: 'The "New" Chemistry'

As I mentioned in my previous posting, "The New Chemistry", my Alma Mater, the department of Chemistry at the University of Sussex (then called the School of Molecular Sciences, and now part of a Faculty hybrid of chemistry, biology, biochemistry, psychology and others, which in its heyday could boast of 2 Nobel laureates and I recall..7 Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS), including some of the world's most renowned authorities on organosilicon and organometallic chemistry), has announced its almost certain closure or rehybridisation to that end. There is a real problem in the physical sciences in the U.K., borne by the decline in manufacturing industry - which is in any case doomed by the prospect of "Peak Oil" - and by the fact that "science" is expensive. In a former life as a professor at one of the "new" universities, I was insisted that arts post-graduates should be funded - or their departments, in reality - at the same rate as science post-grads. I did indeed make the point that since we had to run the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR; and in "NMR Imaging" an adaptation of it, now called MRI, because uninformed people get understandably worried by the term "nuclear"), mass spectrometry and other facilities, compared with just needing the library (not a cheap resource either) a pencil and a pad of paper, this was nonsense.
However, it is the case that universities other than the lofty towers of the Great and the Good can't afford to run a chemistry department any more unless the government props it all up. This is no surprise, given the lack of industry - where I joined as a 16 year old school-leaver and then went on to study part-time at Croydon Technical College for the ONC and HNC, before attending Sussex University where I did my B.Sc and D.Phil (the same as a Ph.D, but being unofficially called "Balliol by the Sea" it had adopted that designation according to the Oxford traditions of those initially appointed to derive that institution). Having been on the receiving-end of the consequential years, I have occasionally felt a pang of envy at the idea of being appointed to a permanent academic post without the requirement of a formal interview - on a wink-and-a-nod, in the Great British Tradition - you were "one of the chaps" and that was that. You were in.
But science costs a lot of money. There is no level playing-field (a lovely expression based on the public school playing fields of again the Great and the Good).
In some institutions there has in all likelihood been a stage of arrogance and complacency - that surely "we" can't go to the wall as the Poly's and Colleges have, but a rude awakening has stirred the entire academic system of this country. It is a matter of simple economics, but is this a deliberate purpose or a consequential shadow of government will? Are "they" really "out" to slim-down the academic science system into a few "chosen" departments? Given the destruction of the (e.g. British coal) industry of the United Kingdom, I guess there is no perceived need for the quantity of scientifically trained people in the workforce any longer. However, to keep the numbers of young unemployed down, which would be a political thin-edge, we have to do something with them and hence education and training is the euphemistic alternative to the dole. I have heard and reprimanded students for saying something along the lines of "Oh I suppose if I wasn't here I'd be on the Dole". Great! What kind of an attitude is that?! But it is an attitude of no alternative or solid prospects.
The HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) has been quoted on the following remarks which are self-emphatic in explaining the current situation and nor are they particularly consoling that it will change. Even the Royal society of Chemistry has stated that we might be left with just 6 out of the hundred or so departments offering chemistry a decade or so back, when we had more industry - fuelled by oil, let's not forget that essential source of everything: The HEFCE had not been given enough "powers or political support", but had encouraged a "market" within which vice-chancellors were very powerful. Indeed, a vice-chancellor is now Chief Executive Officer of a multi-million pound annual turn-over organisation, and has to balance the books.
So, do we need or want science, or not? I think some determined and solid decision should be made beyond lip service and supplications to the future, and as with all other aspects of human society this must be balanced against natural and human resources. Where are we going as a human society? I would love to hear some clear guidance on this matter, otherwise we will simply trot-along in ultimatum to an outcome that perhaps we should have prepared for.

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