Report on the Position and Performance of the Chemistry Department
of the University of Athens
This report was prepared by a committee invited by the Department on the basis of a site visit in September 13-17, 1999 at the request of the Chemistry Department as a voluntary evaluation. The report presented here is mainly based on the information provided by the Department.
Members of the committee:
Prof. Dr. Martin Möller
Laboratory of Organic and Macromolecular Chemistry
University of Ulm
D-89069 Ulm GERMANY
Prof. Dr. Brian Sutcliffe
Laboratoire de Chimie Physique,
Universite Libre de Bruxelles
B-1050, Bruxelles BELGIUM
Prof. Dr. Constantinos Tsipis
Laboratory of Applied Quantum Chemistry
Faculty of Chemistry
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
54006 Thessaloniki GREECE
Prof. Dr. Anastasios Varvoglis
Laboratory of Organic Chemistry
Faculty of Chemistry
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
54006 Thessaloniki GREECE
Chemical science and technology have presently reached a position that enables us to understand the complex organic and inorganic matter and, to some extent, to manipulate it. In many areas we have developed a sufficiently high level of understanding of the chemical reactions, so that we can design them to achieve specific outcomes. These achievements in chemistry have contributed in an essential way to other sciences such as electrical engineering, computer and communication technology, material science, biology, biotechnology, genetic engineering, medicine, environmental protection and others. As a result of these successes and the pace of change, the focus of research is evolving quickly towards new areas.
Departments must consider these shifts in the importance of the different fields in chemistry and respond to them in order to fulfil properly their educational duty. Among these new developments in chemical science and technology are molecular and cell biology, biomimetics and nanotechnology, catalysis, advanced materials, supramolecular chemistry, enantioselective synthesis, and enviromental chemistry. This is an incomplete list but it is indicative. It includes areas which are highly interdisciplinary as well as those which can be regarded as traditional chemistry.
Chemistry will continue to develop strongly in its core fields and these must continue to be taught effectively and well in the context of lively and on-going research activity. However, interdisciplinary developments will increasingly affect research in chemistry and hence will and should affect also chemistry teaching. New fields such as computational chemistry and combinatorial chemistry are mentioned as examples. More generally, challenges are presented to chemistry by the life sciences, by the requirements for novel and efficient approaches in energy conversion, by environmental protection and waste avoidance requirements, by the need for sustainable technologies, and by the need to design biomimetic approaches in combination with nanotechnology. These challenges are presented in a context provided by tremendous developments in instrumental sophistication and the consequent increase in sensitivity of measurements.
A lively and effective Chemistry Department must meet and master these challenges in order to serve properly its students, its University, and its country. Without a leading position in chemical science and technology, Europe will not be able to master future challenges in worldwide ecomic competition. The importance of chemical education for the economy of Europe is therefore quite obvious and it is of paramount importance that this Department plays a full part in providing such education.
The consequences for future needs in education and research which can be drawn are that the Chemistry Department will have to undertake particular efforts to open more and more interdisciplinary fields (a better formulation might be transdisciplinary) while continuing to be active in advancing the chemical core fields. A way in which this might be achieved is to concentrate on a few general areas (e.g. synthesis, catalysis, bio-oriented chemistry, material-oriented chemistry) to which the different laboratories can contribute with their particular specialization. This will also allow special courses to be offered to the advanced students that complement each other.
A1. Position of the Chemistry Department within the University of Athens
The Department of Chemistry is part of the School of Sciences together with the Departments of Biology, Geology, Mathematics and Physics. Within Athens there is the possibility for cooperations in fundamental research with a number of other research institutions, i.e. the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Technical University of Athens, the Agricultural University of Athens, the Nuclear Center Democritus, the National Research Institution.
The research and educational program (R&E) covers broad areas of chemistry including Inorganic, Organic, Analytical and Physical Chemistry and, as specialities, Industrial and Food Chemistry. Between these fields there is no institutionalised R&E Program. In this respect the situation is similar to that in the other Greek universities which have strong programs in chemical research and education without putting an effort to gain a special profile. Indeed, there is not a joint emphasis of the research in different laboratories in a particular direction, such as biological chemistry (biorganic, bioinorganic, biopolymer, supramolecular chemistry), material chemistry (solid state chemistry, polymer chemistry, surface chemistry, catalysis) chemical technology, synthesis (enantioselective synthesis, organometallic chemistry) or modern approaches e.g. combinatorial chemistry.
In the last years the Chemistry Department had a numerus clausus and could recruit, on average, 150 students a year. In contrast to the situation in northern Europe, Chemistry is a study attractive to a broad group of young students. Because of the relatively large absolute number of top students, the Department is doing well in recruiting good PhD students in spite of the fact that a number of the top Greek students do their PhD degree abroad.
A2. Profile of Expertise of the Chemistry Department
There are six laboratories in the department, the smallest of which has 8 members and the largest 16. The division is a fairly classical one including Physical, Organic, Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry laboratories. However, the Industrial and Food Chemistry laboratories are not so common in other European Chemistry Departments. To judge simply by the number of papers published during 1990-99 there is a wide range of research activity within each laboratory. It is reckoned that there is a sufficient number of active workers within each laboratory to provide a nucleus of expertise in each area. The age profiles below have been determined by subtracting 24 from the date of the first degree where that information has been made available.
The Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry consists of 15 members. The position of the laboratory within the Chemistry Department is rather strong regarding education as well as in research. The fact that the position in education program is more prominent than it is internationally common finds its cause in the relatively good employment market for analytical chemists in Greece in the past. In total the laboratory demonstrates a high research activity regarding the number and quality of publications. Some members are, however, rather inactive in research. The main focus of research is directed towards analysis of organic molecules and bioanalysis/biomedical analysis. A strong aspect of methodological developments regards spectrophotometric and potentiometric methods. In addition research activities on biosensors are complemented by studies on enzymatic analysis and the binding of low molecular weight compounds to proteins. Cooperations exist outside the Department with pharmaceutical chemists and researchers in toxicology and medicine. The laboratory is, however, little engaged in cooperations with other laboratories in the Department. The age profile seems to be: no members younger than 40 years, 5 members between 40 and 49 years and 9 members 50 years or older. Thus, the average age of the staff is relatively high. Regarding the research output, it is not clear whether the younger researchers will be able to contribute sufficiently to the future development of the Laboratory and the Department.
Using the crude output criterion of one paper each year on average as a measure of activity, five members of the laboratory seem to hit this target, while seven seem to fail. It appears, too, that a significant part of the research in the lab involves international collaboration. Eleven of the twenty reprints submitted had addresses other than or in addition to this Department on their title page. Looking at the reprints submitted there clearly is a core of internationally competitive work and this seems to originate largely from within this laboratory where international collaborations are involved. This work refers to rather few members of the laboratory. The age profile of the laboratory seems to be: no members younger than 30 years, 1 between 30 and 39 years, 1 between 40 and 49 years and 10 members 50 years or older.
With nine members, the Laboratory of Industrial Chemistry is one of the smaller ones. The largest fraction of the group is involved in the synthesis and morphology study of well defined polymers. In living anionic polymerization and the design of new macromolecular architecture the group is internationally ranked. Two young researchers are active and contribute new aspects of physical characterization and catalysis that are complementary to the existing expertise and broaden the polymer research into an attractive direction. The laboratory is also involved in research on corrosion and silicates/soil. Quality and output of papers in these areas are on a good level. On the research performance of two further faculty members no information was provided. In total the group published in average about 20 papers per year, mostly in high quality international journals. The group is involved in a number of international cooperations with leading groups. The age profile seems to be: no members younger than 30 years, 2 members between 30 and 39, 2 between 40 and 49 and 3 members 50 years or older. The age of 2 members could not be determined.
The 16 members of the Laboratory of Inorganic Chemistry teach General, Inorganic, Coordination and Organometallic Chemistry in both undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Two of the members specialise in Environmental Chemistry and Chemical Oceanography. The research interests of the members of the Laboratory of Inorganic Chemistry are mainly focused on the synthesis, physicochemical study and catalytic activity of coordination and organometallic compounds, i.e. a rather classical vein. Inorganic Chemistry, however, has moved to more complex systems exhibiting interesting biological and catalytic properties. Unfortunately, more than 60% of the laboratory members seem to be inactive (their publication rate is much less than one paper per year). The age profile seems to be: no members younger than 40 years, 4 members between 40 and 49, and 9 members 50 years or older. The age of 3 members could not be determined.
Only a few members out of fourteen are actively pursuing research in organic chemistry. Their work includes classical synthesis of relatively simple molecules, mainly peptides. This activity has led to some very good publications, including a recent one dealing with combinatorial chemistry. Many publications have been realised in collaboration with other scientists from different fields, in which sometimes lies the main emphasis. These fields are concerned with medicinal and analytical chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology. Overall, there is a satisfactory degree of expertise in synthesis for those actually involved in research. However, taken as a whole, the performance of this lab is well below the expected average. Three members did not submit any information. The age profile seems to be: no members younger than 40 years, 2 members between 40 and 49 and 8 members 50 years or older. The age of 3 members could not be determined.
This laboratory has actually a dual character, dealing with aspects of food chemistry and biochemistry. The majority from the 8 staff members are involved in analytical aspects of food chemistry and food microbiology. These members have published as a whole very few papers, but some of them have taken part in several conferences, mostly of topical character. The quality of their work is good, although the quantity is extremely limited. One member did not submit any information. By contrast, the three members working in biochemistry present considerable activity in areas related with the platelet-activating factor and analytical aspects of lipids. Both quality and quantity of their published work are considered to be satisfactory. The age profile seems to be: no members younger than 40 years, 1 member between 40 and 49 years and 6 members 50 years or older. The age of 1 member could not be determined.
A3. Local, National and International Cooperations in Research
Those members actively involved in research have developed considerable cooperation programs locally and especially internationally.
A4. Educational Program
It is rather more difficult to judge about expertise concerning teaching undergraduates. There is a nominal ratio of staff to students (about 1 to 10) and the quality of the teaching could, in principle, be excellent. However, this ratio increases considerably when taking into account service teaching in other Departments. There are too few courses to enable all members of staff to teach regularly, but we assume that all staff members wish to teach and to come into contact with potential students. We have no information on precisely how the teaching is done, but for the student, the average number of lectures, about 19 hours lecture/classes and about 8 hours practical per week seems in line with European experience. In the last two semesters it seems that the students are much involved in their diploma theses. We noted that although there were enough staff members to allow small group teaching, no such teaching happened at any stage in the course. We understood that there were no requirements on particular courses as pre-requisites for later courses.
Although we had no details, we understand that the Department is involved in service teaching for other Departments in the University and that the teaching loads involved here are not uniformly distributed between laboratories. A sample of students’ assessments made available to us points out that generally the quality of teaching of most staff members is satisfactory. The undergraduate course structure with its emphasis on traditional areas in the first five semesters seems very comparable with other European courses and the courses in the last three semesters seem appropriate to local expertise and interests. Some of them must be taught carefully to demonstrate their relevance to chemistry. In the later part of the curriculum, the students can choose between a range of special courses but the program does not seem to offer a clear specialization. The undergraduate curriculum gives the impression of something that has simply grown up over the years and does not seem to have arisen as a consequence of discussion to design a curriculum to achieve objectives specified by the department as a whole. Although the general principles of the methods by which the students are assessed are clear, the details are not made quite clear in the papers. ( Are there practical exams? Are there unseen exams? Is there continuous assessment?)
The postgraduate curriculum is rather underspecified in the papers that we have received, simply indicating the course titles and the time taken. However the course titles seem to indicate that the courses are appropriate for the specialization undertaken although it is not clear precisely how many elective courses are to be examined and what criteria are to be used to judge success. We understand that there are graduate courses, too, in Chemical Education and in Polymer Science. The former is an interdisciplinary course for those interested in teaching Chemistry, while the latter is designed for practising reseach scientists.
A5. International Student Exchange
No information is available to us on the extent of any such exchanges. However student exchange within Europe is regarded as a important aspect of education by the European Community authorities. We were told that it is the University’s policy to encourage such exchanges but that so far there was a shortage of housing in which to accommodate such students. There seems to be no departmental policy here.
We understand that funding for the ordinary operation of the department (space, staff, basic equipment) comes from the Greek authorities. In order to perform research at a high international level the groups must rely strongly on support by grants and industrial cooperation. We were not able to determine the amounts of funding from such sources. It seems however that there are only limited opportunities in Greece in comparison with other European countries for funding at a national level of fundamental research. We were told records are not kept in the Department of the grants held and the funding involved.
A7. Recruiting of Faculty and Decision Making Structures
We understand that there is a democratic process of decision making on affairs within the Department and the Divisions and even within the laboratories. We understand, too, that voting is generally public and not secret. There is no indication however of how the administrative processes are undertaken in order to arrive at and to implement decisions, nor precisely what members of staff are involved in this administration. There are no comparably democratic institutions elsewhere in Europe so it is hard for us to arrive at a comparative assessment. We also understand that some of the administrative processes are not of the Department´s choosing. But it might be appropriate to note that in most Departments in Europe the structure is somewhat more autocratic than here and that the Chair-of- Department is involved almost full time in administration in order that all decisions made are implemented in an orderly and efficient manner.
B1 General observations
Overall, the activity of the Department is rated as rather good. However, future challenges and international competition require a constant readiness for changes and improvements. The department is in an excellent position at present in recruiting students. In view of the general decline in interest of students in chemical science in Northern Europe and North America, however, it is likely that eventually this situation will spread also to Greek Universities. It may also become more difficult in future for the Department to recruit PhD students, as research institutions and universities seem to be coming into global competition for the best talents. Preparing for the future might require that the Department develops a specific profile of expertise, focusing on research programs which allow the different laboratories to cooperate without diminishing their competence in their own disciplines. This is a difficult balance to strike between joining interests and forces and losing broad coverage. We cannot provide detailed advice and this must be worked out by a considered and determined effort on the part of the Department as a whole. Within this context the motivation and deployment of the less research active faculty members and the recruitment of new faculty members, will be the most important issues. The age profile of the Department staff members must cause anxiety for the future. There are 45 members above 50 years of age, 19 between 40 and 49 years of age and only 3 less than 40. Unless the Department makes space for and hires highly motivated and active researchers soon, the Department could soon cease to be a viable one. Nevertheless this danger should enable the Department to extend and to improve its research profile. It is essential that the Department develops its own clear rules for how faculty members should be evaluated, promoted and hired. These rules must be applied equally and fairly to all persons considered. The criteria involved must be open and the procedures transparent. In promotions and appointments, procedures should be in accord with those internationally accepted and should preferably involve assessors from outside the University. It should be added that in promotions and hiring procedures, if and when voting takes place, it is normally by secret ballot in most European Universities.
Over the past years, a wide range of European governments have introduced ``research assessment'' procedures for departments within Universities. In the UK, for example, these occur every five years and any member of staff who has published less than four papers in this period is declared research inactive and cannot contribute to the departmental rating. It would seem in line with this sort of practice to suggest that a research active member of the Department here should publish about one paper a year. Of course the number of papers is a very crude measure of value and more papers do not necessarily mean better work. But regular publication is a sign of regular activity and regular activity is essential to achieve quality. It would seem not unreasonable to ask those members whose output is less than acceptable to outline plans for future improvement. In the absence of such plans laboratories might become vulnerable in any national program of cutbacks in Chemistry Departments. To anticipate such a possibility, the Department might consider introducing a staff development program to help members of staff to reach their full potential.
We understand that teaching is a core activity of the Department and we are not encouraging research activity at the expense of teaching. We do however believe that an active research involvement provides the best possible background for informed and effective Chemistry teaching at the University level.
Although there is a departmental General Assembly, we have not seen any evidence of the Department acting as a united body in making academic decisions. We regard it as vital that decisions about the curriculum, about development policy and about responding to external initiatives, be made on a departmental basis. Only in this way can the Department present a strong front to the outside world and appear resolute and efficient. Members of the Department might consider it worthwhile to have a small steering committee to develop policy and to outline how it might be implemented.
We all agree that it is imperative that there should be a generous increase in funding from the government for the effective running of the Department.
We should also like to see the library facilities available to the Department much improved as a matter of urgency.
B2 Individual laboratories
Although this might be difficult, it would improve the position of the Department, if the researcher in analytical chemistry becomes linked more strongly to the activities of the other laboratories. Opportunities exist for cooperations with the polymer group in the field of membranes for biosensors, in cooperations with the Laboratory of Organic Chemistry (This will require new activities in the latter laboratory, e.g. on molecular recognition, photoactive molecules) and in environmental chemistry. Regarding its research profile, the laboratory should focus its activities further towards the key areas of modern analytical chemistry, e.g. ultrasensitive analysis, biosensors/medical diagnostics, novel spectrometric methods, and the analytical evaluation of dynamic chemical distributions in complex systems.
The majority of those members of staff active in research in this laboratory are involved in international collaborations. This is highly commended and such collaborations should be continued and developed. However it would be good to see long term visits by outside workers to the laboratory here as well as long term visits by workers here to outside laboratories. The laboratory should seek funds to make such visits possible. It appears that there could be common interests between some of the members of the laboratory and perhaps between members here and others in the Department. Collaborations cannot, of course, be usefully forced but we hope that the possibilty of collaborations will at least be investigated. The stronger and more definite a laboratory can make its profile, the better will be the chance of its recognition internationally. The laboratory should probably develop a new expertise in terms of which it can work together with members of another laboratory either locally and nationally or internationally. There are so many possibilities here that it is not easy to suggest precisely in what area such a development should take place. But perhaps there are national priorities for research areas, in which case every effort should be made to develop one of them within the laboratory.
Most of the work in the laboratory is concentrated with classical cordination chemistry and is of high quality. However, some other work must be considered to be of limited interest and a strong effort must be made to establish new research topics in order to achieve an internationally competitive position. Some of the key areas of modern Inorganic Chemistry concern metal-containing species in biological processes, as well as in homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis of clean processes, metal-based molecular electronics and memory storage devices, supramolecular species, molecular magnets and other inorganic molecules exhibiting interesting electric and other properties. Inorganic solid state chemistry would also be an important research area. This may be achievable after the recent acquisition of some modern equipment. It is believed that the position of the laboratory will be strengthened if inactive members form collaborations with senior and more active members.
In recent years the laboratory has broadened its scope by research in the field of organometallic catalysis of polymerization and selective oxidation/hydroformylation reactions. These new activities originate in cooperation with other groups. It will strengthen the competitive position of the laboratory considerably if the research in this field can be further improved in order to achieve a permanent internationally competitive position. Polymer synthesis and studies of ion absorption/exchange of layered silicates might be coordinated in order to explore the preparation of novel nanocomposites. In general the laboratory might benefit from new cooperations within the department.
The work produced is considered to be of good quality. We believe, however, that a considerable effort should be made in order to activate those members who do not contribute noticeably to research in organic chemistry. It is felt that, apart from joining forces with senior members, new joint research programs on natural products might provide an impetus for new activity. This would greatly benefit the laboratory as a whole, since this area gives many opportunities for collaboration, for instance with members of the Pharmacy Department and “Democritus“, to mention but local places. It shoud be added that the Greek flora provides ample potential for its exploration from a chemical point of view.
The laboratory of food chemistry should make strong efforts to take advantage from the eventual cooperations with other laboratories and become much more research oriented. Modern developments in biochemistry, molecular biology, synthetic food, genetic engineering, pharmacology, toxicology and our increasing abilities to follow the chemical, the genetical and the isotopic fingerprint of natural compounds offer ample opportunities to find new frontiers of research that are of importance for nutrition.
We understand that there are historical reasons for the structure of the Department and for the way in which members see their duties to the Department. But the challenges faced by the Department are contemporary and not historical. It would be hoped that at least some of those members of the laboratories who seem at present to be less research active, might become involved in the development of new specialisms and return to full productivity. But above all, we encourage the Department to find ways to attract young researchers, hungry for success and eager to develop new ideas. We also recommend that the Department makes a strong effort to develop its profile of expertise so as to excel among Greek universities and become noted at the international level as a top institution.