Chemistry returns to its element in universities

There was uproar two years ago when chemistry departments were being shut down across the country. Now they are reopening - and the subject is experiencing a renaissance. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

The mood among chemists in higher education a year or two ago was one of unrelieved gloom. The abrupt closure of the University of Exeter's department of chemistry had been confirmed, despite a loud campaign of opposition spearheaded by the then president of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto.

Coming hard on the heels of the closure of chemistry departments at King's College London and Queen Mary, University of London, and a string of similar cuts at other institutions, it led the Royal Society to issue dire warnings that the subject was in meltdown across the university system. Few chemistry departments felt safe from closure.

In that atmosphere, the Royal Society's arguments about the fundamental importance of this essential scientific discipline appeared to be falling on near-deaf ears. More weight was given to the counter case that chemistry needed expensive laboratories and sophisticated equipment and so, on economic grounds, was not universally sustainable in our universities.

When the University of Sussex, where Sir Harry spent much of his academic life, last year proposed cutting chemistry from its prospectus, despite its department enjoying one of the highest ratings for research among all UK universities, it seemed that the pessimism had been well-founded. If it could happen at Sussex, the argument went, it could happen almost anywhere.

But the Sussex case proved to be a turning point in chemistry's fortunes - those opposing closure won the argument. A key moment was when the Commons Science and Technology Committee fiercely criticised the financial management at Sussex, saying it had played a key role in the declining fortunes of its chemistry department.

Soon afterwards, Sussex reversed its decision, deciding to retain the subject in a newly created department of chemistry and biochemistry. It was seen as a personal defeat for the vice-chancellor, Professor Alasdair Smith, who later last year announced his intention to retire early. He maintained that the chemistry saga had played no part in his decision, but academics from the department pointedly welcomed his retirement, saying they looked forward to their subject "enjoying greater support" in the future.

In the wake of the Sussex victory, there is evidence that chemistry is experiencing a renaissance. At a growing number of institutions, the subject is once again punching its weight.

Queen Mary is preparing for a substantial relaunch of chemistry study at undergraduate level. Two new degrees, both rooted in chemistry, are in the pipeline for this autumn. They will be taught in a new building bristling with freshly equipped laboratories. New academic staff - all core chemists - have been taken on to teach the courses. Similarly, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston is bringing back its single-honours chemistry degree this year, having shut it down in 1999.

Elsewhere, substantial new investment is underlining the resurgence. The University of Hertfordshire has just opened new chemistry laboratories, costing £2m, which reflect the popularity and viability of its two chemistry undergraduate programmes in pharmacy and pharmaceutical science. And the University of Liverpool recently announced an £8m investment in a new centre for materials discovery, housed within its chemistry department, and the appointment of new, world-renowned researchers in the materials field.

The circumstances behind chemistry's renewed vitality vary, but a strong catalyst has been the RSC's vigorous campaign in support of the subject that has gained in confidence and conviction over the past two years.

Sir Harry's gesture of returning his honorary degree to the University of Exeter in disgust, together with the Select Committee's powerful endorsement of the Royal Society's case, seemed to convince those in power that this was more than self-interested bleating from members of a single- subject association.

The government's funding arm, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), set up a review into "strategically important and vulnerable subjects", and, soon after, awarded the RSC £3.6m to work on projects to secure a "strong and sustainable chemical-science presence in the UK". The funding was a clear indication that Hefce, and ministers, considered chemistry a subject worth protecting.

A further sign that Hefce was onside came at the end of last year, when it announced that universities would receive an extra £1,000 for each chemistry (and physics) student starting an undergraduate course. The increased grant, which will be paid from this autumn, recognises the higher costs of running degree courses in those subjects, a factor that had been at the heart of most closure decisions in previous years.

These interventions have helped shore up, and now boost, the interest in studying chemistry on the part of school leavers. Last October, more than 3,500 freshers enrolled on chemistry courses, the highest intake since 1999. That represented an 18 per cent jump since 2003, when the subject was at its most embattled.

A second common factor behind chemistry's survival has been the dogged determination of academics not to allow their subject to wither on the vine. Typical is Dr Mike Watkinson, at Queen Mary, who remembers how let down he was on hearing of his university's decision in 2003 to end all undergraduate recruitment in chemistry, despite consistently high numbers of applications.

"We felt our own credentials as academic chemists were being undermined," he recalls.

Chemistry's low research rating at Queen Mary - a key factor in the university's decision to cut courses - was a product mainly of the small size of the department.

However, he and others remained at the college, ready to seize any opportunity to rebuild. That moment came in August 2005, when the chemistry department was merged with biology, to create a new school of biological and chemical sciences. The new school decided Queen Mary should put its toe back into the water of undergraduate courses.

The four-year MSci in pharmaceutical chemistry has been reinstated, and with just one newspaper advertisement, 25 first-year students were recruited. A year later, twice as many arrived. With momentum and confidence on the increase, two more undergraduate courses - a BSc chemistry with biochemistry, and a BSc chemistry with forensic science - are ready to start in October. Professor Peter Heathcote, the head of the school, talks of "chemistry flourishing in a broader environment."

Watkinson oozes pride at his subject expanding again. "This is a serious institution; serious about the quality of students coming in, and proud of our research," he declares with passion.

Underlining Queen Mary's renewed commitment to serious chemistry has been the installation of new laboratory fixtures and fittings, at a cost of more than £2m, into a chemistry building that had been partly mothballed for two years. This equipment includes the basic facilities to service undergraduate courses, and the sophisticated bits of kit, such as a giant magnet costing £250,000, that will support cutting-edge research.

For the RSC, the news from Queen Mary is a further vindication of its argument that chemistry is vital to the British economy, and an academic discipline of value to students. Particularly welcome is the fact the Queen Mary's east London location means that chemistry degrees are available once again to a local population that has low levels of participation in higher education.

"This is yet another sign that we are bouncing back," says the RSC's chief executive, Richard Pike. "The message is getting through that a demanding degree provides the foundation for an interesting and prosperous career."

At the University of Central Lancashire, the return of full chemistry degrees later this year is the result of the university's success in increasing income from chemistry-related research, its marketable expertise in waste management, and in the health of the forensic-science course, which is also bringing in healthy income.

Moreover, for Professor David Phoenix, the dean of the faculty of science and technology, the return of single-honours chemistry is a matter of credibility and pride. "If you say you're a science faculty, you have to have all the core sciences, and this course will mean we attract a new supply of potential Masters and PhD students in chemistry."

Phoenix is adamant that the new course will teach "solid chemistry", but he thinks that an attraction for students will be a teaching approach that differs significantly from his days as an undergraduate. This takes real-life issues as the starting point of lectures and modules, such as how drugs are made or the science behind green issues. Out of this study, he says, students will be exposed to exactly the same core chemistry, unchanged over decades, but they will be doing it in a way that is more engaging and more likely to lead to more fundamental learning.

It is an approach that symbolises chemistry's recent success story: moving with the times, while holding fast to the subject's essential role as a building block of science and technological advance.