Thriving chemistry department faces closure
13 March 2006
Sussex University, UK, has announced the closure of its chemistry department following weeks of speculation.
Anger surrounded the announcement that from October 2007 the chemistry department will make way for a department of chemical biology. Gerry Lawless, head of chemistry at Sussex, which was rated 5 in the research assessment exercise, called the decision 'a travesty', and 'unimaginably flawed'.
The decision was announced by vice-chancellor Alasdair Smith on Friday and was blamed on decreasing numbers of chemistry students. However, Sussex has this year seen a 40 per cent increase in applicants for chemistry, said Lawless, and has been the envy of every other physical science department in the university. 'We have spent the last two years turning round our admission figures from 150 applicants to almost 350.' Of those 350 applicants, 15 were for chemical biology, the course that will be on offer in the restructured department.
RSC chief executive Richard Pike said the decision at Sussex was based on short term financial considerations, for which he sees no justification. Chemistry is a strategic subject, and underpins the solutions to a number of problems facing the UK, including energy and the environment, he told Chemistry World. Pike is concerned that such short term decisions will ultimately erode the science base in the UK, causing the country to lose potential business opportunities, and fail to address energy and sustainability problems.
Geoff Cloke, one of the academic faculty staff forced to leave Sussex in the restructuring, also sees economic implications for the UK. 'If we really want to run down core science subjects, the government and the country will have to face the economic consequences,' he said.
All physical and inorganic faculty members, including department head Lawless, and Cloke, will lose their jobs, reducing the number of chemistry staff from 14 to seven. Cloke was aware of rumours surrounding the department's future, but until recently had dismissed them: 'I couldn't believe the university could be so short sighted,' he said. 'I feel very sorry for younger faculty who have come full of enthusiasm to a great department.' Those faculty members are now faced with a personal and career disaster, he said.
Also leaving the department will be pharmaceutical chemist, Phil Parsons. Lawless claims that Parsons generates half of the university's intellectual property, worth over £2 million.
Lawless' concern now turns to the current and prospective students. 'We won't be able to provide them with the high quality degree they signed up for. They wanted to come to a grade 5, first class chemistry department, and frankly there won't be many of us here to teach them.'
Sussex has been home to three Nobel laureates, including most recently Harry Kroto, for his part in discovering buckminsterfullerene. 'A university is not a museum to celebrate past successes,' said vice-chancellor Smith on BBC radio 4's Today programme. Kroto, who first alerted the RSC and Chemistry World to the threat facing Sussex chemistry, is now considering returning the honorary degree he holds from the university.
Lawless resigned as head of department two weeks before the announcement, during negotiations about the pre-medical chemistry course currently taught in the chemistry department at Sussex. It became clear that the pre-medical course would be lost to another university, despite the vice-chancellor telling the strategic review team that it would stay, said Lawless. His decision to resign remained confidential until Friday's announcement.