An emergency evidence session of the Science and Technology select committee is being considered.

An emergency evidence session of the UK parliamentary Science and Technology select committee is being considered to address proposals to cease chemistry teaching at Sussex University. The senate at Sussex will decide the fate of the chemistry department on Friday.

Select committee member Des Turner, MP for Brighton Kemptown, accused the Sussex administration of being ’incredibly underhanded’ for giving the senate just one week to make the final decision on these proposals. ’It is a major decision for any university to do anything like this,’ Turner told Chemistry World, adding that there has been no opportunity for consultation in the decision-making process. Turner, a former post-doctoral researcher in the chemistry department at Sussex, said that to lose chemistry will ’rip the heart out of Sussex as a science university’.

If the session goes ahead, the committee will call Gerry Lawless, head of department at Sussex, Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor, and representatives from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) to give evidence.

The University of Exeter lost its chemistry department in a similar fashion in 2004, making way for a chemical biology department. The head of that department has since resigned. A number of observers claim that the resignation came after a realisation that it was impossible to teach chemical biology in the absence of a chemistry department. The registrar responsible for the decision at Sussex was previously employed at Exeter. ’This is Exeter mark II,’ said Turner. If Turner had known about the registrar’s appointment in Sussex at the time, ’alarm bells would have been ringing,’ he said.

Elsewhere, chemistry academics and students have been protesting the decision. Nobel laureate, and ex-Sussex faculty member, Harry Kroto said that the university administration had ’purposely undermined the prestige of one of its star departments’. Kroto was referring to a statement on the University website, which has since been removed, claiming that the high ranking of the department in league tables was due to ’our historically high research assessment exercise rating from 2001, and our low student staff ratios due to the very small student intakes.’

Faculty members at the University of Oxford are preparing a letter to the Senate at Sussex. One signatory, Malcolm Green, said that Sussex had suffered from having a number of its academic staff reach retirement age at the same time. With a proper policy in place, he said, this could have been avoided. 

’Sussex chemistry has been treated rather poorly and neglected by the centre management,’ Green told Chemistry World, ’they have not looked after the department at a time when retirements have taken effect.’ Given time, the young faculty at Sussex would have become as successful as its predecessor, Green asserted. Katharine Sanderson

The Science and Technology Committee has since announced it will hold an evidence session on 27 March on the changes to chemistry provision at the University of Sussex.