From Susan Kelly, Coordinator -Chemistry, Thurston Community College

Our chairman of governors was keen to draw our attention to [the RSC’s] article in The Daily Telegraph of February 18 2004, entitled ’British chemistry faces extinction’.

We are a state school, of 1350 students, which as from September 2004 will have Special Status in Science. Our chemistry department is thriving, having qualified chemists as teachers, three of whom belong to the RSC. We would like to offer you some hope that chemistry is not so near extinction as you may fear, especially in this part of Suffolk. We do have fluctuating numbers of would-be A level chemists from year to year, but always good numbers. In fact, of this year’s current Year 11 pupils we have 45 good candidates who have expressed an interest in doing AS Chemistry for the year 2004-2005, the majority of whom will carry on through to A2.

Yes, I do agree that many of our students may only then study chemistry as undergraduates as part of another science based course, but we do have a Year 13 student who has been offered a place at Oxford University to study chemistry.

We remain hopeful that chemistry will become more highly favoured by undergraduates in the future.

We would like to extend our thanks to the RSC for the continued support it gives to teachers and lecturers of chemistry, in terms of valuable teaching materials, training and excellent communications.

Susan Kelly MRSC CChem
Suffolk, UK


From Michael Tzimas

I was just wondering why you do not discuss the topic of chemistry department closures in Chemistry World at all. I have been a member of the RSC for many years and even so I have to confess I do not read every last article, I do at least scan them all and read what is of interest to me. I do not recall a passionate editorial about the plight of the closure of Kings College chemistry department and I do not expect to read any lengthy article about the potential closure of the chemistry department in Swansea.

You always claim to champion the causes of chemistry, but yet I have seen little evidence of any passionate and/or public efforts being made from the RSC on this topic. However, I wonder who should speak out publicly if not the team that publishes one of the most popular chemistry publications around.

M Tzimas CChem MRSC
By e-mail

Editor’s response

Chemistry World and Chemistry in Britain have given this serious matter coverage over the past year, please see: 

  • Chem. Brit, May 2003 p7, news item about King’s college department closure
  • Chem. Brit., June 2003 p3, comment by David Giachardi, RSC chief executive
  • Chem. Brit., June 2003 p20, letters
  • Chem. Brit., September 2003, p6, news item about King’s college department closure
  • Chemistry World, January 2004, p6, news item about Queen Mary’s college department closure
  • Chemistry World, February 2004, Story online about Swansea university department closure. 

The closure of UK university chemistry departments is an area of great concern and Chemistry World will continue to cover any further developments. 


From Donald Elmore

I was sorry to read the obituary of Bernard Henbest in the May issue of Chemistry World. I first got to know him when we were students at Imperial College (IC) in 1942. Although he displayed no ostentation, it was clear that he had a remarkable knowledge of organic chemistry from the beginning of the course. There was a story emanating from his student peers at the end of the academic year that the examiners had difficulty in marking his organic paper down to 98 per cent. The story was probably apocryphal, but there was an element of truth in it. After graduation in 1944, he remained to do research at IC while I moved to Nottingham. Several years later, our paths converged again at Queen’s University, Belfast, where he had been appointed to the chair of organic chemistry and I was in the department of biochemistry. We collaborated in several ways until he announced that he was taking early retirement as described in your obituary. Some time later, I met Bernard again at a Chemical Society meeting in London on peptides. Sitting beside him, I noticed that he was busily writing notes on this field that previously had failed to arouse his interest. I wondered if he was planning a comeback, but I refrained from asking him; he was a very private person. When we parted, we both hoped that our paths would come together in the future but it was not to be. I never saw him again.

His retirement was a serious loss to British chemistry. It would surely have been possible for some organisation or charity to fund a research chair for him as was done in the case of the late George Kenner. Clearly, his refusal of an FRS ruled out the Royal Society as a possible benefactor, but several commercial organisations would probably have been sympathetic or even eager to have him on their letter headings. In the event, his midsummer and autumnal years produced very little academic fruit.

D T Elmore FRSC
Oxfordshire, UK


From Martin Maple

In response to Oliver Beckingham’s concern about graduate jobs (Chemistry World, March 2004, p24): many companies use once-a-year ’milkround’ recruitment via their websites, or they employ temporary contractors through agencies, to fill entry-level jobs, with only a very few specific vacancies being advertised in the press. Nevertheless, finding a job is far from easy, as candidates with BScs will find themselves competing with applicants holding PhDs and often also with those having one to three years’ postdoctoral research experience. When compared to PhDs and postdocs someone with a first degree has limited research experience and so may very well find that only jobs in more routine analytical chemistry functions are available to them. A PhD student may suffer though if their thesis is not submitted on time to synchronise with a once-a-year recruitment programme, while both PhDs and postdocs may appear unattractive to industry if their research is judged to have made them too specialist or to have been pursued at the expense of developing skills such ’business acumen’ or the ability to work to tight deadlines.

Peter Plesch is right to say that many jobs in chemistry are fun and give opportunity for innovation (Chemistry World, May 2004, p24). But if chemists were really the rarities that Plesch contends, salaries would be pushed up, and permanent jobs for recent graduates would perhaps not be so hard to find. This is not the experience of your anonymous correspondent (Chemistry World, May 2004, p25), or of me, or of anyone else I know! It must be concluded that there are far more chemists than jobs to be filled in chemistry. So while it is all very well re-stating the point that chemists possess a plethora of transferable skills, and are therefore an asset in many different jobs, this is cold comfort to those who want to apply their chemical knowledge but cannot find a suitable job in which to do it.

M J Maple MRSC
Wolverhampton, UK


From Brian Grieveson

Shortage of chemists? What shortage?

The May 2004 issue of Chemistry World provides an interesting juxtaposition of comments on the need for more chemistry graduates in the UK. David Giachardi 1 bemoans the fact that UK undergraduate chemist numbers have fallen by 25 per cent over the last five to six years. Why should this be - especially as Peter Plesch ’who is proud to be a chemist’ points out 2, ’chemistry is fun’?

Perhaps the anonymous recent PhD3 has part of the answer. He complains that both he and his PhD partner took over a year to find jobs and not at PhD level. This is not exactly the expected response of chemical industry crying out for new chemists. He also comments on the relatively modest salaries being offered. The industry claims 4 that it needs ’scientists and engineers who have various attributes: the ability to analyse, plan, delegate, negotiate, communicate and be diplomatic’. But is it prepared to pay for all these talents?

It seems that financial industry is prepared to snap up chemistry graduates at much more generous salaries. Quite clearly the finance business appreciates the skills that the chemistry graduate has to offer - and rewards them. The chemical industry seems to be ignoring a basic economic tenet. Products in demand cost more! If there really is a shortage of chemists, then the chemical industry has the answer in its own hands (or purse).

If one adds to the salary equation the fact that the UK chemical industry continues to shrink and job security decreases, one can hardly blame the worldly-wise student for looking elsewhere for a future!

B M Grieveson CChem FRSC
Farnham, UK