The Sceptical Chymist | Learning to use the C-word again

Published in Chemistry

*Posted on behalf of Matthew Salter, who is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Asia-Pacific branch of Macmillan Scientific Communications — a custom publishing division of Macmillan.

Bittersweet /b?t?''swi?t/ (adj.)

1. sweet with a bitter aftertaste.

2. arousing pleasure tinged with sadness or pain.

3. hearing the news that the chemistry department at King’s College London is to reopen.

The news arrived casually in an iPhone email from a friend and former KCL postgraduate in reply to one I had sent attaching a photo of the stunning building that houses the Italian Cultural Centre in Tokyo. “Thanks for the picture” came the reply, “That’s awesome. BTW I guess you know about this?”

The “this” in question was a link to the advert for the Daniell Chair and Head of Department of Chemistry at King’s College London, a department which, as far as I was knew, was very dead indeed.

As a chemist, you would have expected my heart to have skipped a beat at the felicitous news that such a cherished institution — whose closure in 2003 sparked outrage in the UK chemistry community — was to be resurrected. Yet I had mixed feelings on cheering the return of this historic department, with a pedigree in chemistry dating back to 1830.

Don’t get me wrong — this is certainly a welcome development that flies in the face of the depressing national trend in chemistry. My misplaced chagrin was most likely due to the fact that in 2003 I was a lecturer in organic chemistry at KCL, and therefore had the dubious honour of participating in the vigorous but ultimately futile attempt to avert the department’s closure. And although eight years have passed my feelings, at least, are still raw.

Instead of excitement on hearing the news my thoughts were all of endless impassioned meetings with college authorities and the College Council (who seemed deaf to our entreaties and blind to reason) of anguished discussions at departmental staff meetings as we tried to figure out how we would minimize the damage to the academic future of our students, and equally anguished discussions in offices and after work in the pub as we tried to figure out how to minimize the damage to our own academic careers. Then there was the final meeting where the official closure verdict was delivered, a gathering to which I felt that I had only been invited in order to identify the body.

Although teaching at the department continued for another two years, and the remaining staff did their level best to help those students who had stayed on to graduate, there was always the feeling that this was the last act. When the doors finally closed, a close-knit, talented and committed band of researchers had been disbursed, the labs were silenced and a department with 175 years of history behind it had been “disappeared”. And that was that.

We hated it. We were angry about it. We were sad about it. We couldn’t understand it (some of us still can’t). But we had no choice but to accept it.

And now, as if by magic, with one click of a mouse button, chemistry at King’s is back. The situation is not as encouraging as it appears at first glance: the chemists in the new Department will be drawn from a wide range of principle disciplines scattered across the college’s campuses (although the college is making noises about establishing a “physical hub”) and the undergraduate degree will be in Chemistry with Biomedicine. But at least KCL is learning to use the C-word again.

And that’s got to be good – right? I’m happy about it, really, I am. Here’s hoping that this is the first step towards a full resurrection of chemistry at King’s College London which is, despite everything, a remarkable and unique institution of whose staff I was proud to be a member.

I just wish I could shake off this feeling of sadness at the waste of the last eight years, and stop wondering whether, if things had turned out differently, I wouldn’t have to describe myself as a former chemistry lecturer.

Matthew Salter

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