Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex C

  Dear Vice Chancellor

  I am writing as a former graduate in Chemistry from the University of Exeter (BSc 1966, PhD 1969) about the effect of the University's development plans on science teaching at the University. I have no doubt that you have received many messages about the impact of these plans on the Chemistry Department, including from members of University Convocation like me, expressing sentiments of sadness, distress and outrage—all of which I have felt over the past few days. However, I hope that you will read on, because this letter is not simply one expressing the sentiments that you might expect.

  I am a biochemist on the staff of the Department of Biology at York. As you will also see from my letterhead, I am Chair of the Biochemistry Board of Studies, so I have an interest in, and some experience of, the interface between the two parent disciplines which are the cause of present concern in Exeter. I believe that I would be right in saying that the external view of the Chemistry Department is that it is stronger in the classical areas of the subject, rather than at the interface with Biology; this is not to disparage the achievement of Professor Jenny Littlechild in securing funding for her Unit. Likewise, the strengths of Biology are seen very much at the organismal level, and beyond, rather than at the molecular or medical levels. The have been recent appointments that are seeking to bridge this interface, but I think that the essential picture is valid.

  As I understand the plans, it is envisaged that the solution to the problems lies in a new School of Biosciences. In my opinion, it is very optimistic (and misguided) to feel that salvation lies in that direction. There is a lot of very mature and established competition in the area of molecular biosciences, an area that could not be presently described as secure in Exeter. It will be extremely difficult to replace the bulk of the current Chemistry staff with new staff (presumably of 5/5* quality, since this is what it is all about) in time to achieve much by 2007. Exeter would have to invest massively to achieve the necessary staff recruitment, and there are real chances of failure. In addition, student recruitment in the prospective area is likewise very competitive. I speak with direct experience of both undergraduate and graduate course recruitment. So the new staff, as well as looking to establish their positions rapidly, would have to engage heavily in the business of student recruitment, if they are to match the heroic efforts of the present Chemistry staff in that direction.

  In short, the proposed changes are very high risk, in terms of staff appointments and student recruitment, and they likely to be hugely expensive. What is being lost is all too clear to see.

  I hope that, before coming to its decision, the University might consider that it can achieve a desirable strengthening of the molecular and medical biomolecular science area within the present departmental structures by routes that are evolutionary—even if with a greater degree of pressure on the two Departments to move in this direction. In my opinion, the absence of a sound Department of Chemistry, with its vitally important expertise across a range of molecular understanding, is a major impediment to a University's efforts to maintain a serious presence in science, even if, as it appears from the current plan, this presence is viewed as being pre-eminently some kind of adjunct to supporting medical science.

  Many people will to be telling you about what is about to be lost if this proposal goes ahead, and it is a grievous loss. I am also really concerned that the loss will be to no purpose, as the solution may not be a viable one. The University would be better advised to take a longer term view, and invest at the interface (less that would be needed in the proposed plan) so that the University would have the benefit of the activities and students across the range from chemistry through to the biological sciences.

  On a very related but more personal note. My son visited the Chemistry Department at Exeter on a UCAS admissions day last year. Of all the Universities that he visited (also Cambridge, Durham, Nottingham, Bristol and Warwick) the Exeter admissions experience stood out as being in a different league. I am not surprised that admissions to the subject this year have risen so dramatically. Your staff's efforts have been of a very high order of commitment, and it must be deeply depressing that this is the outcome for them. Of course, publicity for the University policy has blown them out of the water this year. I hope that solutions can be found that restore confidence in their subject at Exeter for the future, and would urge you to consider these seriously, even at this late stage. Molecular and medical bioscience is needed at Exeter, but so is chemistry; and the one exists best when supported by activity in the other.

  I am forwarding copies of this letter to the members of the Chemistry Department who are on Senate, as well as to one or two other senior members of the Department.

Dr Jim Hoggett

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Prepared 11 April 2005