Is the merger of chemistry departments to form broader science departments a good thing?

A: Chemistry has always been a multidisciplinary subject. One only has to look at the recent Nobel Prizes to appreciate the enormous impact chemists have had on the biosciences and materials. Recognising this, we at Surrey initiated three years ago a reorganisation which saw chemistry merge with the biosciences into a powerful new School of Biomedical & Molecular Sciences. Chemists are also strongly represented along with physicists and engineers in the recently formed UniS Materials Institute. These moves have not only greatly strengthened chemistry’s position in the university, but allowed us to maintain a range of RSC-accredited undergraduate degree programmes.

Patrick Dowling, vice-chancellor, University of Surrey, UK

A: Yes. And no. Yes, because any financial savings that can be made are beneficial and there are good business, research and pedagogical reasons for interdisciplinary degrees. No, if the decision means that chemistry will not be taught as a single subject - because that’s what the country needs and what employers ask for.
Unfortunately, honours chemistry is difficult and lacks the ’image’ of other populist, ’diluted’ flavours of chemistry. It is, and always will be, expensive to teach. But difficulty and expense are not excuses that have produced advances. Neither must they influence now. The government must put its money where its mouth is. Or we fail.

Elizabeth Hounsell, head of the school of biological and chemical sciences, Birkbeck University of London, UK

A:As a discipline, chemistry has, over the years, provided a link between physics and biology (as well as materials science) and in some sense has helped in ’translating’ ideas and approaches among these disciplines. This has been even more so the case in recent times where the growing interdisciplinary nature of many research efforts has necessitated that these disciplines engage in the active and vigorous exchange of ideas and resources. Whereas the role of chemistry in this context has been most helpful, I believe that integrating chemistry into larger departments will have a diluting effect that, in the long run, will be detrimental. I believe that in order for chemistry to continue in its role as ’universal translator’ it needs to retain its identity.

Héctor D. Abruña, Emile M. Chamot professor and chair, department of chemistry & chemical biology, Cornell University, US

A: A better question would be in contemplating a merger of chemistry with other disciplines, what factors are important to safe guard or risk losing the essence of the field. Before one applauds or condemns a merger, one has to ask is there a desired effect, and can side effects be tolerated.
I like chemistry. I think it is a discipline well defined as the study of matter and its transformation. A chemistry department comfortably house many kinds of scientists interested in matter and its transformations. My personal view is that chemists distinguish themselves by their natural affinity toward the manipulation (design and synthesis) of material structure and properties. They have developed an iconic language in chemical formula and diagnostic form of analysis based on empirical chemical logic. These are the special aspects of chemistry that should be preserved.

Chemical logic in designing a synthesis or deconstructing a mechanism can serve as the logical basis for clinical diagnosis. If this chemical thought process can be retained in teaching as well as research then a merger might well benefit all.

For instance, many materials physicists, molecular biologists, applied mathematicians, medical clinicians and engineers find the material design and synthesis concept stimulating. As such, a very effective research/teaching organisation could be built around a curriculum that merged research groups from these areas. Here chemical principles would be paramount, but further supported by incredible advances made in these other intellectually rich and exciting areas. Students would be well trained to ask and answer scientific questions of a molecular nature. Society would benefit from multi-disciplinary research discoveries that would directly impact the development of new compositions of matter with new physical properties.

Does that mean I support such departmental mergers? Should most or all universities take this tack? Not unless they first concluded that these are the effects they want, have the faculty expertise to carry it off and have made a considered decision to support the programme and suffer the side effects that would occur from restructuring. 

What perhaps is unfortunate is that many university administrations live in a context focused on monetary issues. This contextual pressure places obvious stresses onto faculty and forces them, out of survival, to justify existence through short-term cash solutions. Such is not a productive context for any action. Worse is that chemistry is an expensive discipline, so marginalising it by merging it ’broadly’ may be viewed as a way to cut costs. But this can easily be a false economy, if chemical problem solving becomes a lost art. Are we confident that we will not need to readdress broad questions with fundamental chemical logic in the future? Have these questions even been asked?

Ultimately chemical logic needs to be preserved not chemistry departments. Whatever the institution, if its practitioners adhere to the thought process of chemistry, then chemistry will survive. Chemical logic is what makes chemistry special and justifies its place as an academic discipline. It is the gift we give our students and we should not lose it.

Jay Siegel, institute of organic chemistry, University of Zurich, Switzerland