Committee of politicians says something must be done to strengthen oversight of university science
By Stephen Pincock | March 28, 2006
Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held an emergency evidence session yesterday (March 27) to question University of Sussex vice chancellor Alasdair Smith and head of chemistry Gerry Lawless about proposals to close the university's chemistry department.
The influential group of politicians criticized the plans, and the chair of the committee said today that he would make a report to the government calling for stronger oversight of science in universities.
"It was a good session," the committee's chairman Phil Willis, told The Scientist. Under questioning, he said, Smith "quite frankly revealed that this was an ill-thought out proposal with no commercial merit and no academic merit that clearly needed to go back to the drawing board."
The session, conducted in front of a standing-room audience, heard that Sussex had been subjecting its chemistry faculty to a kind of malign neglect over recent years, Willis said.
For example, Willis asked Smith directly whether the university had attempted to find high calibre replacements for senior researchers in the chemistry department who had left or retired in recent years.
"The answer was no, they replaced them with junior colleagues," he said. "This had clearly been a strategy over the past five years, not something that has just appeared in recent weeks."
Smith acknowledged that the university had not attempted to find "one-for-one" replacements for high level academics who left, because it would have been difficult to justify in a department that was only enrolling 20 undergraduates a year.
He added that he agreed there was now a need to look for alternative proposals beyond the initial plan, but told The Scientist "in no way are we going back to the drawing board."
The outcome of the meeting will likely be a formal report, Willis said. "We actually do feel that the situation is that serious."
In particular, the politicians on the committee were concerned that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which distributes public funds to universities, had been unaware of the Sussex plans until a week before the public announcement. HEFCE's acting chief executive Steve Egan was also at the meeting, and reportedly expressed his dismay at being informed so belatedly.
News of the plans at Sussex emerged in early March, when the Royal Society of Chemistry issued a press release reacting to "reports emerging" from the university. Its chief executive Richard Pike, said in a statement that "no university can claim to be a real university without chemistry. It is a universally accepted premise around the world that chemistry is the central science in the absence of which there is a void that affects a campus."
Four days later, the university made an official announcement that it was going refocus its research and teaching resources onto the biological sciences, and replace the existing Department of Chemistry with a newly named Department of Chemical Biology.
The plan involved keeping organic chemistry and chemical biology, but ceasing to offer straight chemistry degrees. New posts would be created for biochemistry, genome research, biology and environmental science. But the current staff of 14 academics in the Department of Chemistry would be halved.
The proposal triggered uproar among British academics, who have been sensitized by other recent closures of academic science departments. Nobel Laureate Harold Kroto, formerly of Sussex and now at Florida State University, sent the university a video message, calling the plan fatally flawed. "This is not just a battle for chemistry at Sussex," he said, "it is a battle for all science at Sussex."
In the face of widespread outcry the university's senate, its main academic body, voted on March 17 to undertake an urgent review of the plans. Its members proposed that Sussex hold off making a decision for the next 6 to 7 weeks. At a meeting of the Council of the University on March 24, the Senate's proposal was endorsed.
Meanwhile, the staff at the chemistry department today began working on their own alternative proposal for the future of chemistry at Sussex, a plan they have been asked to develop by vice chancellor Smith and the university Senate and council, Gerry Lawless said.
"We have a 6-week deadline to come up with a robust plan to retain a vibrant chemistry department at Sussex," he told The Scientist. "I believe it is a genuine offer, because they have realized the plan is flawed?and that it would be folly to axe chemistry."
Links within this article
Select Committee on Science and Technology, "Changes to chemistry provision at the University of Sussex."
Phil Willis, MP
"RSC protests closure of university chemistry department," March 10, 2006
University of Sussex, "Development of biosciences and changes to chemistry provision," March 12, 2006.
Kroto's video presentation to the Sussex Senate
University of Sussex, "Biosciences and chemistry provision at Sussex: update," March 17.