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Academic laurels alone do not guarantee survival, according to Mike Spear in his monthly column.

By Mike Spear

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Two stories that came across my desk last month left me reflecting upon the true value of education in our increasingly technologically driven world. Despite Marshall McLuhan’s 40-year-old prophecy of the “global village” — now largely come to fruition thanks to the web — it’s fair to say that neither story would have made many headlines outside of its own country. But it would be no bad thing if they did, at least in each other’s country.

First off from the U.S. was the announcement that the Dow Chemical Company Foundation is to endow $2 million to a fund that will benefit Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Chemical Engineering — the largest such gift by a corporate partner in the school’s history. Explaining Dow’s thinking behind the endowment, William F. Banholzer, its corporate vice president and chief technology officer, said: “Penn State has been selected as one of our Strategic University Partners due to their world-class engineering and materials group, as well as the university’s progressive policy on intellectual property. We look forward to expanding our research collaborations with the university and we hope this grant enables them to continue their tradition of excellence.”

Now Dow’s undoubtedly fine gesture toward Penn State’s chemical engineers wouldn’t be expected to grab headlines in the U.K. or even far beyond Pennsylvania and Michigan for that matter. And it didn’t, of course. But on the next day, another university-related story was making headlines in the U.K. press. This was Sussex University’s announcement that it is to close down its high-ranking chemistry department. That department over the years has produced three Nobel laureates, including one of the nanotechnology and “buckyball” pioneers, Sir Harry Kroto.

Unfortunately, that tradition of excellence does not appear sufficient to save the department from joining a growing list of similar closures at U.K. universities. King’s College London, Queen Mary’s London, Exeter, Dundee and Surrey also have dropped the subject in recent years (with Exeter also exiting from chemical engineering). The university authorities involved have tended to put the blame on financial pressures and the shift in students’ interests from traditional science towards more popular — and some might say easier — options such as media studies.

Sussex, which is located in Brighton, is not abandoning chemistry entirely — from 2007 the department will be renamed chemical biology to fit in with a new focus on biochemistry and genome research. However, students wanting to study the pure subject will have to apply elsewhere — a decision strongly criticized by Kroto, who last year left Sussex to take up a post at Florida State University.

Fortunately, U.S. faculties appear to have few such worries for the moment. Statistics from the National Science Foundation, Arlington, Va., show a 5.3% increase in graduate enrollment to study chemistry in 2002/03 (the latest figures available), picking up slightly from what has been a reasonably steady level of interest over the last 10 years or so. Chemical engineering enrollments show a similar pattern, up 1.4% on a fairly constant level following a slight dip in the late 1990s.

However, as Sussex shows, there is little room for complacency. Science and engineering departments in any country need to attract the brightest students to continue those “traditions of excellence.” But that by itself may not be enough. Applications to study chemistry at Sussex last year were up 40% on the previous year, for example, with nearly nine applicants chasing each available spot.

Retaining a chemistry department in its present form would cost around an extra $1.3 million a year “with no guarantee of long-term success in recruitment or research,” according to Prof. Alasdair Smith, Sussex vice-chancellor.

But can any department “guarantee” success in research? Endowments such as Dow’s to Penn State are not based on guarantees but instead on a recognition that science and engineering education needs all our support if we are to reap its benefits. Perhaps not headline news, but a message well worth spreading across the global village nevertheless.

Mike Spear, editor at large
MSpear@Putman.net

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