Chemistry In The U.K. Appraised | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: June 12, 2009

Chemistry In The U.K. Appraised

International panel gives U.K. chemistry research a positive bill of health, but criticizes treatment of young researchers
Department: Government & Policy, Science & Technology
Keywords: funding, policy, UK, research funding

A report released June 12 assessing the state of molecular science in the United Kingdom finds chemistry to be in overall good health, but warns that early career researchers need better support and advocates for better communication between research funders and the research community.

The "International Review of Chemistry" is the second assessment sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a primary funding source for chemists in the U.K. The first assessment was released in 2003, and chaired by professor George Whitesides of Harvard University.

The new review was headed by Michael Klein, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and comprised an 18-member review panel from eight countries, including Australia, Germany, Switzerland, India, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.S.

The panel spent a week in April visiting universities across the U.K., where they interviewed researchers and toured laboratories.

"There are examples of truly outstanding, world-leading and world-class work," at U.K. universities, notes the report. And, while it lauds the research infrastructure in the country, the report recommends that chemical research in the areas of energy, drug discovery, and materials for medicine be further emphasized.

The reviewers called on the government to open "a dialogue between research funders and the research community." Conflict between scientists and the EPSRC emerged earlier this year when the funding agency tried to institute a policy, without consultation with the research community, that would have barred researchers with poor grant success rates from submitting applications to the funding agency for 12 months.

The review panel also recommends that the U.K. do a better job to "nurture and support early career researchers" by creating "viable mechanisms to encourage research independence."

"The review is remarkably positive and encouraging about chemistry in the U.K.," says David Garner, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a chemistry professor at the University of Nottingham. "But we have to do a better job of mentoring early career researchers, and we have to improve the gender balance [of academic chemistry faculty] in the country."

"We are all in interesting economic times," Garner says. "The review shows that chemistry is in a very strong position internationally." The U.K. government should continue to invest in both basic and applied research, he says. Chemistry can help address many national and global challenges, such as energy, and can help ensure that the U.K. has an internationally competitive economy, Garner adds, pointing to the report's favorable noting of spin-off companies from academic chemistry research.

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