Chemistry for the Next Decade and Beyond: International Perceptions of the uk chemistry Research Base

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Chemistry for the Next Decade and Beyond:

International Perceptions of the UK Chemistry Research Base

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Chemistry for the Next Decade and Beyond
International Review of UK Chemistry Research
19 - 24 April 2009

“If the victory at Waterloo, which set the stage for Britain’s pre-eminence in the century that followed, was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’ as the Duke of Wellington famously observed, it may be equally true to say that the contest for pre-eminence in the 21st century will be won on the campuses of the world’s research universities.”

Research Universities: Their Value to Society Extends Well Beyond Research.” Robert M. Berdahl, President, American Association of Universities, April 2009

This is an exciting time for Engineering and the Physical Sciences, when the UK seeks to extend both its economic and social impact and international reputation for cutting edge fundamental research. This is the second International Review of Chemistry and reflects the important contribution of this area to the UK. This contribution enables progress by bringing a fundamental knowledge and understanding of chemistry which drives advances in many areas. Chemistry research underpins a wide range of activities that benefit society including discoveries that lead to new industries, materials and technologies as well as helping to conquer diseases. Chemistry will be indispensable in attacking the challenges of climate change, energy and sustainability.

The preparation for this review has been ongoing for over a year and we would like to thank our colleagues on the Steering Committee, which included representation of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network (CI-KTN), the Biochemical Society, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the Institute of Physics. We also thank our colleagues from the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council who also supported and helped to guide the review. Specific thanks must go to the EPSRC staff for their unwavering support and hard work which enabled the panel to do its work so effectively.

This report, the culmination of these activities, is entirely the work of the International Review Panel to whom we are very grateful – their expertise, team work, enthusiasm and capacity for sheer hard work impressed all those who came into contact with them. To Professor Mike Klein, Chair of the International Review Panel, we are hugely indebted; his commitment and leadership were vital to both the review and the completion of this report.
We also warmly thank all those in the academic research community, together with their collaborators in industry who are so vital to the health of UK chemistry research, for rising to the challenges and opportunities that this review presented. We are especially grateful to those who coordinated and participated in each visit, often travelling some distance to meet the panel. Due to the way in which the community worked so well together, the panel interacted with a great many researchers and witnessed a wider range of exciting advances in the short time available to them than would have otherwise been possible.
We hope this report will stimulate further debate around the findings and recommendations highlighted and we genuinely welcome your feedback on any issues raised. Comments should be sent to the Chemistry International Review team at .
Professor David Delpy Professor Jim Feast

Chief Executive, EPSRC. Steering Committee Chair.


The 2009 Chemistry International Review Panel completed a week long review of Chemistry research throughout the United Kingdom. Although sponsored by the EPSRC the Panel was charged to include the whole chemistry research base that is funded by the Research Councils, charities and industry. This document presents the Panel’s perceptions, embodied in the form of findings and recommendations, culminating from their high-level review. Importantly, the Panel offers a number of suggestions to sustain and improve the excellent Chemistry research that is occurring throughout the UK. The main findings and recommendations of the Panel are given below and in the body of the report.

The review took place during the week starting Sunday, April 19, 2009 and involved an International Panel consisting of 18 scientists. The Panel convened in Manchester for background briefings from Professor David Delpy, FRS (Chief Executive, EPSRC) and other stakeholders, as well as an overview of the RAE exercise from Professor Jeremy Sanders, FRS. The Panel was then divided into two groups, each of which visited four separate locations (one per day). The whole Panel then reconvened near London to share information and formulate the findings and recommendations contained in the report. The focus of the review was centred on eight Framework Questions (see Annex A), formulated by the Steering Committee, chaired by Professor Jim Feast, FRS. However, the Panel did not feel overly constrained by these and used the format of town hall meetings at each location to hear the voice of the community, albeit briefly. The Panel made a point of engaging early career research (ECR) scientists at each location.
In brief, the overall health of chemistry research in the UK is good. There are significant changes of research emphasis across the UK since the last International Review. There are pockets of truly outstanding (world-leading and world-class) work going on and numerous examples of very well-supported research groups. The community is aggressively utilising all of the funding streams available through the Research Councils, charities, Europe and industry. Importantly, the top-level research is not confined to just one location. There are excellent examples of international collaboration, especially via EU programmes and a number of good examples of cooperation with industry. Multi-disciplinary research efforts are expanding. Pockets of excellent multidisciplinary research are being nucleated via Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs). Chemists in the UK have definitely shed their ivory tower attitudes and are better prepared than in the past to tackle society's challenges. The panel was impressed with the calibre and intellectual strength of some of the ECR scientists they met. However, the general situation for some of the ECRs gives cause for concern. Another concern was the degree of communication and engagement of the chemistry community in both implementing policy and dialogue with decision makers. 
The following perceptions (findings and recommendations) were developed by the Panel on the basis of presentations and discussions during the week-long review.
A. Recommendations
The following recommendations were developed by the Panel on the basis of presentations and discussions during the review. Other recommendations are contained in the main body of the report.

  1. Nurture & support ECR chemists - Create viable mechanisms to encourage research independence1

  2. Develop a viable strategy for sustaining the excellent infrastructure, shared facilities and national facilities

  3. Build on regional strengths: pooling, as appropriate, between local universities to create centres of excellence, alliances with research councils and regional development agencies

  4. Open a dialogue between research funders and the research community to review the balance of funding allocated to responsive mode versus programme/platform grants and mechanisms for sustaining high risk research

  5. PhD to reflect achievement (education versus training)

Areas in need of emphasis and encouragement:

  1. The following three areas (underpinned by chemical synthesis and by characterisation, utilising state-of-the-art facilities and instrumentation) offer enormous potential for UK chemistry to make a significant contribution to worldwide societal challenges:

  • Energy

(The USA has finally acted boldly with funding of 46 Energy Frontiers Research Centres2)

(There is a role/opportunity for Universities – spinouts and big Pharma)

  • Materials for Medicine

(Nanomedicine and more)
In addition, the relevant stakeholders in the chemistry community need to address:

  1. Integration of Computational Chemistry

(Need to enhance the participation of theory and computation especially in areas that involve energy, materials and health applications)

  1. Failure of current administrative structures and funding mechanisms into university departments to provide for medium-size equipment and start-up funds.

B. Strengths of UK Chemistry
Research in the UK is internationally recognised & well placed to tackle society’s greatest challenges

  • World-class and sometimes world-leading in areas such as chemical biology (bioanalytical, biomaterials, biocatalysis), materials & supramolecular chemistry, synthesis & theory

  • Multi-disciplinary efforts in chemistry have expanded their reach & impact

Overall academic-industry collaboration is a positive & distinguishing feature of UK Chemistry

  • Vigorous, successful spin-outs & licensing across chemical disciplines

  • Examples of fully funded industrial studentships are a strength

UK chemistry derives enormous strength from recent large investments in infrastructure, shared equipment & national user facilities

  • Overall outstanding NMR, mass spectroscopy, analytical facilities, etc.

  • Seemingly equipped at a level that Max Planck Institutes are the only near equivalent in Europe

Early career researchers

  • Large number of ECRs (diverse in gender and culture) across the UK is a strength

  • The number and diversity of ECRs offers a clear opportunity to define and build a more equitable system for career advancement

Instrument development

  • Pockets of excellence exist where unique instrumentation is being developed

  • Some world-leading efforts

C. Positive Trends (since 2002)

  • UK chemistry has demonstrated its ability to evolve & respond to external review & new opportunities

  • Multidisciplinary research efforts are expanding in chemistry but there could be more

  • Good examples of local and regional university interactions & funding – especially to be encouraged & nurtured

  • PhD-level education is moving towards international norms. There are some excellent DTC programmes in place

D. Weaknesses in UK Chemistry

  • Nurturing and support of early career researchers (ECRs)

  • Support for ECRs and established researchers not geared to enable adventurous research

  • Future is hampered by its lack of diversity within the established research community

  • World-leading infrastructure will need a strategic vision if it is to be sustained, but no overarching plan evident, locally, regionally or nationally

  • Communication between Research Councils and Stakeholders is affecting UK Chemistry

E. Framework Findings
UK Chemistry on the Global Scene (Questions A and B)

  • Global impact of chemical research is uneven

  • Islands of excellence - departments and disciplines

  • Active engagement in international scientific collaborations

  • Substantial pay-off from infrastructure investment, but the issue of equipment maintenance and running costs is critical

Research Culture and Early Career (Questions C and H)

  • Risk-averse research culture

  • Perceived penalty for failure is too high

  • Research performance metrics linked to the RAE may be a factor

  • Transformative research not sufficiently encouraged

  • ECRs often suffer from insufficient mentoring and inadequate funding

  • Often no well-defined path to academic success

  • Overall, absence of diversity: gender, ethnic, cultural

Societal Impact & Multi-disciplinary Research (Questions D and E)

  • Much improved situation since 2002

  • Opportunities for integration across disciplines not yet fully realised (even more could be done with engineering, physics and medicine)

  • Some awareness among chemists of opportunity to solve major societal challenges

  • Effective response requires commitment to multi-disciplinary connectivity

Societal Benefit of UK Research (Questions F and G)

  • DTC programmes with industrial emphasis add value to academia and economy

  • Examples of translational research via partnerships and spinouts

  • Multiple examples of vigorous and successful spin-offs

  • National advantage likely derives from flexible sharing of intellectual property and diversity of possibilities

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