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‘We have to shout a bit louder’

The Royal Society of Chemistry has launched an open consultation on a vision for the “UK chemistry landscape” in 2020. David Phillips, president of the RSC, talks to Research Fortnight Today about the future of the discipline.

Why did you decide to launch this project?

We’re going through times of change in the universities. With the fees issue, I think it’s very uncertain what effect that will have on recruitment. Personally, I think there will be a fundamental pressure on students to complete [an undergraduate chemistry degree] in three years as opposed to four. And we spent a lot of time moving from three to four, but I think we might need to go back again. The other question is what happens to fees for postgraduate students. If they are put up to a very high level, then we might need to think about how we encourage post-graduate students.

Are there other reasons for this exercise outside the university sector?

The other thing is that industry is changing—for example, big pharmaceutical companies are effectively outsourcing a lot of the initial-phase work to smaller companies. So we need to think again: if that traditionally important market for people with chemistry degrees is changing, are we teaching them the right way? We need to know what the industry is looking for in a graduate.

In a statement about the project, you say “Now is the time for the Chemical Sciences to map out key strengths and attract sustainable investment.” What in your opinion are the key strengths?

We’re pretty good across the board. We’re very active in materials chemistry and we’ve been pretty good in biological chemistry. The traditional branch of synthetic chemistry is still pretty strong. The material chemists and nano-scale sciences really do include a lot of what we would have called, in the past, physical chemistry. We’re also getting quite good at energy research, like photovoltaics. In my view, we should be trying to preserve all of these. But we may not be—this will come out of the consultation process. It may be that some universities concentrate on particular areas at the expense of others.

You mentioned several chemistry sub-disciplines there. Compared with physics and biology, do you think chemistry has lost its status as an independent discipline?

I would hope not. It’s a material science and it’s been around for a long time. We have been very inventive and I think we play a key and core role in the advances of many of these multi-discipline areas. But inside those consortia, I think maybe we haven’t shouted loudly enough about how much we are playing the key role. So with other subjects, there has been a tendency to think of chemistry as providing something but not being a driver. We maybe have to shout a bit louder.

A big part of your proposed vision is about strengthening links with industry. Would you have the same vision if we had a different government?

I think the changes that have taken place in industry would have taken place whatever the colour of the government. The message all of us have to get across is that you mustn’t sacrifice investment in long-term research for the sake of a short-term gain, which I think is a danger with the present government. I do believe they are also aware of it. I think we need to fund enough blue-skies research, which 20 years down the line might result in some technological transfer or application. But you can’t put all your eggs in that sort of basket; there are some short-term drivers. You’ve got to get the right balance.

In your landscape vision you say that Research Councils UK committees should have more industry representation. Why?

The reality is that we have to recognise that the research done in universities will in some cases be sponsored by industry. I think it’s perfectly proper that there be industrial people on the research councils that can spot where a piece of research might in the longer term lead to something useful. Because they know what’s going on in their industries that, by and large, many academics don’t. However, I would guard against having people whose aim is to do what you might call short-term contract research. Everybody needs to share this vision of long-term gains.

Your vision states that universities should provide good quality postgraduate training. Do you think the White Paper on HE did enough to ensure continued support for postgraduate study at university?

In chemistry we have a pretty healthy recruitment of people into employment and into industry at the PhD level. There are some concerns that with the removal of PhD studentships from research-grant applications that we will be losing the opportunity to train some people—the number is certainly being cut. That really will disadvantage a lot of academics who work in smaller departments and who don’t have one of these doctoral training centres. There are ways around that, I’m sure, and I hope that will be part of the discussion we have in this landscape project.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has suggested that the changes to universities will make it more profitable to recruit humanities students. Do you think that’s a risk?

It is a danger. We have fought a campaign for many years to preserve as many departments teaching chemistry as possible and we didn’t win every one, but we won quite a few. But there’s going to be an enormous pressure on vice-chancellors. It’s expensive to do laboratory-based subjects. Just the amount of space required is expensive. So there is perhaps going to be a drive towards taking on humanities students who are quite cheap to teach. But that would be terribly short-sighted and I think most vice-chancellors have learned over the past few years that there are a number of departments that have closed their chemistry [divisions] over the past few years that are now actively thinking of opening them again.

Richard Sykes, the former head of GlaxoSmithKline, has said the UK has lost its world-leading position in the pharmaceutical sector. Do you agree?

I would have to listen to that [radio programme] to comment. If you ask that same question in North America, I’m sure you’d get the same response. I’ve heard Sykes say that the targets that people use to combat disease have been looked at, discovered, etc, and the ones that are left are more difficult to attack. So it’s not just a problem in any particular country, it’s much more difficult now to make big breakthroughs. The movement of large [pharma] research programmes abroad is clearly a blow to the UK. But underneath that, there is a move for a lot of the research that has been done corporately to now being done in smaller enterprises. But that means we have to be aware of this fact and we have to try to engage with these smaller enterprises in a way that we’re perhaps not used to.