Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI)


  1.  SCI (The Society of Chemical Industry) is an interdisciplinary network connecting industry, research and consumer affairs at all levels throughout the world, focusing on "where science meets business". It provides opportunities for forward-looking people in the pharmaceuticals, food, agriculture, energy, chemicals, water, materials, environmental protection, and construction areas to exchange ideas and gain new perspectives through meetings, magazines, conferences, peer-reviewed journals and electronic interaction. Founded in London in 1881 and in New York in 1894, SCI is a membership association and registered charity.

  SCI's sectoral coverage is represented by the following diagram:

  2.  Countries that expect enterprises and institutions based on science, technology and medicine (STM) to play a significant part in their future national economy and quality of life must expect to invest appropriately in substantial quantities of high quality science education at all levels. Even countries (and they are few in number) that start out from the position that they do not need a large science base because manufacturing and product-related innovation are not priority areas find they struggle without a wide spread of good science education. This is because the procurement, management and delivery of STM-related goods and services, including healthcare, information technology, consumer protection and environmental control, require the sophisticated application of science related skills. In today's complex world, shortage of such skills quickly leads to poor decision-making on future policy and investment, and on the safe and cost-effective provision of the sort of goods and services essential to modern lifestyles. More typically, countries will focus their advanced scientific education and research resources around the industrial and service priorities of their economies. They will do this whilst continuing to ensure excellent primary and secondary level general science teaching to underpin occupational flexibility and responsible approaches to personal and family decisions and wider democratic participation.

  3.  Although SCI covers a wide range of disciplines even beyond science as traditionally identified, it is indisputable that chemistry is a core discipline throughout the spectrum of STM activity. In addition to the large number of chemists required for direct employment, for example in industry, primary production and extraction, commerce, regulation, liaison and health provision, chemistry teachers are required in large numbers to ensure the provision of key components of a general education and professional "formation" of those destined for a much wider range of occupations. Chemistry is thus not a dispensable or optional extra and a sufficient supply of inspiring teachers at all levels is required to undertake the necessary teaching and training, and to provide a surplus in recognition of the sort of promotion, career development and international movement of people that always occurs.

  4.  As a teaching subject at the higher education level, chemistry relies upon the stimulus and renewal that comes from interaction with research workers. This cannot be left to chance, but requires spatially distributed centres of excellence covering all of the main centres of population, and with advantage also additional centres of excellence related to particular STM-enterprise or—institution clusters.

  5.  Examples follow of the views of SCI members in a few of the many sectors in which chemistry plays a major part, as well as those concerned with entrepreneurship, and social and administration aspects of higher education. This has been undertaken at speed to meet the timetable of the Select Committee. It is not exhaustive, either in terms of coverage or of the particular points of emphasis.

  6.  SCI members in the Pharmaceutical industry emphasise that chemistry is the core discipline in drug discovery and development. Research-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries cannot survive without the provision of well-trained chemistry graduates in large numbers. It is also a core discipline in other industries that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies rely upon, and in medicine and related disciplines. Medicine, in particular, relies on integrated work across the sciences, and medical breakthroughs are often based on collaborative work between departments or the sharing of knowledge and expertise across the sciences. The closure of chemistry facilities puts groundbreaking medicine-related research and development under threat. A recent speech by SCI's current World President, and Chief Executive of AstraZeneca Sir Tom McKillop, ( sets the pharmaceutical sector and its requirements in a global context.

  7.  Examples of other vital industries and public organisations that cannot operate without well-trained chemists are:

    —  electronics (semiconductors, displays, LEDs, memory etc);

    —  the food industry;

    —  agriculture;

    —  polymers and coatings;

    —  environmental industries;

    —  water industries;

    —  personal and domestic hygiene and care;

    —  advanced materials;

    —  nanotechnology; and

    —  and many more .  .  .

  As with pharmaceuticals, many other industrial employers in these sectors with R&D, manufacturing and service facilities will prefer to employ qualified nationals in these functions. If the supply and quality is insufficient, the inevitable tendency will be for such high tech/high knowledge/high value functions to be fulfilled by other nationals or in other locations—clearly an effect opposite to the long term intentions of national education and employment strategies.

  8.  In relation to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) there is a close link between innovation and the supply of suitable employees. Many SMEs have strong ties with one local university department, with sometimes the majority of their staff having been first attracted to the area by the university. Many SMEs have actually "spun-out" of university departments and rely on the same department for consultancy, contract work (such as analysis) and access to lectures and conferences. The weakening of established links to academics will have an impact on innovation and technology transfer between academia and smaller research organisations with limited resources. This in turn will affect the chemistry-based industry, potentially reducing jobs and further damaging the attractiveness of chemistry as a career and degree subject.

  9.  The relationship between smaller chemistry departments and larger departments is often of a symbiotic nature. Many smaller departments have a reputation for producing graduates who are attractive both to industry and to the bigger university research departments. The majority of jobs for science graduates including teaching are at first degree level. It follows that provision of well-trained science graduates is a vital activity, which must not simply be a by-product from major research schools. A decrease in the supply of research-oriented graduates through the uncoordinated closure of chemistry departments will have severe consequences for both industry and the major research universities. Smaller departments that provide good teaching as well as doing some research and/or provide support for industry should be encouraged and should be judged on the overall value of their provision, not just on research and in particular not just on the level of research income.

  10.  The social dimension could easily be overlooked. The issue of access is an important one for science degrees. Science has traditionally provided a route whereby people from less well-off backgrounds find success. Many leading chemists in industry and academia came from poorer backgrounds. If chemistry degree courses were only to be accessible to the students with the highest university entrance scores, chemistry would become inaccessible to students who had not fully developed their academic skills at age 18. As a consequence there would be inadequate provision of chemists, appropriately educated for the wide range of technical and research jobs demanded by a high-tech economy. In addition, students increasingly attend universities in their region and so there must be provision for sciences in every centre of the population. Departments that concentrate on teaching could play a big part in encouraging young people into science. If there is no local provision they will study other subjects that are less beneficial to the economy.

  11.  The provision of well-trained and motivated graduates for science teaching represents a significant challenge for the future if we are to attract good students into science. Taking chemistry in Britain as an example, only 40 % of chemistry students in years 12 and above are taught by teachers with a chemistry degree. The fact that chemistry graduates are attractive to a range of employers, and can benefit from well-paid careers, has for several decades pulled chemists away from teaching as a primary career option. The same is not necessarily true of graduates from other disciplines for whom teaching may be the major opportunity for employment.

  12.  In relation to the specific questions about science provision in English universities posed by the Select Committee, there has not been time to survey the opinions of all those in the SCI membership with relevant knowledge and experience, but the following views are thought to be reasonably typical of those with experience of the management of medium-sized English university departments of chemistry:

  12.1  HEFCE's research funding formulae has had a very bad effect on the financial viability of many good university science departments. This is the opinion of many chemists, even in "safe" departments.

  12.2  The policy leading to the concentration of research in too small a number of departments has been a mistake.

  12.3  Weightings in the teaching funding formula are to a great extent arbitrary and have resulted in a "notional" overspend in some science departments.

  12.4  All university science departments should be expected to make provision for research. This is not to say that every member of staff has to be both teacher and researcher, but a healthy balance between teaching and research has paid handsome dividends in the past. If research is not encouraged, the quality of the science teaching at first degree level is likely to suffer.

  12.5  It is important to ensure that there is adequate provision of a regional capacity in university science teaching and research.

  12.6  The UK Government should intervene to ensure the continuing provision of subjects of both national and regional importance.

  13.  In addition, SCI has a high regard for the data on Britain produced by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI) and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and urges the Select Committee to accord it proper weight.

  14.  In summary any rationalisation of research provision needs to be better managed and co-ordinated within England. In assessing the research productivity of a department, account should be taken of the other demands on staff, particularly with low staff numbers, where teaching loads are high. A funding system is needed that allows maintenance of good teaching departments throughout the country, not all of which should be expected to engage in research at the highest level. The country needs sufficient chemistry departments suitably located geographically to satisfy local needs and be properly funded. This will require a major strategic review of chemistry education in the UK, and funding needs to be provided in the very near future to stop the disintegration of chemistry education in UK universities.

January 2005

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 11 April 2005