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Chemistry department investigation

As I approached graduation in the summer of 2007, I was able to reflect on a wonderful and life-changing time at Sussex. Events and experiences, too numerous to mention, that I will never forget. I had made so many friends here and learned such a lot in my chosen field of Chemistry that I felt there was still more to do and I made arrangements to continue as a post graduate research assistant Unfortunately, events since then have irreparably damaged my opinion of this institution and the way my new research group and I have been treated has lead me to believe that, despite recent assurances, the senior management have no interest in maintaining a functional Chemistry department.

For those of you that were not here, three years ago our previous VC tried to have the Chemistry Department closed down. A protest movement spearheaded by students and some key members of faculty was mobilized. We had numerous arguments in our arsenal: Chemistry is a core subject without which no self respecting academic institution should be; The Chemistry Department can generate income for the University; above all, Sussex is a great place to study Chemistry, with high staff-student ratio and a great atmosphere. (At the risk of ‘own trumpet blowing’ in the Guardian league table of 2007, we came first!) The protests gathered momentum as support came in from the student body and scientific community and finally emerged victorious.

‘When it comes to running a scientific research institution, the current incumbents of Sussex House are incompetent’

I began my PhD 18 months ago, working for a new member of faculty appointed under the terms of the reforms that came in the wake of Save Chemistry campaign. I was so glad to get the place and felt hugely optimistic. My first job however was not research but to build a laboratory. The University, it seems had hired a person but made no provision for the space that person was to use. We found ourselves shoved in a subterranean suite of rooms that had no windows ventilation or facilities. The rooms had been vacant for some years before and it was obvious why.

Fortunately, I am quite a practical person and enjoy building things so I set-to constructing the necessary infrastructure we needed. Untrained, I couldn’t do everything and some more serious health and safety issues were left unchecked. Working with chemicals such as mercury, concentrated acids and flammable solvents in an unventilated space where the temperature would exceed 37 degrees is not exactly good practice. For the whole year we laboured on as best we could. Cobbling things together as needed and occasionally managing to squeeze in some actual chemistry. At no time were we contacted or visited by any of the University senior management. Eventually I took the ventilation situation into my own hands and erected some pipe-work. Unfortunately for me, where I had lead pipes from one room to another, I had drilled through four panels that I was later to discover were asbestos.

Then came “the incident”. The official story is that my bad practice caused a fire in a bin and, for the record, yes, that is the long and the short of it, I was the last one in the laboratory, I used the bin. However, the big picture includes the fact that the chemical waste system that I had been provided with consisted of a black bag in the corner of a room kept at dangerously elevated temperatures.

There were subsequent investigations by the university and the fire brigade and it was found that the rooms were unfit for purpose and we were shut down while proper ventilation was installed.

It was during the investigations that I heard, perhaps the most telling remark: The then head of campus health and safety told me that he had no idea that we were a working laboratory. I couldn’t believe it. It was obvious that the University had no interest in us but to find out that their own people didn’t even know we existed was just offensive.

In my time at Sussex I have worked as a residential advisor, a campus guide and given talks to prospective students on admissions days. I was an active and vociferous member of the campaign to save the department in 2006. It will be impossible now for me to finish my PhD in the prescribed 3 three years and to achieve it at all is looking increasingly doubtful. I am trying not to take things too personally but I can not avoid a feeling of utter betrayal by an institution that I once was so proud to be a part of.

As a veteran of the Save Chemistry campaign, it is tempting to believe that I am the victim of some pin-striped conspiracy to bring down the department. I do not believe this. However, this leaves just one other conclusion, that when it comes to running a scientific research institution, the current incumbents of Sussex House are incompetent. The amount of time they have spent on a pointless bureaucratic restructuring exercise and the results of the RAE support this view.

Finally, I can report that we got our ventilation (it’s unheated and blows freezing winter air on our heads – our sauna is now an ice-box and we have to employ electric heaters in an obscenely inefficient attempt to counter it). It seems that if you need something brought to the attention of the senior management,
all you need to do is set fire to your work space.

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