Editorial: Working at the interface


Crossroads

There is still not enough interaction between chemists and chemical engineers in UK universities.

An EPSRC report evaluating engineering research in the UK, published in late February, states that engineering is isolated from basic science. The panel comments that interaction between science and engineering is much less in the UK than in some of the countries represented on the panel and the barriers to cooperation seem to be greater.

The report recommends that 'academia, industry and government develop strategies to encourage increased linkage of engineering research to more basic mathematical, physical, chemical and biological sciences'.

The recommendations echo those of the Whitesides report into university chemistry research in the UK two years ago. That report found that the coupling between chemistry and chemical engineering departments was weak. It also said the lack of interaction had more to do with weaknesses in chemical engineering than chemistry. It recommended that chemical engineering should be strengthened alongside initiatives to encourage better interaction between chemistry and chemical engineering.

Since the Whitesides report, others have also highlighted the problem, including the Chemistry Leadership Council which identified a skills gap at the interface between chemistry and chemical engineering and has called for barriers between the disciplines to be broken down.

The root of the problem is the traditional separation of chemistry and chemical engineering into different departments and faculties and the difficulties that creates for collaborative working.

Other countries, such as the US, do not seem to experience the same problems, even when the two disciplines are housed in different faculties.

It is disappointing therefore that lack of interaction between the two disciplines is still a problem, despite the many recommendations to improve the situation.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect noticeable progress yet; culture change takes time.

Initiatives are under way. The EPSRC is planning to fund projects in areas which currently lack capacity. It has identified seven such areas, including the chemistry/chemical engineering interface. It plans to make up to three science and innovation awards, to be funded through a pilot exercise which started in September 2004.

A number of universities have been invited to take part, including Nottingham University which has put forward a joint chemistry/chemical engineering proposal. The awards will be announced later this month.

But the problem is not just at the research level. Companies say they need people with skills in both chemistry and chemical engineering. The traditional approach of a process or product being developed by a chemist and then advancing to full scale with the increasing involvement of a chemical engineer is being swapped for project teamwork where more seamless ways of working are needed. Few universities in the UK are currently supplying suitably qualified graduates.

The UK has a long way still to go to address this problem.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor