There has been no corresponding drop in numbers taking A-Level Chemistry in recent years but there have been significant changes made to the curricula of this and other pre-university qualifications, as well as to assessment. Some of these changes may have had a detrimental effect on students’ choices. Regardless of any changes, is the content exciting and relevant enough for young people to consider studying at degree level? I suspect it may not be, and this is something that we, alongside the RSC, will need to address. And what about our own offerings at degree level? In all cases, we need to do more to show how crucial our discipline is, and will continue to be, in dealing with the many global and national issues we face.
Finances – I need hardly state that the last few years have been challenging times for higher education and the next few years will likely offer little respite. Herein lies a particular issue for chemistry departments: we cost a lot. This is no idle statement. A good chemistry department requires a high proportion of highly serviced laboratory space and this is expensive to build, maintain and equip with all the necessary facilities and instruments. Couple this with the fact that we rarely recover the full economic cost of the research we carry out or the teaching we deliver, it should come as no surprise that departments run a net deficit. Needless to say, declining undergraduate numbers only serve to make matters worse.
Constant scrutiny and assessment doesn’t just apply to chemistry departments, of course, but it seems an almost constant burden now. We are all currently preparing for the next Research Excellence Framework, REF 2021. REFs come around every 6–7 years and I know from personal experience just how much work is required, not just in terms of the final submission but in the years of preparation. Now there’s TEF, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, which will roll out at subject level in 2021. Is all this assessment and scrutiny really necessary?
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) must address the ‘leaky pipeline’ – the fact that while women make up approximately half of chemistry undergraduates, that drops to less than 10% when it comes to women professors in academia. This was addressed in the RSC’s Breaking the Barriers report and has been discussed at recent HCUK meetings. The RSC have now launched an anonymous support line to provide support to any who feel they need it. Nobody is suggesting that harassment and bullying is any more of a problem in chemistry than in other disciplines but that’s not the point. The point is that there is clearly an issue which we must all play our part in addressing and Heads must take the lead. There is probably much that universities can learn from industry in how to tackle this issue, but tackled it must be, and Heads and HCUK must continue to confront it.
Health and Safety is a particular concern for Heads of Chemistry departments, which are hazardous environments by nature. Many of us will have had our own experiences of accidents and incidents; I certainly did. We can do much more as a community to share best practice and to have a mechanism by which we can each alert all Heads of accidents, incidents and near misses, and somewhere we can ask questions as well. My successor as HCUK Chair, Colin Pulham, has already taken action on this.
Links with Business and Industry developed during my tenure as chair, with a good relationship established with the Society of Chemical Industry. Industry links matter for many reasons, but fundamentally it will benefit our research, not least since many of the emerging funding opportunities are industry-led. The increasing focus in higher education on employability skills will also benefit greatly from closer links and we should not ignore the contribution industry can make to curricula at all levels.
The Future – I’ll finish on a personal note. George Whitesides published an article entitled Reinventing Chemistry claiming that chemistry as a discipline is now complete, with major problems having been solved and no great discoveries to be made. Now I don’t think chemistry is suffering some form of existential crisis but as the discipline evolves, changes need to be made. Society faces huge problems. We all know what they are and I’m one of the optimists who thinks that there’s a scientific or technological solution to all these problems (at least in part) – but that doesn’t mean they’ll be easy. Many are not and will require the determined efforts of university researchers, industry and governments to solve. Chemistry will be central to many of them. Our challenge is to inspire the coming generations to study an essential science by making sure that what we teach leaves no doubt as to the importance of what we do.