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MPs grill Sussex VC on chemistry dept closure

Administration's proposals 'laughable'

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Sussex University's top brass were last night hauled up in front of an emergency House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee to explain their plan to end chemistry teaching and research at the institution.

In a packed committee room MPs lit a Bunsen burner under Vice Chancellor Alistair Smith, the man responsible for moves to mothball the respected department.

He claimed that sliding staff and student numbers meant it was “no longer viable” in its current form, but assured the panel that all options were still open.

Coming hot on the heels of similar windings down of chemistry operations at Exeter and King's College, this latest closure move is part of a worrying trend for politicians.

In his recent budget Gordon Brown sounded like a broken Thomas Dolby record, mentioning “science” and “scientific” no fewer than 18 times.

DTI Secretary of State Alan Johnson recently crowed about Labour's record on science.

Also giving evidence before the cross-party committee, frustrated Sussex Head of Chemistry Gerry Lawless described Smith's proposals as a “crazy idea...absolute madness”. He has vocally criticised both how the affair has been handled by admin, and their plans to somehow leave a skeleton faculty to teach biochemistry.

He pointed out that no other university has been able to successfully provide such an interdisciplinary programme without a solid chemistry base.

During the hour and a half long session, Lib Dem committee Chair Phil Willis made it clear that he sympathised with Lawless's take on the proposition, describing Smith's sans-fondation chemical biology plan as “laughable”.

Smith admitted his administration's first proposals had been effectively scrapped once academics had been allowed to see them. He added that pruning the faculty in a biological direction was still very much on the table.

Relations between Sussex and the Royal Society of Chemistry have become frosty over the affair. Smith sniped during the hearing, pushing the line that the society's efforts to bring the plans to public attention had only served to make the discussions over the department's future more difficult.

Chairman Willis dismissed the vice chancellor's buck-passing and hush-hushery as "unbelievable".

The committee were particularly exercised by how the announcements regarding the future of chemistry at Sussex had been handled by the administration. Both academics and funding bodies have complained of a lack of consultation.

During the last Research Assessment Exercise, a measure of how a department is performing, Sussex chemists received the second-highest possible rating. Although it still retains two Nobel Prize winners, since then the faculty has shed staff in retirements and appointments at other institutions. Many have not been replaced.

Lawless alleged funding earned by chemistry from both intellectual property rights and government research awards has been siphoned away from the department. The vice chancellor protested that, although it is no secret that the South coast institution's financial position was "difficult", nobody had had their hands in chemistry's till.

Lawless retorted that this was “certainly the case”. He estimated £700,000 of earmarked money had disappeared to other parts of the university, maintaining chemistry is “not a department withering, but a department under-resourced".

The backbiting meant the hearing briefly descended into dispute over the state of chemistry's balance sheet. The committee invited the two sides to make submissions in writing.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) acting Chief Exec Steve Egan was repeatedly pushed by the MPs to explain why his agency had apparently done nothing to avert the crisis. He blamed market forces. Egan said he was powerless in the case of individual departments, but hinted HEFCE would like more powers intervene in future.

The rumpus looks set to roll on for some time yet. The department was granted a stay of execution by a meeting of the University Senate on 17 March while it gathers evidence. Any closure must also be approved down the line by the University Council.

Lawless ended by telling MPs he remained “very hopeful” of a permanent reprieve. The department is set to table a blueprint for a future more reliant on industry collaboration. He believes the adverse coverage attracted by the mooted closure could be turned in a revitalised department's favour.

For his part, Smith asserted “nothing would please him more” than being able to retain chemistry provision. ®

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