Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 71

Memorandum from Dr Nigel Stanfield Clarke

  I submit this document in my private capacity, my interest in this inquiry stems from my holding a Bachelor's and Doctor's degrees in Chemistry from the University of Exeter.

THE SPECIFIC CASE OF THE CHEMISTRY DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EXETER

  The University of Exeter has announced a number of drastic proposals which it terms "Refocusing the University" In practical terms this involves department closures—in the case of the chemistry department this means the loss if a strategic science subject—and staff redundancies. In my opinion this is not so much a "refocusing" but a "limited field of view with loss of resolution"—to continue the optical analogy.

  I refer mainly to the minutes of a meeting of the Council of the University of Exeter held on 20 December 2004. (attached)

  (A)  These minutes indicate that the decision to close the department of chemistry was taken impulsively under the threat of the Auditors not to sign off the accounts, because of the poor financial situation at Exeter and the Auditors warning that the credibility of Senior Management and Council was at stake. In other words. the decision to close the Exeter Chemistry department was taken at short notice, under duress, with personal credibilities as priorities, without due consideration for the consequences, and with insufficient opportunities for alternative solutions to be proposed by staff affected.

  (B)  Moreover, the Council members were browbeaten into voting unconstitutionally for the closures by the Vice Chancellor "if [council] members did not support the proposals they needed to offer realistic alternatives rather than simply vote against". My argument is that there had been no time for any of the involved parties (staff students senate council) to prepare such alternative proposals.

  The arguments presented by the university to council are often contradictory:

  For example the Vice Chancellor talked about "the need to build on excellence in science" (the Chemistry Department had achieved a 4 rating in the last RAE http://www.hero.ac.uk) He said that critical mass was particularly important in the Sciences". He spoke about the need to "glory in the University's achievements particularly in regard to Science [....] and science base". This is perplexing since the main part of the meeting was about CUTTING out the main central science of chemistry, ignoring achievements and reducing the science base.

  The Vice Chancellor said that a strategy for growth should recognise Exeter's individuality and not simply be based on comparisons with other institutions. Elsewhere he confounds his argument, justifying his closure proposals by directly comparing Exeter with other institutions Oxford, Sussex, East Anglia, Cambridge and the institutions mentioned by the BBC.

  He spoke about the 2008 RAE and concluded that there would be no funding for 4 rated departments. In this he is assuming that the 2008 RAE would actually take place, not taking into account the widespread misgivings about the exercise and indeed doubts whether it will take place at all. If the 2008 RAE does take place how can he assume that Exeter chemistry would NOT receive a 5 or 5* rating. Even if the status remained at 4 there is no hard evidence that no funding would be forthcoming.

  The timing of the closure announcements and meetings to approve and ratify give cause for concern.

  In the summer of 2004 the University was happy to announce a £3 million refurbishment of the Chemistry laboratories. The Head of Department Prof Duncan Bruce announced record high levels of undergraduate recruitment. The Science Minister Lord Sainsbury toured the university on the occasion of the BA meeting in September and was pleased with developments and achievements in Chemistry. On 22 November a bare two months later, the closure of the chemistry department was announced, on 1 December Senate approved the closure and on 20 December Council ratified it.

  However it is important to note that on 18 November, four days before the closure announcement, the audit committee was informed by the auditors that

    the accounts would not be signed off unless certain requirements

    concerning financial management had been met.

  The closures were announced on 22 November.

  Senate met on 1 December to vote on the closures and approved them.

  A subsequent meeting of the Audit committee was held on 16 December, four days before the Council meeting.

  The Auditors were satisfied that "sufficiently robust" measures were being taken to sustain the institution as a going concern. They would sign off the accounts for 2003-04 as long as [on condition that] Council approved the [..] recommendations for restructuring and expenditure reductions.

  At the council meeting of 20 December the representative of the Audit committee said that Audit committee wanted Council to know that

    Financial covenants with the banks should not be broken again

    The Credibility of Senior management and Council was at stake

  In other words, the University acted under the Auditors duress to propose sufficient closures and staff cuts in order to enable it (the University) to get its accounts signed off and to preserve the credibility of Senior Management and Council.

  It is to be assumed that the University's accounts for 2003-04 have now been signed off given that Council have approved "sufficiently robust" recommendations for restructuring and expenditure reductions.

  It is a great shame that no importance had been attached to and insufficient opportunity allowed for, finding alternative solutions.

  There may be one exception. As Professor Talbot Head designate of the proposed School of Biological and Chemical Sciences so disparagingly said of proposals by chemistry staff to create a School of Natural Sciences; ". . .[it] might seem attractive, but . . . .it represented the management of decline and an unwillingness to make difficult decisions."

  It is perhaps not surprising that someone in Prof Talbot's position would indeed make such a statement.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SCIENCE OF CHEMISTRY

  A typical dictionary definition of chemistry might be:

    1.  The science of the composition, structure, properties, and reactions of matter, especially of atomic and molecular systems.

    2.  The composition, structure, properties, and reactions of a substance

  This section is concerned with the possibilities of career choices and continued professional developments which the academic study of chemistry can afford. I cite my own career choices and subsequent development in example only.

  I would like to demonstrate the powerful impetus to a career which chemistry can impart and the lifelong benefits which a knowledge of chemistry can bestow, and from which personally I have benefited.

  As mentioned in the introduction, I have a BSc (1st class) in Chemistry and a PhD from the University of Exeter. I chose chemistry above physics to study at university because of my experiences at A level. I was fortunate, in the Chemistry Department at Exeter to encounter a dedicated enthusiastic staff teaching a strong core chemistry course, around which one could study ancillary subjects (in my case, mathematics (compulsory) and physics (optional)). One could also follow a number of chemistry options which enabled one to specialise or generalise. I chose to specialise in physical chemistry, and chose options accordingly. I graduated with a solid grounding in chemistry, mathematics and physics, the latest knowledge of physical chemistry and research experience. This stood me in good stead for my next career choice; what research and where? The answer was easy; remain at Exeter, but study at the interface between physics and chemistry, supervised by world class researchers and carry out experiments at international facilities. My PhD was financed by the then SRC under the CASE Award scheme, and involved neutron scattering research at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Institut Laue Langevin Grenoble.

  This short cv is just to underline the scientific flexibility, which a degree in chemistry can generate.

  This flexibility, and agility of mind acquired during the Exeter Chemistry years allowed me to then move into academic research in materials science, advanced instrumentation R&D, defence R&D, and defence project management. From there I moved into intellectual property—as a patent examiner, thence into IT project management, and I am currently in a marketing and promotion post in an international organisation. (European Patent Office). During my professional development I have acquired professional qualifications in chemistry and in physics, and I have recently been designated a chartered scientist (CSci) as conferred by the Science Council.

  This career history is not to promote myself, but to highlight the wide possibilities that study of chemistry can provide. My own wide range of career options, development and experiences would not have been possible had I not studied chemistry at Exeter. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking my mentors at Exeter during the 70s and 80s for their guidance and inspired teaching.

  I owe a lot to Chemistry and in presenting this document, I hope to put something back.

February 2005



 
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