Chemistry department under threat

The chemistry department at Sussex University is under threat. Lucy Hodges finds out why
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The Independent Online

hen Sussex University was set up in the Sixties it had a magnificent chemistry department attracting highly qualified undergraduates and some outstanding staff. Over time its academics won two Nobel prizes and eight became fellows of the Royal Society. It was the jewel in Sussex's crown. But 20 years ago, it began to struggle to find students, as did many other chemistry departments. In the past few years that struggle has become acute, according to Professor Alasdair Smith, its vice-chancellor.

But there is another reason for the decision by Sussex's strategy committee effectively to axe chemistry, a decision that created an uproar this month and that has now been put on hold following a vote by the university Senate.

The department has been losing eminent chemists to other universities: Professor Steven Armes left for Sheffield; Professor Anthony Stace, a fellow of the Royal Society, went to Nottingham; and Professor Kosmas Prassides fetched up at Durham. All say that the vice-chancellor made little effort to keep them. Smith replies that Prassides did not speak to him directly. With the other two, he says that the poor student recruitment meant he had limited scope to tell them their futures were secure at Sussex.

The result is that the haemorrhage of academics is expected to result in Sussex's chemistry department doing less well in the next research assessment exercise to be held in 2008 (or whatever the new system is called that replaces the RAE). That matters. The university currently attracts £1.4m for its top grade 5 rating; it is anticipated that will fall by £750,000. "It's not a sustainable position," says Smith. "Sussex is committed to excellence in research and teaching. If we have a chemistry department it has got to be excellent. To restore it to its former strength would require a big investment."

The vice-chancellor would rather put the university's limited resources into a range of other departments where student demand is higher - maths, engineering, computer science, the biological sciences, arts and social sciences. "We're not planning to reduce student or faculty numbers in science," he says. "We will be moving resources from chemistry into other sciences."

Not surprisingly the chemists see it differently and have reacted strongly to the closure threat. Smith has been inundated with angry letters from chemistry professors around the world - from Australia, America and France. Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel Prize winner from Sussex who is now working at Florida State University in the USA, believes that chemistry has been deliberately run down at Sussex. He is considering handing back his honorary degree to Sussex just as he did when Exeter dropped chemistry.

The original plan from the strategy committee was to slim down chemistry to leave a small department of chemical biology, as was done at Exeter. But Gerry Lawless, head of chemistry at Sussex, says he has received advice that this has not worked. Certainly the vice-chancellor has been lobbied to that effect.

"Restructuring the department of chemistry at the University of Sussex around chemical biology and organic chemistry and in the process eliminating teaching and research in inorganic and physical chemistry will be a disaster in the long run," wrote Richard Schrock, a Nobel Prize winner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a letter to the vice-chancellor. "Inorganic and physical chemistry are the backbone of all chemistry. If you ignore 95 per cent of the periodic table and the laws of chemical behaviour, you will produce narrow-minded slaves to biological engineering, not knowledgeable scientists equipped to make fundamental contributions of lasting importance."

This week Smith was hauled in front of the Commons science and technology select committee to justify his controversial decision. "How can Sussex close a major department like this when the Government wants to foster world-class science?" asks Phil Willis, the select committee chairman. "Will we be able to compete with countries such as China if we are closing down departments that score 5? How are we going to recruit more science teachers?"

A group of mainly Conservative MPs has signed an early day motion arguing that chemistry at Sussex should not be closed particularly as applications for chemistry at the university are on the rise and 34 per cent higher than the average increase in applications for university places. Moreover, they are alarmed at the trend to close chemistry departments around the country. Departments at Exeter, King's College London, Queen Mary University of London and Dundee have already been shut down. Such closures will have a big effect on the British economy, they argue.

Professors of chemistry go further. "It's a central science," says Professor Peter Atkins, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University. "You can't understand biology without chemistry. If you look at the pharmaceutical industry, you can't run a country without chemistry."

Chemistry is an expensive subject to teach because laboratories need to be equipped with fume cupboards, as well as gas and electrical equipment. The Royal Society of Chemistry believes that the teaching of chemistry is not well enough funded by the Higher Education Funding Council. Although it is funded at a higher level than an arts or social science subject, it receives less money per student than medicine. That needs to change, says Dr Richard Pike, its chief executive.

"A place that doesn't have a chemistry department really can't be called a university," he argues.

The future of chemistry at Sussex is now being looked at again. Some people think that the department has had a stay of execution rather than a reprieve. But Gerry Lawless believes that the report to be published in early May will present a coherent plan to keep a broad spectrum of chemistry at the university. A combination of savings and new investment from the pharmaceutical industry could mean that the department remains, he says. "I am confident that we can come up with a viable plan that the university will accept."

Des Turner, the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, also thinks that chemistry at Sussex can be saved and that it is wrong to close a highly rated department that is becoming more popular. "It needs to have substantial reinvestment because it's been asset-stripped," he says. "The vice-chancellor has been running it down and deliberately not investing in it. But if the university is prepared to back it, there's a real future for science and chemistry at Sussex."

Smith does not deny Turner's charge about asset-stripping. Indeed, he says, chemistry has been "asset-stripped" by bigger departments with more students who could offer professors more security.