Oh woe, a university chemistry department is closing. “What is to become of British biomedical research?” whine the great and the good of the scientific and medical establishment. Michael Rees, the head of the BMA’s medical academics committee, is a laugh a line as he cries:

“If this trend of closures continues, it will cut off access to the range of knowledge vital for groundbreaking medical research …

“Chemistry A-level is still a requirement for most medical schools. Without university chemistry departments, who will train the secondary school teachers of tomorrow?”

It’s striking that someone who benefits from the gravymobile that is the British academic medical pay system should find it so difficult to understand incentives, but I’ll do my best to help Prof Rees.

When I was an undergraduate, nearly twenty years ago, the largest single employment destination for fresh Oxford Chemistry graduates was accountancy training. This is because, despite the moans (even then) about a “shortage” of qualified chemists and other scientists, many who chose to work in those fields ended up doing a boring job with limited career prospects for little money. Unsurprisingly, many of the brightest chose to do a boring job with good career prospects for a great deal more money. That’s how job markets work outside the protection of closed shops.

To my chronic mystification, university teaching in Britain is funded based on the publication output of the research departments charged with doing that teaching. This is the most important of many reasons why so much teaching in British universities is rubbish. If David Beckham were paid according to his contribution to football coaching theory he probably wouldn’t be quite so devastating in dead-ball situations. Why are we so surprised when university lecturers complain that their doing anything more than occasionally mumbling into their shirts for an hour is “spoon-feeding the students” and “interferes with their real work”?

Medics are paid a great deal more than chemistry teachers and research chemists. If there were a real shortage of chemists or if salaries in Britain were based on the actual contributions of various workers to their companies’ bottom-lines (rather than on their connectedness to professional networks of mutual backscratching) then chemists would be paid more and there would be more people going into industry and research. They aren’t so they don’t.

If you want good chemistry teaching to continue then reward people for doing it well. If you teach it well the students will come. If you want more and better chemists then reward them for doing chemistry. If you want your offspring to go to university to do medicine then pay a private chemistry tutor to cram them on their way. If you want to moan about the situation then try not to be so naïve.

[There. That’s buggered my chances of going back to computational analysis of medical imaging looking for a new job.]