By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
Sprinkling iron filings into Bunsen burners, silly goggles, magnesium flares, that stuff which smelled like pear drops... who says chemistry lessons are dull? More and more children, it seems.
The chemical attraction that turned British scientists into heroes of the industrial age is wearing off. Two universities in as many weeks have announced plans to shut their chemistry faculties, bringing the total to five such closures in 18 months.
Of all the traditional academic subjects that have lost out to new, so-called "soft" subjects, chemistry is said to be in the most critical condition.
While universities have expanded massively since the mid-1990s, the number of chemistry undergrads has fallen. As recently as 1996/7 chemistry students outnumbered their media studies counterparts three-to-one. Today, media studies has overtaken chemistry (see table below).
The downturn at degree level reflects a relative fall in the number of pupils donning lab coats for A-level. If things continue unchecked, the Royal Society of Chemistry predicts a further 20 departments will close over the coming 10 years.
British drug company Astrazeneca is among those with concerns about the "long-term effect" on recruitment.
What has provoked this extreme chemical reaction among potential scholars?
Image is at least partly to blame. With all those images of bubbling test tubes and madcap scientists, chemistry has, unwittingly become a whipping horse for public scepticism about science, say academics.
GM crops, mad cow disease, MMR, weapons of mass destruction, environmental pollution, Thalidomide, Bhopal... the list of controversies goes on.
The flipside goes largely unnoticed, says Prof Richard Templer, of Imperial College, London, before retorting with a long list of chemistry dividends.
"...art restoration, football boots, alcohol, every mobile phone has what's known as a gallium arsenide chip which chemists and physicists have worked on. The plastic moulding, the LCD screen - mobile phones wouldn't exist were it not for the work of chemists.
"Chemistry is perhaps its own worst enemy. By being so much a part of our everyday lives, it is pervasive yet also largely invisible."
Prof Keith Smith wonders if the word itself is a problem, given the trend among students to opt for more glamorous-sounding "forensic science" degrees, even though the basis of such studies is chemistry.
Sexual chemistry? Silent Witness makes forensics attractive
The success of TV shows such as Silent Witness, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Waking the Dead is credited with spawning a wave of forensic science courses in universities.
So could chemistry's fortunes be turned around in a similar fashion? Tony McHale, a scriptwriter on Silent Witness, is doubtful.
"With forensic science you get into bodies, which takes you into murder, thrillers and so on," says Mr McHale. "The problem with chemistry per se, is what stories does it tell? It would be difficult to make it exciting."
That said, he is developing an idea for a TV drama which involves a chemical engineer as one of the central characters.
History books, however, are littered with home-grown idols of chemistry, among them Michael Faraday (inventor of the dynamo), Sir Humphry Davy (who discovered sodium, potassium and calcium, among other things) and Dorothy Hodgkin (who determined the structures of penicillin and insulin).
Image is not the only problem. In a competitive education market, universities are finding it harder to make chemistry courses pay. Lab technicians, glassware, chemicals, the cost of disposing of chemicals, even the fact that journals require complex illustrations, pushes up the price.
CHEMISTRY v MEDIA STUDIES
Comparing undergraduate numbers at UK universities
1996/7: 22,679 chemistry students; 6,888 media studies students
2002/3: 19,015 chemistry; 22,600 media studies
"Compare it to a purely classroom-based subject, like English or history, where you can achieve greater economies of scale by packing out a lecture room," says Prof Smith, of Swansea University. "In chemistry, you would have to provide an equal amount of lab space, and that gets very expensive."
Prof Smith has found himself at the sharp end of the slump - his department has been earmarked for closure by the university.
"There had been a period of decline, but we were recovering. The number of students was up and we were projecting to come out of deficit in two years." He contrasts the era with the optimism of the 1960s, when he was a chemistry undergraduate in the time of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology".
That revolution has well and truly burned out in schools today. Children tend to opt for subjects which offer a better chance of high grades, says one chemistry teacher, who asked not to be named.
"Chemistry seems to stand alone in being perceived as particularly difficult. I am fighting to keep A-level numbers up. The majority of students we do attract at A-level are studying it because they need chemistry to be a vet, doctor, forensic scientist or dentist.
Children shy away from the academic rigours of chemistry
"The feeling seems to be that children do know how important chemistry is to their world and the economy, but really it's for someone else to worry about."
Yet all is not yet lost. A whiff of encouragement can be detected on the High Street, of all places, in the run up to Christmas. Sales of chemistry sets - a starting point for many young scientists - are holding up well at Hamleys toy store in London, reports buyer Ian Gibbs.
"We call them 'evergreens' - toys with don't depend on advertising. They keep on selling each year because parents see it as an investment in their child's education."
Some of your comments on this story:
I have a degree in Chemistry from Aberdeen, I even worked as a chemist for 9 months. However life as a workaday chemist was very dull, and mind numbing. I gave up and now work in IT, the job is more varied - my clothes dont stink - and the pay is way better
One of the main reasons for the lack of interest in studying chemistry is the poor salaries being paid to graduates. Decent salaries are only available to chemistry students who have studied higher and have several years experience.
Martin Colvill, UK
I too have found this a worrying trend. I am a biochemist with a PhD and have had to go abroad for work. I know four chemists who have done PhDs - two are now accountants, a third is struggling to find a job and one had to work in Italy for two years recently getting a job back in the UK.
Paula, Belgium (from UK)
I'm a chemistry graduate and loved doing my degree. All those students wanting to work in the media, a media studies degree will probably hold you back. I'm currently a magazine journalist and have worked in TV and radio as well. Not bad for a boring old scientist.
I took my A-level chemistry in the 1980s. Even then the schools didn't have the funds to buy the chemicals for practicals. I doubt if anything has improved since, so is it any wonder kids are turned off when all they can do is read about it?
Despite chemistry being my favourite subject at school, my opinion had completely reversed when I studied it at degree level. I found the specialised depth of knowledge needed for a chemistry-related career made the degree too restricting and irrelevant for life outside academia, or in my case wanting to leave my options open to different careers once graduating. Chemistry courses need to be modernised to reflect changes in employer's requirements
Jamie Stewart, Nigeria/UK
Having spent time teaching it became obvious to me that the current science school curriculum has swapped all of the things that made me love my subject for tedious textbook study. A pass relies on memory rather than understanding. More importantly practical work is sidelined through lack of time, imagination and resources.
Sarah Allman, Oxford
Attaching the rubber hose from your Bunsen burner to the sink taps and soaking people at the other side of the lab, saving every experiment for the whole two year A-level course in a cupboard, and marvelling at the collection of different colours and smells, setting fire to our own lab coats....do today's students know what they're missing out on? We occasionally did some work as well.
N D, UK
I read biological chemistry at university. Chemistry used to be fun. Sadly, much interest in the subject has been lost, possibly because of health and safety considerations. We used to DO experiments in school. Now many experiments are demonstrated by a teacher.
"Alas poor Jones,
I knew him well,
We'll see his face no more.
For what he thought was H2O
People are turning away from science for one simple reason: we are underpaid and under valued. After years of study we get paltry remuneration and short-term contracts which leave us with an uncertain future.
Dr Colin W. Bayne, Scotland
I studied chemical engineering over chemistry, because the job prospects and pay were far better. Also, the perception when I was making this choice was that you don't get far in chemistry without a PHD, and that wasn't something which appealed to me. So, if it pays less, but takes longer to qualify, why would you study it?
Except for viewers in Scotland, maybe, where a £37m investment in chemistry (and physics) was announced just this week.
Alan Cooper, Scotland
I am 16, and have just started my AS and A levels. I fully intend to study chemistry at university. Several of my friends feel the same way. At school, chemistry is one of the more popular subjects, more so than media studies. However, more people studying media want to read it at university than people doing chemistry intending to do chemistry.
I left my job as a lab manager with an engineering company to work in a much less responsible job in IT and got a 30% pay rise. Chemistry is certainly more interesting, but it doesn't pay the mortgage...
Nick P, UK
Every time I tell people I graduated with a chemistry degree they look at me as if I am mad, and then comment that chemistry is a difficult subject. It was a difficult subject but a lot of fun.