The value of PhDs, defending the defence scientists and retention problems in teaching

PhDs with purpose

Derek Lowe’s article (Chemistry World, May 2015, p21) makes a more convincing case than Richard Leveton’s letter (Chemistry World, May 2015, p46). Education · even at PhD level · is more than just training to do a job. Nor do the activities undertaken during education have to be perpetuated for their lessons to be useful.

A PhD is about learning to do research – not just in terms of procedures and bodies of knowledge, but also ways of thinking, scientific methodology, self-discipline, objectivity and collaboration. Research expertise is therefore valued in sectors beyond academia.

Scientific research also (I hope) teaches the value of science to our wider society; having trained scientists move into other walks of life can only help the cause.

N Gudde FRS
Surrey, UK

I would like to offer a slightly different view to Richard Leveton. I work in industry and I have come across a number of people with PhDs who have struggled to apply their extensive knowledge to industrial environments because they have not had the opportunity to learn how industry works before being thrust into it.

During my A-levels I realised that I wanted a job in the chemicals industry. During my studies at my polytechnic (now a university), I felt the need to get some hands-on experience. Doing two six-month stints in industry as part of my course allowed me not only to see how chemistry is used but also · more importantly · to work with teams of people.

I think that PhD students must take the opportunity to work in industry at some point in their training as it will stand them in very good stead for their whole career.

R Williams MRSC
Huddersfield, UK

Piles of polystyrene

Early in the New Year I took some items to a recycling centre. When I approached the large container for non-recyclable material, I was surprised to see that the whole surface was covered with panels and chunks of expanded polystyrene.

I contacted the county council to see why this material was not being recycled and was told that there did not seem to be any company that would accept polystyrene for recycling and in any case it weighed very little and so contributed only a small amount to the cost of that route of disposal.

It hardly enhances the public view of chemists in general and polymer chemists in particular that we have not solved the problem of recycling or at least substituted a more biodegradable packaging material that is as easy and economically viable to use.

N Groocock MRSC
Bakewell, UK

Defence in the dock

The article ‘It’s a bloody business; (Chemistry World, April 2015, p54) casts aspersions on defence scientists in court cases. Denise Stanworth’s comment that they ‘muddy the waters’ is grossly inaccurate and impugns the defence expert.

In the same article Robin Braithwaite comments that the situation in forensic science, including toxicology, is a ‘dog’s breakfast’ and this description is supported by our review of a number of cases in both drugs and toxicology. It is therefore even more important for the defence scientist to scrutinise the work of the prosecution expert.

My colleagues and I spend a considerable proportion of our time clarifying prosecution reports because budget cuts, work pressures and ‘product-based’ forensic analytical procurement mean that the analyses carried out on behalf of the Crown may be restricted and the comments and interpretations made by the Crown’s experts can be extremely limited and often in a standard ‘cut and paste’ format. Indeed the defence scientist may be party to more information than that provided by the police and is therefore able to set the analytical results in a more complete context.

Furthermore it is the duty of both the prosecution and defence scientists to execute their roles as independent experts for the Court and to present alternative scenarios to the Court even if they may not suit one side or the other.

A Allan CChem FRSC
Oldham, UK

Tools of the trade

Derek Lowe is right (Chemistry World, May 2015, p21). Chemists may not routinely use all the tools in the mathematical box, but what matters is that most chemists are fluent enough to use maths with confidence when they need it. Like other languages, fluency comes from regular use.

That’s why it’s important that maths is part of every school student’s curriculum to the age of 18. Dropping maths at age 15 or 16 does no one any favours, whatever their future occupation.

J Holman FRSC
University of York, UK

Alternative antifreeze

After seeing the article on a new ‘Safe antifreeze’ based on propylene glycol (Chemistry World, May 2015, p10), I went to my basement to confirm that the last bottle of antifreeze I purchased in fact contains propylene glycol, not ethylene glycol.

While John Hoskins pointed out in the article that ethylene glycol might be more effective at lowering the melting point of water, the instructions on the bottle I have suggest that a 1:1 mixture of propylene glycol and water will be effective even in the worst Swedish winters, rated to –35°C. I would also like to point out that antifreeze is useful in summer as it lowers the vapour pressure of the water in the car’s cooling system.

Mark R StJ Foreman
Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden

Power to the people

I fully agree with Phillip Broadwith’s comments (Chemistry World, May 2015, p14) concerning the important contribution employees can make to the success of a project or organisation.

In the mid-20th century, a lot of research took place, mainly by psychologists, into organisational structures, how employees are treated and their motivation. It was an aspect of work that fascinated me, and my employers, the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board, encouraged my interest.

I am now long retired but get the impression that all that work, which I found extremely helpful, has been forgotten and replaced by massive bureaucracy. I have written a summary of the analysis of management styles in those past years: The human side of work. Yesterdays lessons forgotten? I think it is relevant to all levels of management in both paid and voluntary organisations and should be of interest to people in those roles.

B Skelcher CChem MRSC
Leiston, UK

School leavers

Something very worrying may be happening to our young chemistry teachers. I often come across former chemistry students who are tired and disillusioned with their experiences of teaching in secondary schools and are turning their backs on the profession.

It does not take much research to find out why: crushing workloads, stress, poor support and the never-ending spectre of Ofsted inspections are among the main reasons. Indeed, figures recently put forward by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers suggest that an astounding 38% of newly qualified teachers call it a day within only one year of beginning their teaching careers.

 The RSC has rightly supported the training of new chemistry teachers through the award of bursaries of up to £25,000 to help ensure there are enough specialist chemistry teachers in our schools. Expensive bursaries are of little effect, however, if the recipients do not stay in teaching for long enough to learn their trade and make a significant impact.

I call on the RSC to publish statistics on the proportion of trainees within this scheme who successfully complete their training, and statistics on retention of trainee chemistry teachers after one year of completing their training (and when figures eventually become available, after five years). Should these numbers reflect the reported trends, perhaps the RSC could use its considerable influence to help ensure our new chemistry teachers are properly nurtured into long-term rewarding careers.

D Fulton MRSC
Newcastle, UK

Response from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s education team:

Thank you for your comments about the recruitment and retention of chemistry teachers. This is an issue that we, and the Department for Education, are concerned about, and the scholarships form just part of our work in this area.  

We want to understand impact of the scholarship programme, both in attracting more graduates into teaching, and in improving retention of trainee teachers. Our data tells us that 93% of our first scholars completed their teacher training courses in July 2014. This compares to an average of 84% for all trainee science teachers.  We’re pleased to see such a high number of our scholars completing their training, and we will continue to monitor their progress as they move on in their teaching careers.

Riddle unravelled

I was most interested to read the article ‘Coloured water riddle solved’ (Chemistry World, May 2015, p26). It purports to explain, for the first time, how two-component droplets move spontaneously on glass slides owing to changes in surface tension created by the preferential evaporation of one component.

This work is merely an extension of work reported in the British Association Report for 1855 from a lecture given to the association by James Thompson ‘On certain curious motions observable on the surfaces of wine and other alcoholic liquors’. He explained the movement of wine up the sides of a glass, and the subsequent formation of droplets, by the effects of surface tension and evaporation.

Historical science contains much wisdom, yet it is difficult to access. As a result, people can spend much time and effort rediscovering something known to our predecessors. This may be one example of a more widespread problem.

M K Baldwin
Kent, UK

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