Professor Jeremy Hutson

Jeremy Hutson’s triennium as chairman began on 1 August 19981) [for biographical notes click Jeremy Hutson's Research Group]. The period’s major challenges were preparation for the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and assimilation of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Polymer Science and Technology (IRC). These challenges had to be met against a background of increasingly intrusive Government scrutiny, notably from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which from 1997 began to demand increasing paperwork and circumscribe the University’s undergraduate teaching activities.

The outcome of the RAE would affect funding substantially until 2009, so the Department put great effort into preparing its case. The Exercise, covering the five years ending on 31 March 2001, was used by the Government’s Higher Education Research Council for England (HEFCE) to classify every department in the country according to its research quality. To consolidated quantitative information about research income and researcher numbers, the Department added a statement from each member of academic staff, naming four publications that they considered their best in those five years and recording esteem factors to demonstrate their standing in the scientific community. A Departmental statement about research strategy and environment concluded the case. All this work paid off when, in December 2001, HEFCE announced that the Department had been awarded the highest possible grade, 5*A, alongside the departments at Oxford and Cambridge.

While the IRC - established by the Government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in 1989 (Professor Robin Harris paragraph 3; lyn_williams paragraph 3) - was in receipt of an EPSRC block grant, it was structured as an independent budget centre in the University. The second and final extension of its grant (1 year) ended in September 2000 so it was integrated with the Chemistry Department. The salaries of the IRC’s research-group leaders (Feast, Richards), its two senior researchers (Khosravi, Hutchings) and support staff (four technicians and a secretary) were transferred to the Chemistry Budget Centre (CBC); laboratory space, equipment and research support became common with their Departmental counterparts.

In October 1998, the first cohort of fourth-year undergraduates began their final year leading to Master in Science (Chemistry). Examinations in December assessed the lecture modules; students then embarked on research projects in the laboratories of the research group to which they were attached. The projects were examined at the end of May. Members of the cohort beginning in 1999 were able to opt, for the January-May period, between the 1998 curriculum and one with a project away from Durham at a university outside the UK [M.Sci.(Chem.international)] or in industry [M.Sci.(Chem.industrial)]. In addition, the Department took advantage of the strength of the Natural Sciences programme to champion four-year named routes for Natural Sciences: by 2001 a cohort of second-year undergraduates was on course for the M.Sci. degree in Chemistry and Mathematics. Combinations with Biology (2002) and Physics (2003) were to follow.

Elsewhere, the success of first-year undergraduates in January examinations – Collections – rose in 2000, when the examinations became Progress tests, renamed to stress that attainment in them had become part of the end-of-year assessment. Later that year the first entry cohort for the integrated-master programme renamed Master in Chemistry (M.Chem.) arrived [entries 1995-9 were to M.Sci.(Chem.)]. The popularity of chemistry among the burgeoning intake to Natural Sciences became an embarrassment of riches. Laboratory occupancy soared and for the second and third years intricate rotas were needed to keep occupancy within safe limits. Examination practice was changing too: from December 1998 external assessors were provided with model answers to all questions proposed for formal chemistry examinations. Another general change was the launch in 2001 of the University’s electronic notice board for teaching activities, DUO; it quickly became an effective location for web-based teaching material. A Science Faculty review group, after visiting the Department in November 1998 on behalf of the University’s teaching-and-learning committee, ruefully followed its commendations by pointing to a need for a clear audit trail, ready for weightier, QAA-scrutinised administrative inspections in the offing.

Meticulous management of research throughout the triennium was crucial to the desired RAE outcome. The University had to be persuaded to maintain or increase the number of research-group leaders as other universities sought – and obtained - promising recruits and as retirements surged following the recruitment bulge in the 1960s. The number of leaders on October 1 did rise – from 30 in 1998 to 32 in 2001. Matt Davidson, Ben Davis and David O’Hagan (promoted internally to professor in 1999) moved to other universities, Gerald Brooke resigned, while Dick Chambers and Lyn Williams retired. That rise came from incoming lecturers – Stuart Althorpe (as a Royal Society university research fellow; expected to be established by 2004), Nigel Clarke, Paul Hodgkinson, Paul Low, John Sanderson and Eckart Wrede – from Andrew Whiting’s acceptance of a readership (external appointment) and from the opening of the term of Ezat Khosravi's research-fellowship contract. From October 1998, the Board encouraged greater interplay among its research-group leaders by urging each to add to their ‘town’ membership of one research grouping the ‘country’ membership of others. Recruitment of first-year doctoral students was kept on a modest upward trend, consistent with a good RAE profile, by prudent help from the hard-pressed CBC. Five substantial research grants were won. For two years from January 1998 the European Union’s regional development fund provided the salaries of a coordinator and four researchers – one in the University’s Physics Department, another shared between the two departments – to support the provision of specialist services and advice for local small-to-medium sized enterprises. A year later, HEFCE and EPSRC, allying with industry to provide money for joint research-equipment initiatives (JREI), funded a supercomputer to simulate molecules and their interactions in materials. Later that year, EPSRC funded the acquisition of a second 500 MHz spectrometer for the Department's NMR service and the upgrade of its 400 MHz instrument. The remaining major grants funded the creation of research accommodation for theoretical chemistry (Wolfson Foundation), of which more in the final paragraph, and materials science (JIF: JREI and HEFCE’s joint infrastructure fund; 5.1 M£; bid led by Randal Richards supported by Martin Bryce, Jim Feast, Robin Harris, Ritu Kataky and Patrick Steel), which will be dealt with in the report of the next chairmanship. EPSRC's award of a senior fellowship to Judith Howard (1998-2003) and an advanced fellowship to JasPal Badyal (five years from 1 April 2000) - with a Leverhulme senior fellowship for David Parker (12 months from October 1 1988) - provided funding for their teaching duties to be taken on by fixed-term appointees.

Other financial news was less favourable. The University Library’s shortage of funds for subscriptions to science periodicals and abstracting services, met for chemistry publications by the CBC’s equipment fund since 1994, was being exacerbated by the advent of a decade requiring start-up premiums for on-line abstracting services (Crossfire, replacing Beilsteins Handbuch; SciFinder replacing Chemical Abstracts; Web of Science, replacing Science Citation Index). Additionally, most of the large grants mentioned above were contingent on a CBC contribution. August 2000 heralded a consequently lean year for May’s annual requests to the CBC from research groups and services seeking funds to upgrade equipment. Evidence of research activity essential to the RAE proved difficult to extract from the University’s central records. Its management information systems division had struggled to maintain and upgrade the software handling the demands of an expanding institution subject to in-depth external auditing. In October 1998 the University, despite extensive objections from academic departments (including Chemistry), outsourced that responsibility to Unisys for a period that was to last 15 years. Teething troubles from that outsourcing challenged the search for reliable financial information and the CBC created its own robust records.

The University’s extensive review of its Boards of Studies added to their required memberships the Dean and Deputy Dean of Faculty and representatives of undergraduates, postgraduates and staff paid from research contracts. In 2000, technicians reclaimed the privilege of self-management under the chairman, which had been suspended in 1973; the descriptions of the jobs of most technical staff were rewritten and salary upgrades ensued. As a start to a long process (2001-14), administrative services were consolidated by the move of the Departmental administrator and the administrative officer to offices close to that for two of the secretarial staff and to the chairman’s office. The workplace of the other two secretaries, nearer the 24-hour entrance, was designated the reception office.

In the 40-year-old parts of Chemistry’s accommodation, the renewal of wiring for mains electricity and laboratories’ fitted furniture - particularly fume cupboards - proceeded disruptively yet apace, with the large research laboratories of the west (rooms 001 and 104) and south (115) wings as the main beneficiaries. February 2000 saw the occupation of a second-floor suite (200) as the Wolfson Centre for Molecular Interactions, Chemistry’s first customised space for theoretical-chemistry research, which was large enough for the relocation of three research groups. Adjacent workspace (202) allowed relocation of the Department’s information-technology service2), strengthened by an increase in staffing from 2 to 4.5. The relocations presaged the revitalisation of the entire second floor by the end of the decade. For Chemistry's IT service, revitalisation had come much earlier, for the turn of the millennium freed it from an extraordinary weight of Y2K planning and testing. Fevered activity had gripped a computer world fearful that, as 1999 became 2000, 31/12/99 might cause malfunction while trying to become 01/01/00. Durham University, like nearly all of the UK, escaped malfunction completely.


For 1995-8, see Professor David Parker; for 2001-3, see Professor Randal Richards.

1) University of Durham, Board of Studies in Chemistry, minutes, 1998-2001.
2) Chemistry's IT service survived until April 2012, when the University incorporated academic departments' IT teams into its Computing and Information Services Department; 27 months later, that Department moved the two remaining Chemistry appointees from room 202 to one of its own workspaces.
hod/jeremy_hutson.txt · Last modified: 2016/07/20 18:56 by euan
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