The Department of Chemistry – a success story

Until 1960, the only way to obtain a university degree in science was to complete an MA (skoleembedseksamen), which primarily aimed at employment at upper secondary school. People who wanted a university career had to complete an MSc (magisterkonferens).
The Executive Order on the Master of Science degree (cand.scient.) was published in 1960, and formed the basis of a much needed modernisation of the science degree programmes at Danish universities.

The appointment of three new professors from 1961 onwards – Hakon Lund had been appointed Professor of Chemistry at Aarhus University as early as 1932 – finally provided the necessary academic basis for establishing an actual Department of Chemistry in the new buildings in Langelandsgade.

While Hakon Lund was the grand old man within classical organic chemistry, the three new professors signalled a decisive step towards the interface with physics. Laurits Tage Muus was appointed Professor of Physical Chemistry (which included areas such as thermodynamics and electron spin resonance spectroscopy), Svend Erik Rasmussen became Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, specialising in X-ray crystallography examinations of the crystalline structure of substances, while Svend Brodersen was appointed Professor of Chemical Physics, with molecular spectroscopy using infrared techniques and Raman spectroscopy as his special areas of interest.

Right from the start, the four professors decided to divide the Department of Chemistry into four independent sections, which were to remain almost unchanged for the next thirty years: (1) Section for Organic Chemistry, (2) Section for Inorganic Chemistry, (3) Section for Physical Chemistry and (4) Section for Chemical Physics. The department’s grant for research and education was divided equally between the four sections regardless of the number of staff and students. In 1968, (5) the Section for Theoretical Chemistry was established with Jan Linderberg as a new Professor of Quantum Chemistry.

It is a moot point whether this rigid division of the department and its resources created optimum conditions for academic development. On the one hand, it cemented the controlling influence of the professors on the employment policy, research and education of their respective sections. This was in accordance with the statute governing the universities at the time, but there is no doubt that, in some cases, it was a barrier to initiatives that were not in line with the research profiles of the individual sections or cut across several sections. On the other hand, the professors were very interested in increasing the academic prestige of their sections and in creating the best possible conditions for their staff, for example by exercising their influence on foundations and research councils when their staff members applied for grants.

It was not a propitious time for democracy. There were no official requirements to the group of professors as regards transparency in the management and administration of the department. The professors made agreements with each other at closed meetings about the management of the department’s finances and the announcement of available positions. However, they did take an initiative to openness by inviting representatives of the department’s teaching assistants (subsequently associate professors) to attend the meetings. Decisions were communicated by means of ‘internal messages’, which were distributed to staff at the department and Master’s degree students. The professors took turns to assume the role of ‘head of department’. Approximately once a year, the professors called an information meeting in a so-called ‘departmental council’, which included all staff at the department as well as senior students. The departmental council had no official powers.

The Department of Chemistry taught its own students of chemistry and physical chemistry, of course, However, during the first many years, the annual intakes were limited (during those years, enrolments averaged fewer than thirty students per year). The department also organised lectures and theoretical exercises at a basic level for the biology and geology students at the faculty.

The largest individual teaching task consisted of the service teaching that the department provided for first-year students at the Faculty of Medicine in the form of lectures, laboratory exercises and theoretical exercises in organic and general chemistry, including propaedeutic courses. The ‘teaching of medicine’, which required considerable manpower, disappeared around 1980 when it was taken over by the Department of Medical Biochemistry. This spelled the end to the formal tie with the teaching of medicine at Aarhus University, which had played a role by supporting the Department of Chemistry during the university’s infancy.

For the above-mentioned reasons, external teaching was more important during the first years of the department’s life than the teaching of its own students. This has since changed.

The period 1970–1990 – the ultra-democratic university

‘The reign of the professors’, as it was generally called, came to an end when the youth rebellion in 1968 led to the University Act of 1970. Under the new Act, Aarhus University changed from being a self-governing institution (as had been the case since the university was established in 1928) to a public institution under the Ministry of Education, on a par with the remaining Danish universities. The new Act introduced a number of collegiate bodies that were responsible for managing the universities on a day-to-day basis, as well as a set of complicated democratic (and bureaucratic) rules for the composition and election of these bodies.

It was almost inevitable that the changed power balance would result in friction between the professors and the group of associate professors throughout the Danish university world, and the predictable confrontations between the two groups did not leave the Department of Chemistry untouched. However, after a few years, the parties arrived at a form of peaceful coexistence.

In 1974, the department took the innovative step to create (6) the Section for Biostructural Chemistry, with Brian Clark as a newly appointed professor. It was no coincidence that the Department of Chemistry ended up housing this section, as several of the department’s researchers were working with X-ray crystallography examinations of the structure of proteins. The Section for Biostructural Chemistry was nevertheless treated in many respects as a stepchild at the department. Apart from the studies of crystallography structures, there were no research-related aspects that overlapped the ‘old’ part of the department, and no actual collaboration ever developed between the scientific staff at the Section for Biostructural Chemistry and the rest of the department.

The section remained associated with the Department of Chemistry until 1996, when it was transferred to the newly established Department of Molecular and Structural Biology located in the Science Park. In hindsight, the Section for Biostructural Chemistry’s association with the Department of Chemistry was only a temporary solution.

Today, the situation is very different. When the degree programmes in Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Biology were created at a later stage, they became an integral part of research at many of the department’s centres, and the Section for Biostructural Chemistry’s association with the Department of Chemistry would no doubt have had a very different outcome if it had taken place today.

The department’s old structure with sections remained in place for another twenty years, i.e. until around 1990, although in a much looser form than before. The new statute for the department made it possible for staff to choose to be affiliated with a different department, and some academic staff members made the most of this opportunity. This resulted in a number of interdisciplinary groups, of which (7) the Section for Analytical Chemistry (established in 1976) survived the longest.

In 1983, the Department of Chemistry established (8) the Section for NMR Spectroscopy. It was hived off from the Section for Organic Chemistry, which it had been part of since the early 1960s for historical reasons. The cause was the creation of the Centre for NMR Spectroscopy, which was subsidised by the first major grant of external funding to the department from the research councils.

In the 1980s (the so-called poor eighties on account of the difficult financial conditions for Danish universities during this decade) and during the 1990s, the department’s research was dominated by two trends.

  • On the one hand, experimental chemical research became more and more dependent on equipment. Spectrometers, diffractometers and other advanced measuring devices were purchased to study the structure, dynamics and reactivity of chemical compounds. This development was supported by the department’s mechanical workshop, the electronics department and the glass blower’s workshop. These workshops, which employed a growing number of technicians, had originally been set up to build equipment that was not commercially available and to maintain equipment that had already been purchased.
  • On the other hand, computer technology was playing an increasing role in the electronic collection and processing of experimental data. In 1966, Aarhus University acquired its first computer, a GIER computer, and the chemists made good use of it. In 1972, the department received the necessary funding to purchase its own RC4000 computer, which was subsequently (in 1982) replaced by the first of a number of more powerful computing systems that were to support the researchers at the department for several years. In addition, the department employed staff to operate the computer system and provide support to the many staff members who gradually learned to use computers in their day-to-day work. The chemists – in particular the theorists – were also large-scale consumers of computing time at RECAU (the Regional Computer Centre at Aarhus University). Since the end of the 1990s, the department has used personal computers connected to centralised servers.

The period 1990–1995 – the Department of Chemistry under the free faculty

The University Act of 1970 was gradually becoming subject to much criticism. It was alleged, for example, that there were no valid professional reasons for the influence of technical and administrative staff and students on academic decisions, and that their influence was therefore open to criticism. In practice, however, the technical and administrative staff never interfered in decisions that did not affect them, and neither did the students at the department abuse their influence. The Act was not amended until 1992 and was therefore in force for a long period of time.

The amendment of the Act mainly resulted in a strengthening of university management at all levels: the rector, deans, heads of departments and directors of studies. In connection with the amendment of the Act, the Faculty of Science had been granted special permission from the ministry to be a free faculty for the period 1991–1995. The purpose was to free the faculty from the detailed control exercised by the Ministry of Education for many years. One of the arguments put forward was that a faculty council elected by the faculty’s own staff was in a much better position to make decisions about the conditions in their workplace than an office in a (remote) ministry. In return for its freedom, the faculty had to meet some agreed production targets in terms of the numbers of graduates and PhD students.

The period 1995–2011 – new and better times

From the mid-1990s onwards, a new infrastructure gradually developed at the department (the same thing happened at other departments at the faculty) with the establishment of a number of centres at the Department of Chemistry. Apart from the grants from the Danish National Science Research Council (SNF), the Danish Technical Research Council (STVF) and the National Agency of Technology (TS), it was mainly brought about by the creation of the Danish National Research Foundation (DG) and the Strategic Research Council (DSF), which had provided fairly large grants to a number of research centres based at the Department of Chemistry since 1991:

  • Centre for NMR Spectroscopy (SNF/STVF, Hans Jørgen Jakobsen, 1983).
  • Centre for Solid-State NMR Spectroscopy in Material Research (TS, Hans Jørgen Jakobsen, 1987).
  • Danish Instrument Centre for Solid-State NMR Spectroscopy (SNF/STVF, Hans Jørgen Jakobsen, 1996/2006).
  • Centre for Metal-Catalyzed Reactions (DG, Karl Anker Jørgensen, 1997).
  • Danish Centre for Biomolecular NMR Spectroscopy, associated with the Danish Biotechnology Instrument Centre (the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Niels Chr. Nielsen, 1999).
  • Centre for Catalysis (DG, Karl Anker Jørgensen, 2002).
  • Centre for Insoluble Protein Structures (DG, Niels Chr. Nielsen, 2005).
  • Centre for Oxygen Microscopy and Imaging (DG, Peter R. Ogilby, 2005).
  • Lundbeck Foundation Centre for Theoretical Chemistry (Lundbeck, Jan Linderberg, Poul Jørgensen, 2006).
  • Centre for DNA Nanotechnology (DG, Kurt Vesterager Gothelf, 2007).
  • Centre for Energy Materials (DSF, Bo Brummerstedt Iversen, 2007).
  • Centre for Materials Crystallography (DSF, Bo Brummerstedt Iversen, 2010).

Many of the above-mentioned centres are also an integral part of the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) at Aarhus University.

The centres work closely with universities, research centres and industrial companies in Denmark and abroad. In addition, the department’s staff participate in centres based at other universities in Denmark and abroad, and the department’s centres involve several of the department’s own employees cutting across the borders of former sections. The old departmental structure has therefore largely disappeared and been replaced by scientific communities with shared interests, shared instruments and collaboration about graduate schools.

The activities at the centres have, of course, rubbed off on the Department of Chemistry, which has experienced a major boost in recent years, both financially and academically. As an additional benefit, many researchers from Denmark, as well as other countries, have applied for work at the department, which has obviously strengthened the international environment. While the number of members of the permanent academic staff have been more or less constant at the department in recent years, the technical and administrative staff have been considerably reduced. Conversely, there has been a considerable increase in the number of postdoctoral scholars and PhD students. The result has been a lack of laboratories, and the groups of researchers have had to go on forays in adjacent buildings to find room for their activities.

In many ways, the new centre structure is similar to the original structure with sections. The centre director (in practice always a professor) is currently responsible for research at the centre – in the old days it was the professor who was responsible for the section. In that sense, there is not much difference between a centre and a section. However, there is one major difference: the grants to the centres always come from foundations using external assessors. The assessments and the subsequent control ensure that only the very best applications make it through the eye of the needle. This guarantees the quality of the research carried out at the centres. In addition, there is a de facto requirement regarding collaboration – partnership – with groups of researchers outside the department’s own sphere. This ensures a high international level of research, but the price for this success is high: the centre management uses a considerable amount of energy writing applications and documenting progress along the way.

In 2003, the University Act was again amended. The university once more became a self-governing institution with a board in charge of appointing the rector. The rector appointed the deans, who in turn appointed the heads of departments and directors of studies. The department boards were abolished and the responsibility for running the departments now rested with the heads of departments. This remains the case today.

Work of the Department of Chemistry during the years from 1961 until the beginning of the 1990s was characterised by the appointment of very few professors (there were never more than six tenured professors during the entire period). As a result, the department’s general academic structure became an extension of the one that had been cemented in the early 1960s. However, a strong growth layer was established for the next generation of chemists, as reflected by the number of strong research centres established in recent years.

The Department of Chemistry 2011 – a success story

During the period 2005–2008, the NordForsk advisory body on Nordic research policy carried out a bibliometric survey of publication citation rates within a number of comparable subject areas, including agricultural research, biology, biomedicine, chemistry, material science, geoscience, physics and mathematics for all Nordic universities and university hospitals. The survey rates the Department of Chemistry at Aarhus University as the strongest chemistry institution in the Nordic countries with a citation rate that is 50% above the Danish average and 80% above the Nordic average.