The German Chemical Society (GDCh) and the Royal Society of Chemistry have worked closely together for many years. David Giachardi, chief executive of the RSC, and Wolfram Koch, GDCh's chief executive, discuss the issues faced by the societies today. Emma
The German Chemical Society (GDCh) and the Royal Society of Chemistry have worked closely together for many years. David Giachardi, chief executive of the RSC, and Wolfram Koch, GDCh’s chief executive, discuss the issues faced by the societies today. Emma Davies reports
How would Michael Faraday introduce himself today? This isn’t a joke, but the first line of an analogy that David Giachardi, chief executive of the RSC, uses to illustrate how the divisions in chemistry only emerged in the 20th century. Faraday would not say: ’Hello, I’m a physicist’, or ’I’m a chemist’, but would probably introduce himself as a natural philosopher, jokes Giachardi. He feels strongly that the divisions in chemistry should be broken down and is proud of the forums set up by the RSC to deal with chemical biology, materials chemistry and the environment, energy and sustainability. Wolfram Koch, chief executive of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh; German Chemical Society), agrees that the chemical divisions should become more blurred, although for the sake of the analogy he would swap Faraday for Justus von Liebig. Breaking down chemistry’s divisions is just one area that Koch and Giachardi agree on and when the two chief executives met for a chat earlier this year, the words ’I agree’ cropped up repeatedly.
The RSC and GDCh have a long history of collaboration. The societies work together in a number of areas, including educational projects, such as joint postgraduate industry tours. There is also some exchange of staff and the societies provide each other with member support and access to certain services. The two societies have also published books together and the GDCh magazine, Nachrichten aus der Chemie, and the RSC’s Chemistry World have co-published a number of features this year. The two societies were also instrumental in setting up the Federation of European Chemical Societies (FECS) more than 30 years ago.
Let’s get together
Giachardi and Koch would like to see more collaboration between all of the European chemical societies. Koch calls for ’a forum, a common voice of chemists in Europe vis-?-vis the European authorities and our partners outside of Europe’. The chief executives both recognise the importance of FECS but consider that it needs to develop. Koch is clear about FECS’ shortcomings: ’While its scientific activities are very successful, it has not really performed as a politically active organisation. What we need is an umbrella organisation that can really talk to the European Commission and other European authorities and which is taken seriously’. Giachardi explains how the chemical societies are currently ’trying to manage the transition from where FECS started as a means of helping scientists on the other side of the Iron Curtain to something which is an effective or representational organisation’. He considers that the problem with FECS is that many of its members ’have a completely different cultural background and are not used to a representational process’. Koch agrees that it will not be an easy transition because ’many of the partners in this game are still reluctant to change the situation’. However, there is room for optimism and in February 2004, a FECS task force including the president, immediate past president, Koch and Giachardi, met to discuss FECS’ future direction. Koch now feels ’more optimistic’ that FECS can transform into an organisation through which societies can ’focus the influence of European chemists’. He hopes that the RSC and GDCh will help to catalyse the process.
GDCh and the RSC are also developing ways to connect directly to Brussels, independently of FECS. As Koch points out, the EU administration in Brussels is making ever more decisions which are highly relevant to the chemical sciences and the EU draft regulations for the Registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals (Reach) is a prime example. ’Get it wrong and the effects on the EU chemical sector could be devastating; get it right and confidence in the sector could be enhanced,’ notes Giachardi. Koch is very keen for GDCh to have an increasing influence on decision making in Brussels. ’In the past, GDCh defined itself mainly as a learned society which did not pay much attention to political developments. We now realise that we have to leave footprints on all areas of the political scene which are of relevance to chemistry and to our members. Most of our activities are targeted at the German government in Berlin. There is still a significant deficit when it comes to lobbying Brussels, where we lack experience, connections and resources. Tackling this problem is high up on my agenda. One way of approaching this is certainly through a stronger cooperation with the RSC’.
The two societies are gradually getting closer to Brussels. For example, Giachardi describes a meeting of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in January 2004, where the RSC’s president-elect, Simon Campbell, gave a presentation which received considerable interest from MEPs. At the meeting, which was chaired by Koch, the suggestion was made that chemical societies should play a more active role in EU decision-making processes. According to Giachardi, the two societies are currently selecting people to work on this project.
As might be expected, there are some areas, such as education, where differences in government policies make it more difficult for the two societies to collaborate. ’We have got to recognise that we have different audiences in the educational field,’ says Giachardi. He points out that the disparity between the UK and German educational structures may begin to ’throw up issues’ when it comes to dealing with the Bologna process (see Comment, p2). Koch is keen for GDCh and the RSC to ’talk to each other and to do things together to make this harmonisation possible’.
Koch does appreciate the difficulties that can arise when trying to work across countries. For example, when Germany implements the Bologna process, it will switch to three-year science degrees, followed in most cases by a two-year Masters course, in contrast to the current UK trend for four-year degrees. ’Sometimes I get the impression that we are taking as many steps backwards as we are forwards,’ he comments.
GDCh and the RSC are also faced with very different problems over numbers of undergraduate chemists. Germany is currently experiencing a surge in applications to study chemistry at university. As most UK chemists are painfully aware, the UK situation is completely different. Over the past five to six years, UK undergraduate chemist numbers have fallen by about 25 per cent, to reach the levels of 15-20 years ago, notes Giachardi.
Although many UK chemists would jump for joy at the prospect of young people flocking to chemistry, Koch is concerned that the German increase in uptake ’could create a new set of problems in seven to eight years, with the possibility that there could be too many PhD students’. The irony of the situation is that Germany currently has too few PhD students, a knock-on effect of a dramatic decline in the number of chemistry students a decade ago. Currently, some 90 per cent of all chemistry students in Germany go on to do PhDs, but Koch thinks that the situation may change, partly because of the Bologna process.
Why did the student numbers in Germany increase and is there anything that the UK can learn from the German experience? Koch can’t pin it down to any one thing but considers that the ’general attitude to the physical sciences in general and chemistry in particular’ in Germany has improved over the past few years. 2003 was the ’year of chemistry’ in Germany, organised by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, GDCh and other chemical organisations. Koch rates the initiative as very successful and suspects that it contributed to the increase in undergraduate numbers.
Giachardi considers that the UK is suffering from young people’s poor perception of chemistry. He describes to Koch how the UK government has a goal of 50 per cent of young people going to university, which has not been matched by a proportionate funding increase. Many UK vice chancellors are encouraged to put students on cheaper courses to the detriment of more expensive courses such as chemistry, he says.
The situation is not much better in Germany where university budgets are also falling, says Koch. He is particularly worried that the chemical institutes will not be able to cope with the increasing student numbers.
Will industry be an attractive career option for the current set of UK and German chemistry students when they graduate? Koch and Giachardi agree that the chemical industry is not generally viewed in a positive light in either the UK or Germany, despite the fact that people are happy to accept the benefits that chemistry brings them. ’People want nice things but there is a long way to go before they realise that it is the chemical industry that produces these things,’ says Koch. By working together, the RSC and GDCh could be a powerful enough force to help change the perception of chemistry in the EU and to influence thinking in Brussels. It is safe to say that such issues would have been far from the minds of Faraday and Liebig.
This article is a co-production of the RSC and the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh) and is also published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie.
Meeting member needs
Away from general chemical issues, GDCh and the RSC have to deal with the changing needs of their members. In Germany, Koch notes ’an increasing tendency for members to ask what specific benefits their membership offers’. He recalls how, ’in the past, becoming a member of GDCh was like being a member of a church, which was not questioned even if the advantages for the individual member were not obvious. As a consequence, we now clearly have to identify areas where being a member of GDCh really do make a difference. The idealistic argument of being part of the chemist family does not suffice any more. Among the new services that we offer (or are planning to offer) to our members are electronic forums for networking; improved assistance in our career services; attractive continuing education courses and conferences; and, of course, preferential access to scientific information and other relevant resources’.
Meanwhile, Giachardi notes that the age profile of RSC membership has changed in recent years. ’We are faced with members who join at 18 and who can be with us for over 70 years. This brings the issue of remaining relevant to members with differing expectations and demands, and it gives the membership a long history of what the RSC is and should be. It brings the challenges of offering electronic services for a younger cohort and traditional services for an older cohort. We already offer an extensive range of services and activities and are looking at new ’delivery’ mechanisms, such as the web, CD-Roms, and DVDs, to enhance current provisions and develop new ideas. Members are beginning to judge the organisation in the same way that they judge any other service provider. The key question is: "How is the RSC relevant to me?" Our challenge is to demonstrate that we are, and will continue to be, relevant to members.’
Both societies are trying to modernise to meet member needs . GDCh is developing completely new, personalised services for its members. For example, GDCh, together with the German chemical information centre , recently submitted a project proposal to the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education, to create internet-based "knowledge platform chemistry". At the core of this project will be a guide to all scientists in the molecular sciences active in German publicly funded research institutions and a network of these institutions. ’It all boils down to the fact that we need to understand and to treat our members as our customers, to whom we want to offer the best service available,’ underlines Koch.
Giachardi is very aware of the need for the RSC to be relevant to members. ’We must try and shake off our old fashioned image. We need to be the "must join" organisation if someone has an interest or is active in the chemical sciences. We must provide the best levels of services, products and activities for those interested in the chemical sciences. This makes our educational work in schools, our policy work, our science activities, our publishing and conference activities, our work with the public, and our collaboration with other societies, key areas.’
The Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh) has 26 000 members from academe, industry, and other areas, and is the largest chemical society in continental Europe.
It was founded in 1949 but builds on a long tradition that began in 1867 when the first of its predecessor organisations, the Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft, was founded in Berlin.
The GDCh offers a wide spectrum of services to its members, including conferences and meetings, a highly respected continuing education programme and the publication of a range of successful scientific journals, with Angewandte Chemie as its flagship.
The historic roots of the close cooperation between the chemical societies in Germany and the UK can be traced back to the first president of the Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft, August Wilhelm von Hofmann.
Before returning to Berlin, Hofmann was head of the College of Chemistry in London (1845-65) and president (1861-63) of the Chemical Society, one of the RSC’s predecessor organisations.