Monday, June 05, 2006

Sussex Chemistry Saved!

Good news! The decision to close the chemistry department at Sussex University has been revoked, according to an article in this month's "Chemistry World", the sequel to "Chemistry in Britain". Sussex looked to be the latest casualty of the scourge on academic science departments, which has claimed such exclusive names as Exeter, Kings College London, Queen Mary University of London (a former employer of me), and many others, but it seems that Sussex's vice chancellor, Professor Alistair Smith, has decided to forge a combined department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, rather than the putative department of "Chemical Biology" announced on B.B.C. Radio 4 recently. This is good news indeed, particularly for the "Inorganic" and "Physical" chemists, who looked to be out of a job, although it was thought that the "Organic" chemists could be preserved in a predominantly biological department.
The University of Sussex is my Alma Mater, where I studied for my B.Sc. and D.Phil. The latter is the same as a Ph.D, but along with Oxford University, and York too, I believe, Sussex has preserved that Oxford tradition of referring to their doctorates as D.Phil. Sussex also awarded me a higher doctorate in science (D.Sc.) three years ago, which was a rather transitional time for me as I had resigned from my post as university research professor in physical chemistry, deciding to move on and start up my own business. Luckily, in the form of my wife, I had someone to hold my hand and steer me through the various pitfalls that one inevitably encounters on becoming self-employed; like making your own tax arrangements, and having to go out to buy stationary rather than simply going off to the stock-cupboard as I was accustomed to!
When I was a doctoral student at Sussex, the department could boast (if memory serves me well) seven Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) and two Nobel Prize Winners (laureates), and it was indeed one of the top chemistry departments in the country. From what I gather, it has been run-down somewhat in terms of staff numbers, and there are plans to redress this matter by the recruitment of three new staff, according to Professor Geoff Cloke. I agree with Geoff that the entire episode and the attendant bad publicity internationally over the closure of such a world famous school of science - rated at Grade 5 in the last Research Exercise (RAE) - might well signal a watershed for the U.K. chemistry community, and perhaps the government will revise its university funding arrangements for science departments, which it must be agreed, are expensive to run, by their very nature - in terms of equipment and consumables. Having worked in a university which due to the nationally recognised problems in recruiting chemistry students, ran its chemistry department down (as have many others, as I mentioned above), I know what a distressing and demoralising experience this is, and I would not wish that upon Sussex or anywhere else for that matter.
If, in contrast, we do continue to destroy our academic science base, the prognosis for the nation is not good. As we are forced to confront the pressing issues of climate change, fuel supply, water provision and all those others that I have written about in these postings, we will need scientifically trained people in this country and in others, and it is about time the government waived its cash-only bums on seats university policy in order to facilitate some kind of decision over exactly how many, chemists, media studies graduates, psychologists and pharmacists we do in fact need. Otherwise, a "university degree" will just become a rubber stamp irrespective of what subject was actually studied, and the country will be full of "graduates" without the necessary knowledge that the world will demand in the future. We need a "plan", otherwise we won't succeed in circumventing the tragedy that market forces are apt to unfold on an undesigned stage.

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