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Science budget breakdown

30 October 2015 - The numbers

The newspaper NRC has the scoop: what amount of money is spent on scientific research in The Netherlands and as a public translation service here are the numbers. The total expenses for higher education have increased from just under 2 billion Euro in 1990 to just over 3 billion in 2015 given a population of 17 million. If the euro-inflation-effect (that destroyed Dutch buying power and is denied to exist by the Dutch government) is taken into account the 2015 value is over 4 billion. The taxpayer takes care of 3 billion, the remainder is shared by businesses, non-profits (mostly the expenses made by students) and countries abroad (? but thanks!). The number of researchers (in fte) increased from 13 to 19 thousand. In terms of expenses per capita the country today takes position 6 after countries like Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden (The UK is listed at number 13, the US is not listed). In short, Dutch researchers have really nothing to complain.

Things get interesting when considering the available budget per researcher split by research field. Now it becomes apparent that all fields have gained a lot - agriculture, languages, health - in particular (+25% starting from 150 thousand Euro ), except for one: the natural sciences (chemists!) which have actually seen a decline by 15%. How is that? The article is accompanied by interviews, one with a smart-material researcher chasing after artificial muscles. Sorry your funding has been declining every year for a long time. Another one is with a book scientist (yes, they do exist) specialized in the layout of eleventh century books for some reason. Congratulations, your budget seems to increase every year.

Any hope for chemists then? Try to incorporate a book-language-health theme in your next grant application. Free NRC tip!

Ancient chemical laboratories

17 October 2015 - #oldtimechem

Last week the remains of a chemical laboratory were discovered in a University of Virginia building (link). The Rotunda as it is called was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1822 and prominently visible in the lab is a chemical hearth. Certainly the oldest lab in existence in the USA but how about the oldest existing lab on the planet?

The laboratory where Justig von Liebig taught chemistry between 1824 and 1852 can still be visited in the German town of Giessen (link). It evaded train station expansion plans and a WWII bombing raid. Nice detail: the leaded glass in the fume hoods.

Earlier in 1773 Joseph Priestly set up shop in Bowood House in England. In its laboratory that still exists today Priestly in 1774 discovered oxygen - though he called it dephlogisticated air (link). To the untrained eye the interior of the lab is nothing but bookshelves and a fire place. Not much of a lab except for the bench-like table in the centre. Priestly discovered his oxygen by exposing mercury oxide to sunlight so we may guess that the actual chemistry action was taking place outside in the yard (safer!).

This blog has already featured a report on a visit to the Baruchsen laboratory in operation between 1702 and 1723 in the Dutch city of Utrecht (Link). Back in 1702 the location was an abandoned fortress so Baruchsen could only hurt himself in his experiments. Pretty impressive but Utrecht can not claim to host the oldest lab in the world.

How about that alchemist Isaac Newton? His base of operations was the University of Cambridge between 1667 and 1696. As the university has hardly changed since then and since the English are known for meticulous record keeping it must be an easy task to at least pinpoint the location of his lab even if it no longer exists today. Not so. As P.E. Spargo explains in the South African Journal of Science (2005) things are complicated. As a student Newton had to his disposal a private garden that could only be accessed from his private rooms. The garden had a water pump and a wooden shed but contrary to popular belief the shed was probably not the laboratory. A 1998 analysis of soil samples revealed the presence of gold, copper and arsenic at a location near one of the garden walls but a serious excavation of the site has yet to take place.

No, the oldest-lab-in-the-world award goes to the alchemical laboratory rediscovered in 2002 in Prague (Link). It was commissioned by Emperor Rudolf II between 1580 and 1620 and is believed to have been the place of work of illustrious alchemists such as Edward Kelley and John Dee. There you have it. And there is no point in looking further back for example to the Roman Empire. For all their innovations - concrete, metal working, dyes - the Romans never needed a lab for that.

And how about chemical laboratories from the twentieth century worth preserving? The Cavendish Laboratory of DNA fame is fully operational but as a physics lab as the chemists moved out a long time ago to another part of town. Well, we have the Linus Pauling chalkboard (link). Laboratories are places of work and shutting down one just for the sake of preservation is expensive!

Anecdote. In the early nineties the Royal Shell laboratory in Amsterdam used to have a small chemical museum. I had the pleasure to visit it as part of a group a students from Delft University. The guy showing us around in the museum was clearly proud of an old chemical lab on display, with a distinct 1950's look with everything wood-panelled in dark colors and nothing like the bright and shiny modern labs that were actually in use. The Delft delegation was unimpressed. The lab looked exactly like the lab back in Delft they worked in every day. An uncomfortable silence ensued.


#oldtimechem 2015