The number and nature of departments delivering undergraduate chemistry degrees is changing. Paul O'Brien analyses how many are needed
The question of how many chemistry departments we need is very difficult and there is no one simple answer. It needs definitions of ’we need’ and ’a chemistry department’.
Starting with the issue of need, is this UK plc, the world, or the chemists’ community? Chemists are valued graduates in many sectors of society, especially banking, law, accountancy and financial analysis. Their combination of practical expertise and an ability to handle abstract concepts is essential in making chemistry a very useful subject to have studied.
It is surprising how much interest people have in chemistry. They remember it from school as an interesting but difficult subject. This perception does give value to our profession.
For those choosing chemistry as a profession, a chemistry degree is a vocational and professional one. But the profession does not enjoy the respect in the UK that it does, for example, in Germany.
However, to define demand for chemists narrowly in terms of the need of the pharmaceutical or chemical industries would produce far too few chemists. Chemists end up working in almost all interdisciplinary areas from physics and materials science through engineering disciplines to biological and medical sciences.
Chemists also work as science writers and in a wide range of jobs in which a knowledge of the molecule is important. Chemists are also creative and entrepreneurial people if given the chance.
So how many chemistry graduates do we need? The current numbers are about right; chemists do tend to find jobs.
But how many departments do we need? It is clear that the number and nature of departments delivering undergraduate chemistry degrees in the UK is changing and has already done so over the past 10 years.
In the 1970s very small departments with as few as eight permanent staff delivered chemistry degrees and did so well. These very small activities have all but disappeared. It is also clear that the larger university departments are, if not thriving, at least more likely to be stable in the long term than small ones.
In the UK we might expect to see the emergence of 15-20 full function chemistry departments - what perhaps we thought of as a department 20 years ago, with a broad base in teaching and research and a large cohort of undergraduate students.
However, we are bound to have more than 15-20 institutions offering degrees in chemistry or the chemical sciences. The fact that students want to study chemistry and realise that it is a valuable degree means that there is student-led demand for more places than can be provided by the larger departments (universities are in part driven by undergraduate student numbers). It is important that as a profession we manage this situation to maximise our impact.
Finally, there is an issue to do with money and the way universities are funded. The true cost of educating undergraduate chemists needs to be better appreciated by senior management in universities, government and the funding councils. There have been moves to try to improve the situation but some initiatives have not delivered extra income to departments.
Chemistry graduates are expensive to produce but their combination of practical and theoretical skills is valued. So there is no simple answer to the question ’how many departments are needed?’ And there are many issues that will control how many departments there will be in future. We can control some of these issues, but we need to lobby for others, and simple and transparent funding for undergraduate places would be a start.
Paul O’Brien is professor in the chemistry department at Manchester University
How many chemistry departments do we need?