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Chemical Eye on Saving Sussex (It's too late for Wales)
by Preston MacDougall


May 09, 2006
Tuesday AM

This in from Kingsport, Tennessee: A senior VP at Eastman Chemical Company worries that there are not enough skilled workers to replace a looming wave of retirees. Similar sentiments have been expressed elsewhere in the US, and across Western Europe.

And this, from Brighton, England: The Vice-Chancellor, or VC, at the University of Sussex has announced a plan to axe most of the chemistry faculty, and cease their world-renowned chemistry program. Similar actions have already been taken at the University of Exeter and in Wales at Swansea.

In response to these facts, a logical question might be "What's wrong with this picture?" But that's too cliché for me. My question is "Where's Waldo?"

jpg apples


Waldo, it seems, doesn't like hunkering down with his thermodynamics or multivariate calculus textbooks. Too many equations and graphs, not enough colorful pictures.

After all, he doesn't want to be a "research scientist". He just wants to get a high-tech job that pays well - like the guys on CSI: Miami. They have all this cool technology to solve cases. You never see them solving equations. That's what computers are for.

So where is Waldo? Is he among the hooligans who are rampaging before, during, and after UEFA soccer matches? Has anyone seen him since he took a month off from classes to deal with a bout of March Madness?

Perhaps Waldo is into Schadenfreude, and was among the swollen gallery at the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's meeting, which was held on March 27 in London. They were holding hearings on the proposed closure, and the Head of the Chemistry Department was to appear, along with the VC at Sussex.

They really know how to dish it out in British Parliament. It's sort of like The Daily Show, but with lots of Jon Stewarts and Stephen Colberts trying to skewer each other - Hear, hear!

If Waldo was hoping to watch the Head of Chemistry get a tongue-lashing, he would have been sorely disappointed. Quite the opposite happened, as can be read in the transcript of public evidence taken by the House, which comes up with a Google search of the phrase "Save Chemistry at Sussex."

The Badger, which is the Sussex Student Union's newspaper, reported some other facts about Chemistry at Sussex that might have escaped the VC's attention. For instance, Chemistry generates over half of the university's patent income, and the faculty brings in more than 1 million pounds per year (which is almost $2 million) in "third stream income." I don't know exactly what "third stream income" is, but the VC should; Alasdair Smith is also a Professor of Economics.

On the face of it, it might seem that this is just another case of Economics justifying its nickname - the dismal science. Again, that would be too cliché. For me, as well as for many worldwide observers who have voiced their opinions, there are deeper implications: a divergence between what a university is for, and how a university is managed.

Traditionally, universities exist to create and share knowledge. They also, increasingly, play public service roles, such as hosting regional Science Olympiads or providing a venue for traveling art exhibits. Training students so that they will secure a particular job when they graduate is not a traditional role of a university. That is what big-time political campaign contributions are for - and you can get a heckuva job that way.

Yes, a university education is essential for many professions, such as medicine, chemistry, or medicinal chemistry. But since ever fewer people's lives are occupied by a single profession, a university must provide a universal education. To this end, healthy programs in all of the unhyphenated core branches of knowledge should exist.

I see the VC's job as making sure that all of these programs excite and embrace the scholarly Waldos and Wandas who have a hungering for any of the many varieties of apples that can grow on any primary branch.

Chemistry is universally regarded as "the central science." So having a college of basic and/or applied sciences without a chemistry department is like having a college of liberal arts without an art department. It wouldn't make any sense, economically or pedagogically.

It is never too cliché to say that a university is a marketplace of ideas. My market prediction is that, during the next academic year at Sussex, the question that will be on everyone's mind is "Where's Alasdair?"



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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