The UK has a fine record for innovation in science and engineering, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Increased investment is essential if we are to address the major challenges of the 21st century. While the government has stated its commitment to science and technology, little new money is available to develop the key scientific skills that are vital for the UK's future.

The UK chemical and pharmaceutical industries have been traditional success stories with an annual turnover of over $94 billion. The sector employs nearly 250 000 people, supports the indirect employment of four times as many, and contributes some $9 billion each year in national and local taxes. The importance of this sector makes it difficult to understand the general malaise toward science, and chemical sciences in particular. Over the past 18 months, we have heard of the closure of important chemistry departments at the University of Exeter, both King's College and Queen Mary in London, and the University of Wales Swansea, with others merging or being reduced in size. Despite what you may read, the total number of chemistry undergraduates is close to the long-term average of around 3100, so numbers are not the issue. Indeed, departments have closed even when student intake has increased!

The key issue is, quite simply, funding. No matter how you look at the numbers, resources allocated by the funding councils for chemistry teaching fail to cover costs. This places vice chancellors in a difficult position – quite rightly they must manage their institutions with financial prudence, and some have simply chosen to stop offering chemistry as an undergraduate subject. I am concerned that there is no national strategy for science provision, and random, cost-driven closures will leave parts of the country without a local chemistry department. Students will suffer as they may be forced to move away from home and a university education will become even more expensive, particularly with the introduction of student fees. Universities will suffer since chemistry underpins so many other areas as shown, for example, by the decision to move the National Institute for Medical Research to University College London rather than King's. Small- and medium-sized companies will suffer because many look toward their local university for scientific support and potential collaborations. And finally, the country will suffer as subject provision and choice are compromised.

The government says that it is unable to interfere with the decisions of vice chancellors because universities are independent bodies and academic freedom must be safeguarded. The funding councils say that it is for institutions to allocate the funds they receive. Therefore, there is a complete lack of a national framework that relates investment in higher education to strategic needs.

Despite newspaper headlines about government increases in science spending, in reality there is very little new money available. There has been a significant investment in capital projects, but most of the ‘additional money’ announced recently is allocated to fund science already ongoing. Without increased funding, subjects such as chemistry, which are understandably more expensive to teach than most, will be threatened further. This short-sighted approach is underlined by research carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and Institute of Physics, which shows that the increased costs of chemistry and physics provision at universities is more than offset by above-average earnings and tax contributions. Moreover, evaluations by the UK Department of Trade and Industry reveal that the UK boasts the most efficient chemicals company and the largest pharmaceutical company in Europe.

Surely, we want to expand these success stories by providing an adequate supply of well-trained chemistry graduates, rather than lose R&D investment to other parts of the world. The RSC does not intend to sit back and do nothing, but will continue to press the case that the ambition of an internationally competitive, knowledge-based economy can only be built on a sound science base throughout the UK. We will stress that chemistry is indispensable in solving the major challenges of the 21st century, such as sustainable development, renewable energy, advanced materials, and transforming the human genome sequence into new medicines. It is essential that the UK is an active participant rather than a passive onlooker, but that will require increased investment now – in science in general, and chemistry in particular.

Making the case to the newly-elected UK government for extra investment to support science and chemistry is a high priority for the RSC. We have worked hard over the past 24 months to present an evidence-based case that facilitates constructive dialogue with the government and its agencies. I believe this is an important role for the RSC and like-minded organizations, and that the scientific and economic future of the UK depends on our collective success in presenting and winning our case for increased investment in science.

[1] Simon Campbell FRSC, FRS is president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)70959-7