We've got the chemistry right

Sussex University isn't in the Ivy League, but then who cares when it can boast three Nobels?
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Early this month Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, floated the idea of an "Ivy League" of English universities, to include Oxford and Cambridge, London and Durham.

On the same day came news of Britain's latest Nobel prize, awarded to Sir Harry Kroto, for the discovery (with two American scientists) of buckminsterfullerene, a molecular third form of the element carbon in addition to the long-known diamond and graphite.

And which of those august institutions provides his ideal surroundings? Well, none actually. Sir Harry is a chemist at the University of Sussex.

Sussex ranks in the top of five grades of the universities' research funding pecking order. But there are moves to split the top division. Dr David Walton, Sir Harry's long-time co-worker at Sussex, fears that the resulting superleague would be like the "Ivy League", and that small universities would suffer in the scrabble for funding. "When the kitty is tiny anyway, it only accentuates the differences, encouraging the belief that size alone is important," he says.

Sir Harry is the third chemistry Nobel laureate associated with Sussex. Archer Martin won the prize in 1952 for his invention of techniques in chromatography, for separating the chemical constituents of mixtures using solvents.

In 1975, John Cornforth won the Nobel prize for his study of the orientation of biologically important molecules such as enzymes and steroids as they undergo chemical reactions. He, too, gravitated to Sussex.

The Royal Society makes a deliberate effort to counteract the Ivy League effect, often awarding research professorships to those not working in London, Oxford or Cambridge. These awards enabled Cornforth to take up his position at Sussex and guaranteed Kroto's continued presence there.

Professor Cornforth, however, is quick to dismiss any suggestion that there might be any Sussex effect. "The coincidence that there was already a Nobel laureate in chemistry at Sussex when Harry won his prize is just that - coincidence," he says.

But he may protest too much. What is significant is that both Kroto and Cornforth have chosen to stay at Sussex despite offers to go elsewhere.

An old undergraduate prospectus makes the point that there is something special about the place. Its cover shows a map of Britain with each university's position denoted by a Bunsen burner. The only burner with a flame issuing from it is the one for Sussex. The message: only Sussex can light your fire.

So what is the secret ingredient? One answer may lie in the fact Sir Harry himself designed the prospectus. It was similar lateral thinking that helped him see that 60 atoms of carbon might prefer to condense from a vapour in the form of a spherical molecule and led to the molecule's name, inspired by the geodesic domes of the American architect Buckminster Fuller.

For a time at Sussex, there was a scheme under which all arts students were required to write a dissertation on a science topic and vice versa. Many faculty members reflect this interdisciplinary ideal. But Sir Harry and Dr Walton take it even further.

Sir Harry has recently helped to set up the Vega Science Trust which has filmed a number of Royal Institution lectures for the BBC. Dr Walton has worked on ambitious projects for computers and dictionaries for use with the languages and scripts of Sri Lanka, an interest reflecting a fondness for the country and its people developed during a sabbatical there helping to establish a university.

There has also been a willingness to rethink the science disciplines. "From the outset, chemistry wasn't regarded as `organic' and `inorganic' and `physical'," says Dr Walton. "Courses had names like `Mechanistic principles' or `Synthesis'." Chemistry itself was called "Molecular sciences".

But most important were the personalities. Professor Martin and Professor Cornforth went to Sussex because of the attraction of working with otherswhom they admired. Sir Harry came back from America at the invitation of Professor John Murrell, now the dean of chemistry, physics and environmental sciences. "We were the first of the new universities, and the first to say we were going to do scientific research from the start in a big way," he says.

Even the students took part, with a course entitled "Chemistry by Thesis": after just two terms of course work, they could pursue a two-year research project leading to examination on a written thesis. Topics were chosen to incorporate an interdisciplinary element. Students were supervised by researchers from the respective disciplines.

This, in turn, provided a means for the scientists to initiate new research. So began Sir Harry's collaboration with Dr Walton, who had pioneered methods of synthesising complex acetylene molecules. Sir Harry was interested in these molecules because they represented an ideal system for spectroscopic study, a straight rod of pure carbon atoms, uncomplicated by angles and branches and foreign atoms. This collaboration led to Sir Harry's most spectacular work before his Nobel prize - the alternate identification in interstellar space and synthesis in the laboratory of polyacetylenes.

But "Chemistry by Thesis" was short-lived. As Sir Harry wrote in an article, "Sadly, this and other courses have been `regulated' out of existence by bureaucrats who have little understanding of how student research expertise is brought to maturity and no awareness of the dire consequences for our future scientific capability."

"The issue nationally is whether there is an Ivy League of universities or of departments," Professor Murrell concludes. "The only case for a university basis is if you believe there is a lot of cross-disciplinary collaboration." In general, there is not. And if there is, it is perhaps most likely at small universities and at those, such as Sussex, that have tried to demolish barriers between disciplines.

Without such barriers, the benefits flow both ways. Professor Murrell replaces the receiver after a phone call from the head of European studies who has called to congratulate him on Sir Harry's Nobel. "The university as a whole feels better for it," he says with a grin.

The writer's book, `The Most Beautiful Molecule', describing the Nobel prize-winning discovery of buckminsterfullerene is published by Aurum at pounds 18.99.