Plans to close Sussex chemistry department scrapped, new department created.

Proposed plans to close the University of Sussex chemistry department have been scrapped and a new department of chemistry and biochemistry created. The crisis in the department has prompted a call by politicians and leading scientists for the government to investigate their funding procedures and powers of intervention.

The new merged department was approved by the university senate and council, and is a compromise of original plans by Sussex vice-chancellor Alasdair Smith to create a department of chemical biology, and an alternative plan put to Smith by the chemistry department after the announcement. 

Smith’s original handling of the proposed closure was criticised as being ’seriously flawed’ by the parliamentary science and technology select committee. The select committee also highlighted the higher education funding council for England’s (Hefce’s) lack of power to intervene.

The select committee’s criticism added to the media attention that surrounded the closure plans and meant the university was ’morally forced’ to rethink its plans, Des Turner, MP for Brighton Kemptown, and select committee member told Chemistry World.

Richard Pike, chief executive of the RSC welcomed the new proposals, cautioning that biochemistry must not be allowed to dominate in the new department. Pike identified wider issues that he wants the government to address. There is a disparity between government statements about investing in science for the future and the money that is being allocated, he told Chemistry World.

Select committee member Turner wants Hefce to be given more power by the government, and said the committee will be addressing this issue. ’Nobody is thinking to override the academic autonomy of universities, but there is a responsibility on universities to remember the national interest,’ Turner said. ’The government has not put in place any policy levers for Hefce to do anything positive to help in such situations. That has got to be addressed, and we will be following that up.’

The RSC’s Pike said an ’early warning system’ should be introduced, where the Department for Education and Skills is alerted to signs that a vice-chancellor might be considering closing a department. These signs might include failure of a university to replace faculty members, as happened in Sussex, he suggested. 

Pike also called for ’more transparent rules’ to control how vice-chancellors spend money. At the moment, grants awarded to a department can be distributed throughout the university in whatever way the vice-chancellor decides. This funding-distribution could be included as a performance indicator for the early warning system, said Pike. 

Geoff Cloke, professor of chemistry at Sussex said he hoped the episode will be seen as a watershed for UK chemistry, and funding will be put in place to ensure the ’rot’ doesn’t spread to other universities. The faculty were ’delighted’ to be keeping their jobs, he said. ’We’re all pleased that the vice-chancellor recognises the central importance of chemistry and has had the foresight to support its retention at Sussex,’ said Cloke.

In the new department, all current chemistry staff will remain, but the final details about staffing are yet to be worked out. Cloke predicts that three new chemistry appointments will be made but a university spokesman refused to comment on staffing levels.

Katharine Sanderson