Chemistry World podcast - February 2014


Audio Files

© Science Photo Library

0.40 - Research data are rapidly being lost to science as time passes, Canadian researchers have confirmed. As individual researchers are not preserving their data for posterity, there is a pressing need for tougher rules on data-sharing in public archives, the team concludes. Scientific data disappearing at alarming rate

5.54 - A collection of over 15 million chemical structures from patents – SureChem – is to be made freely available through the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI). Database of 15 million chemical structures set free

3.43 - The future of the iconic Keeling Curve, a record of atmospheric carbon dioxide that has been kept for over five decades, is in doubt. Funding cuts have left scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, US, appealing to members of the public for donations to keep the work going. Iconic carbon dioxide programme imperilled by funding shortfall

7.17 - Recent years have seen great advances in alternatives to animal tests, yet we still need a giant leap to full replacement. We speak to Maurice Whelan, head of the systems toxicology unit at the institute for health and consumer protection of the European Commission’s joint research centre. The art of alternatives

14.15 - Researchers in the US have demonstrated that mechanical energy from a human hand can power a microfluidic device. Device runs on finger power

17.26 – It’s easy to forget that we’re armed with an incredibly sensitive instrument – the sense of touch. New research shows that the human fingertip could be almost as sensitive as atomic force microscopy. Sense and sense ability

21.00 - Actinide chemistry is reaching beyond nuclear and revealing surprising behaviour. We speak to Nottingham university chemist Steve Liddle. What can U do?

27.33 - Assembling a dream team of international researchers (as the EPSRC intend to do with their virtual world congress) could offer a useful snapshot of the UK’s strength in chemical engineering. Virtually excellent

30.44 - The UK has overtaken the US and now ranks first in one indicator of research quality, according to a new report commissioned by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. While the country punches above its weight as a research nation, it cannot rest on its laurels in future as emerging nations, such as China, step up the quality and quantity of their research, the report warns. UK overtakes US on research quality metric

Full transcript

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Welcome to February’s Chemistry World. I am Chris Smith and in this month’s podcast, substitutes for animal testing, piezoelectrically powered microfluidic tests, you just press here a few dozen times and what chemical reactions can you do with Uranium?

(0:40 - Scientific data disappearing at alarming rate)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

With me this month are Ben Valsler, Jen Newton and Neil Withers. In a moment, why it’s bad news for people measuring atmospheric CO2 levels in Hawaii, and not just because we’ve broken through the 400 parts per million barrier, there’s a funding issue which Jen will tell us about in a moment. But first, an alarming scientific disappearance is happening, Neil.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Data is being lost to science which is quite troubling because a bunch of Canadians led by Timothy Vine have looked at trying to find data from previously published articles up to about 20 years ago and they found that even in the cases where there is working email addresses for those authors, they haven’t been able to get at the original data.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

When you say the original data, this is the raw output the scientists produced in order to distil out of that what they published.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Yes, exactly. So it’s not the results because the results are actually there for everyone to see, so that’s perhaps less important. But imagine if you do some work yourself and you’re trying to compare it to work that has been done 10 or 15 years ago, when you’d like to compare the two in exactly the same way, then you might want to get hold of raw data whether it’s in some sort of instrument file or an excel spreadsheet or something, and so you contact the author, ask them to send it to you and then you would have a great comparison. But if you can’t do that, then you are not going to be comparing like with like.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Does this mean then there’s a, almost like a half-life, a raw data half-life and that with time, there’s a data decay and you have a higher or lower chance depending on how many of those half-lives have passed of getting that data.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Yes, that’s right. They don’t give a half-life as such but they do find that the chances of being able to get the data falls by 17% a year, which is quite quick if you think about it.

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

The chemists have suggested that the case could be even worse for chemistry. So if you look at computational chemistry and material science, primary data is rarely ever published.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Does that matter? Because you’ve made a sound case, Neil, why it might matter in biology but does it matter in chemistry in the same way?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Well, there could be cases where you worry that they haven’t done the research right, that there might have been skulduggery going on perhaps, or it might simply be that methods change, ways of analysis change and they improve as well, so you might think ‘okay, I’ve got result that contradicts what they found 10 years ago, let’s see if I can analyze their data again and find it’ and if you want to do that experiment again, then it’s going to cost you.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, what can we do about it?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

We can archive data, I think, but that’s difficult to do.

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

You could put in a chemical repository. The Royal Society of Chemistry are one of many people that are opening up chemical repositories. So with the RSC one at the moment it is only for the people that publishing RSC papers and if your paper needs to go open access, then your paper will be put in the repository automatically if you sign after that when you submitted, where they’re also looking to deposit the data that goes with that paper alongside the paper.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

That’s something difficult really as something to do, unlike measuring CO2.

(3.43 - Iconic carbon dioxide programme imperilled by funding shortfall)

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

Yes, so we’ve depressing example where data could potentially be lost in with respect to the Keeling curve which is a record of atmospheric carbon dioxide that is being kept since 1958 but its future is in jeopardy at the moment because it’s funding is running out.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Measured in Hawaii, isn’t it?

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

It’s measured in Hawaii, so yes they’ve been measuring it since 1958 and when they started doing these measurements it was carbon dioxide levels were at 317 parts per million but last year it reached the 400 parts per million mark.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

We broke the 400 barrier, didn’t we? And so how much money do they want?

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

And so, they say they’re short by around 400,000 US dollars.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Ironic isn’t it? 400,000 on the year we break the 400ppm CO2 barrier. But that sounds like quite a lot.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

It does when it’s for measurements but I think part of the problem is it is not just CO2 they are measuring, it’s the oxygen content as well and because the two are obviously linked, you burn fossil fuels combined with the oxygen to produce the carbon dioxide, and it’s actually that this data from this Keeling curve that has been able to link the two so well. If you have a break in that data then you could never get it back, if you don’t do any measurements in 2014, it’s not like if the funding comes back next year, you can go and fill in that gap. There will always be a break.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So what are they trying to do about it Jen?

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

Well, the people running the project have done an open appeal, I think they are possibly looking for crowd sourcing but considering the importance of this data, it’s a bit ridiculous that they are not being funded by federal money really.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

I suppose they also have to be careful where they get the money from because otherwise people might say that they’re being biased. So it has to be come from a government really, doesn’t it?

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

I think the problem is that they fall into the cracks between different federal agencies and the funding you normally get doesn’t apply to projects on such a long term and for doing global measurements. So, that’s one of the reasons, they haven’t been able to get funding so easily, but it’s really important that you get this kind of funding because this data provided the first evidence that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were rising and without that it might not been so obvious that we’ve lot of problem.

(5:54 - Database of 15 million chemical structures set free)

Interviewee - Neil Withers

And certainly more positive news after all this data woe, we’ve got a little story about a donation of 15 million chemical structures to the European Bioinformatics Institute. That’s going to make it freely available to everyone. So that’s very generous.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

That’s jolly generous, so who is the altruistic party?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

This has been donated by Digital Science, a company which is owned by Macmillan, who own Nature and all those journals and they acquired SureChem, a chemical database back in 2009 and they’re making it freely available.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

What’s the reason for doing this? Why are they giving away all these protected molecules?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Well, from the quotes we got from the guys in-charge of Digital Science and SureChem, it looks like they bought it kind of speculatively and they haven’t been able to commercialize it quite how they wanted. So I think this is the next step to making it more available and I think perhaps they may have some tools that will allow people to search it more effectively and better but by making the underlying data freely available, makes those tools may be a little more valuable.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And if I am a chemist and I’ve got a molecule why do I care? Why is this important?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Because if you got a molecule and you want to patent it to make some cash out of it, you want to know what else is in the patent literature, because if you’ve made something that someone else has got a patent on. It’s going to be a bit tricky.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And this will tell me.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Yes, because this will tell you if that chemical exist in the patent literature already.

(7:17 - The art of alternatives)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

More from Neil and Jen later in the program. Meanwhile from protecting molecules to protecting people by coming up with better alternatives to laboratory animals for chemical testing.

Interviewee - Maurice Whelan

So my name is Maurice Whelan. I am head of the Systems Toxicology Unit at the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and I am also head of the European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing that the JRC runs. Although in Europe, we have strong aspirations to ultimately avoid testing on animals, currently, we don’t have enough in vitro alternative methods or computational approaches available to us to develop drugs or to assess potential hazard of chemicals in the environment, for example, that animal testing allows us to do.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Is there not also a legal requirement that if anyone is developing something which is going to go into a person for pharmaceutical reasons that has got to pass through an animal first.

Interviewee - Maurice Whelan

In each piece of chemicals legislation in Europe, there is provision for assessing potential risks of that to humans and the environment. Therefore a company that’s producing a chemical whether it be a drug or a chemical for a consumer product, they’ll have to comply with certain information requirements and so often the information requirements involves toxicological and information, whether a chemical would be toxic in any way to the environment or human causing adverse health effect. Typically for more complicated effects such as cancer or effects on reproduction or facility for example, the only tests available to us today are animal based. However that said, we are all the time developing more and more innovative and alternative approaches based on testing on cells in vitro in culture or with computational tools that allow us to really minimize the impact on the use of animals.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Because of course although animals are effectively the gold standard because we don’t have an alternative, then they can of course also lead us down the wrong path sometimes, can’t they? Because what works in a mouse maybe not very representative of human physiology.

Interviewee - Maurice Whelan

Absolutely and the policy of my own organization is very much linked to primary goals. The first is to reduce our reliance on animal testing for scientific purposes but also as important is that we protect as much as possible humans in the environment from possible negative impacts of chemicals and so in that respect you’re absolutely right. If you take the development of drugs for example, we still have huge attrition rates in new drugs, in other words a large portion of the drugs which are entering clinical trials fail often that’s due to the fact that they have been assessed in animal models.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

But equally, a Petri dish whilst you can, maybe even re-create a whole organ because people are now modelling say, a breast in a Petri dish and a liver in a Petri dish or even a kidney in some cases, it doesn’t necessarily represent the entire organism, does it? So you won’t have an immune system for example.

Interviewee - Maurice Whelan

Yes, that’s absolutely right and of course it’s not a one size fits all, it depends on the type of toxicological effects that you’re concerned with. Quite often, even though let’s say it’s reductionist in nature that you’ll only be looking a particular cells, the very fact that they are from human origin would make that model more relevant and sometimes a whole organism rodent model for example. But equally we also have difficulty in in vitro systems primarily for dealing with things like metabolism, and so when you do use a whole animal model the animal’s metabolism is effecting, transforming that chemical and therefore what actually might be causing the effect is metabolite of that chemical or a by-product of biotransformation of that chemical in the body and rather than the pairing chemical itself that’s one particular aspect that is still a challenge to deal with in an in vitro system.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, what can we do about all of this? How come we replace the stereotypical laboratory mouse with a non-animal alternative?

Interviewee - Maurice Whelan

It might sound like a cliché, but we very much have to take a science based approach. What that means is we need to move away from what’s essentially been decades of reliance on observation of disease in animal models to a new paradigm where we really exploit our knowledge about mechanistic understanding of toxicology. So what we don’t want is a another black box in vitro, what we are trying to do is - through systematic curation of the knowledge that we have and generating new knowledge where we need it in terms of mechanistic understanding – to be able to model those mechanisms and processes in the body. We can have a much better chance at identifying the key design aspects of alternative systems and that we can use as a blue print for developing a new paradigm.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So now, the horrible how long question that always comes up in interviews like this, how long before we see something which is a viable and valid alternative which is safe and regulated for replacing the laboratory mouse?

Interviewee - Maurice Whelan

What’s important to know is that we’ve had a lot of success stories in recent years, in particular in the area of topical toxicity. So trying to assess the chemical properties in terms of irritating your eyes or causing negative skin reactions and so on, and in those areas we’ve practically - the classic Draize test was one that people potentially are familiar with which involves testing chemicals in the eyes of rabbits which cause a lot of distress - we are very close to fully replacing a lot of those types of methods. What’s challenging now really is moving towards of what we call the more systemic effects, so, chronic exposure to a chemical over time and possibly impacting certain organs or like I mentioned before reproductive toxicology and areas like that. So, there we’re still at least a decade if not more from away from full replacements but what we can do in the meantime however is be a lot smarter in the way we use animal models. That’s where in vitro models and computation models really come in to their own because they do give us an awful lot of information about how a chemical is acting, why it’s toxic, where traditional animal models aren’t necessarily strong in that area.

(7:17 - Device runs on finger power)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Maurice Whelan. You are listening to Chemistry World with me, Chris Smith. Still to come, Ben explains why your finger tips are almost as sensitive as atomic force microscopy and we enter into the wild west of the periodic table to meet a pioneer at the actinide frontier. He is doing some very interesting reactions with uranium. First though, Jen very much has a finger on the microfluidic pulse.

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

I’ve got some pressing news from the Journal Lab on a Chip.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Oh! You are on form today.

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

(Laughs) Researchers at the University of California in LA have made this microfluidic device that can be powered using mechanical energy from a human hand. So, the device is a series of piezoelectric elements, a little bit like the keys on a keyboard. So you bend the elements with your fingers and the device transforms that mechanical energy into a voltage that can be used to manipulate reagents and samples within a microfluidic device.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

How does it push the samples around just using electricity?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

That’s the interesting thing about this. So, you could put an electric pump in there and then you generate the electricity that runs the pump that moves things. They actually used a more interesting effect called electrowetting on dielectric. The surface itself that has the droplet of whatever solution or reagent it is, is hydrophobic. So the droplet will stay there as a droplet. But when you introduce an electric field into it by putting a bit of voltage in from your piezoelectric crystal that actually becomes hydrophilic, so the drop will spread out and by that process you can then control where the drops actually go by changing the electric field within the chip and that means that you don’t need a great deal of current, so you can control it very finely with just a tiny, tiny dribble of current, lots of voltage and it means that we get these new types of chips that are perhaps smaller and you don’t need to plug into the mains.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Jen, what sort of tests are they going to do with this?

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

And, so at the moment, they’ve only used it to do a glucose detection device, but it could be used to make all sorts of things and you’ve got the opportunity to have a device that you could use anywhere, you don’t need to have any power source or it would be really great for point of care devices as well.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

I was thinking of third world places where, I mean I was just listening to someone, make a report on the radio from Nigeria this week and while they were trying to do the report, the power went off three times. And Nigeria is relatively developed isn’t it? Especially in the city and you think, there are lots of places in remote areas where there isn’t sustained power, so having the ability to do these sorts of high level tests, but with fingertip power, impressive!

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

It also should allow us to make these things smaller because you don’t need the infrastructure around it that allows you to plug it into the mains. All you need is a tiny crystal that would create a voltage when you put a pressure on it. So these devices can get smaller that means you can do more samples per chip or you can do more tests per chip. It just means that the future of portable testing in this way is getting a bit closer by enabling us to do that.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

As always people do get repetitive strain injury doing lots and lots of tests, doing your fingers and digits and things, textures, and surface sensitivity of fingers.

(17:26 - Sense and sense ability)

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

That’s right, fingers as you just said obviously we use them a lot in science for pipetting, an awful lot of typing into spreadsheets with data and so on but we rely on our fingers for a lot of mechanical work but in terms of sensory objects, in science, we don’t really use them that much anymore.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Not, very highly regarded, are they?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

Exactly. And the history of chemistry in particular has been very much based around our senses. So if you read old reports, it’s about the colour of things, it’s about the smell, and some of them are about the taste. But now, in an opinion piece in Chemistry World this month Philip Ball has had a look into some research that shows actually our fingers might be almost as good as some of the most sensitive equipment we have.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

You’re joking, how?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

Well, we know that the fingers have fingerprints, of course, and these are ridges, you can see them, so that they’re are not microscopic ridges, they’re definitely visible, I mean we know that affects the way we feel surfaces and we feel textures. But there is a team in Stockholm in Sweden, who wanted to have a look at really the resolution of texture that we can feel and they came with quite a cunning test where they have a bi-layer polymer and they stretched the bottom layer by a known amount, then they lay the second layer on top and when they relaxed the stretched bottom layer, the top layer then develops a series of ridges, and by knowing exactly how much they have stretched it and by knowing the properties of the two polymers, they can very finely control what size and shape these ridges are.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And what sorts of sizes do they get?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

So they were playing with ridges that were between 7 nanometres and 4 ½ micrometres tall.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

That’s so small, isn’t it?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

That’s tiny yes, so that’s the actual amplitude of them and the wave length they varied from 300 nanometres up to 90 micrometers.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And people can feel that?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

Well that’s what they wanted to know really because we know for example if you’re just trying to touch something, you can’t sense the presence of an object that’s less than 0.2 millimetres across. So you would think that these are well beyond the realms of what human fingers can achieve. But it turns out that compared to a perfectly smooth surface, you can tell the difference even with 300 nanometre resolution in terms of wavelength and just 7 nanometre high, you can feel the difference between a smooth surface to that.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

I presume this is because it’s setting up vibrations which are being detected by host waves of vibrations sensitive nerve endings in your skin, whereas when you are trying to detect one static object of a certain size you are relying on the fact that it’s got a press one area and not press another area so there’s going to be a receptive area on the finger which is a threshold size, you are not going to feel that, so that would explain the difference, wouldn’t it?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

That’s right and the researchers certainly noted the previous research that shows that the very, very small vibrations in the fingers do elicit a neural response in those sense nerves. The interesting thing is when you then compare this to the sort of equipment that we’re using that we think is the most high resolution most sensitive stuff in the world, things like atomic force microscopy which uses a tiny needle and moves across the surface and it can measure when it moves over an atom. Actually, our fingers are almost as good. So we really should trust our senses a bit more.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And Jen what can we do with this? What’s the point of this?

Interviewee - Jennifer Newton

Well, demonstrating that human tactile discrimination extends the nanoscale meter, we should be taking nanoscale modifications into account when we are making consumer products like mobile phones, especially touch screen ones that you are touching all the time.

(21:00 - What can U do?)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Thank you Jen and now to frontier territory. Nottingham chemist, Steve Liddle works on the elements clustered at the bottom of the periodic table that previously people really dared venture into.

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

When I was applying for fellowships that try to become an independent academic, I just looked around for what kind of research would make me sort of stand out from the crowd. I worked next door to the actinides which is now a row of 14 elements right to the very bottom of periodic table in a group called lanthanides which is the other row of 14 elements just above the actinides and having worked with lanthanides, I realized that there was lots of opportunities to discover really interesting things in uranium chemistry because there has been so little researched into it compared to more familiar transition metals.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Why are those elements down there of the bottom of the table?

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

They’re there because of the way the electrons build up in atoms as you move through the periodic table getting heavier and heavier atoms. Nature has picked up some really rather genius and creative ways of storing electrons around atoms and it just so happens that the way quantum mechanics works is the event of what all we call F electrons, and that’s basically an electron in a particular zone let us say around the atom which gives it a particular character and generally what you see in the periodic table is that certain elements group together with similar kinds of characteristics and that the actinides just happened to be 14 of these. Well, I should say that there is quite a lot of variability in the actinide series but you can kind of lump them together as one group.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

I suppose that understanding the chemistry of these elements, is really important because not just they may have some exciting things to show us, but also we rely on some of these things particularly uranium for nuclear energy. Handling it, cleaning it up, reprocessing it and so on is quite a headache. So if we can understand a bit more about the chemistry, presumably there will be some easing of those barriers in future.

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

Absolutely. The first thing is, it’s always desirable to expand that the frontiers of our knowledge and understanding and it’s fair to say that this area lags somewhat behind quite a few other areas because of those historical barriers that I have mentioned earlier. But yes, we are constantly interested in the nature of the chemical bonding of these elements. Many people believe that if we really fully understand what these elements are capable of doing in terms of chemical bonding that might help us separate out the very small quantities of highly radioactive material which comes out of nuclear reactors from the quite large quantities that are mixed in with this radioactive material that are actually relatively harmless. If we could separate them out we could greatly reduce the volume of these radioactive materials that we would either have to store or figure out what to do within the long run, or perhaps even recycle some of these elements. But there is another aspect to this as well as we gain this extra level of fundamental knowledge, all sorts of potential applications which could spin out of this kind of research in terms of catalysis or really interesting magnetic phenomenon and you just never know how it might be able to be applied somewhere.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Because uranium, if you say uranium or even plutonium, people almost automatically jump straight to the ‘this must be a question relating to nuclear power’ conclusion. One would assume then that there must be all kinds of exciting chemistry lurking in that bit of the periodic table waiting to be discovered.

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

Absolutely, so there are lots of different combinations of electron types, or what we call orbitals which are what house the electrons, that you can have with elements such as uranium that you can’t have elsewhere in the periodic table. The basic principle is if you get these combinations that you can't have anywhere else, you may end up with some reactivity facilitated by this combinations that you can't get anywhere else.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Tell us a bit about some of these exciting chemistries that you are beginning to unlock with uranium.

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

I suppose the biggest is having a compound where there is a triple bond interaction between uranium and nitrogen and that’s referred to as uranium nitride. Many people in the area tried to prepare this compound for many years. It had been observed in spectroscopic experiments, at very low temperatures, we’re talking lower than 20 Kelvin to prepare these molecules, and I think a lot of people were starting to wonder if this is a linkage that just couldn't be made. But it was a very interesting linkage to target because there are so many examples of nitrides in transition metal systems. So there was a drive to make the uranium analogue to compare it. But also in terms of what its chemistry would be and what its bonding would be, because you could view it as a benchmark for uranium-nitrogen bonding. With the combination of a very good Ph.D. student and just the right synthetic approach and just the right supporting group on the uranium, we're able to access this linkage after many years of it being very elusive and this has opened the door for us now to study its chemistry and see what it’s capable of.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Do you want to speculate what it might be capable of?

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

It could engage in some very interesting nitrogen atom transfer chemistry to functionalize that nitrogen into organic molecules, rather than just making for normal nitrogen-14 isotopes, we can actually introduce the 15N isotopes. So that's isotopic labelling which then would open the door to isotopic labelling compounds with 15N which could have potential uses.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Because you could then see where the atom goes in a reaction. So you can see which parts of which molecules react to give which products.

Interviewee - Steve Liddle

Absolutely and for example, nitrogen is in principle with the right isotope a nuclei that you can observe in NMR experiments. But it's the 15N isotope that you need to get really good sensitivity and so if you could build that particular isotope of that nucleus into an organic molecule, you would find it much easier to observe in the NMR spectrum for example.

(27:33 - Virtually excellent)

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Steve Liddle. Now you’ve heard of fantasy football right, we will now meet fantasy chemistry, Neil…

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Yes. It’s league table, it’s almost a fantasy football league table of chemical engineers. So what EPSRC are trying to do is they’re trying to gauge how good British chemical engineering is. And one way they have decided to do this is to ask ‘who is the best researcher in a specific subfield of chemical engineering’ and then they are asking that person to pretend that they’re putting together a conference session in their subject area and then asking them to make a list of their fantasy speakers for that conference. Then you can assume that because they have asked the best person who their best people are that those people must be the best in their specific area, though.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So the idea here is that we can get some kind of ranking as to who is popping up in this clutch of the best researchers more often than not.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

So say you’ve got the 50 best speakers in one particular area. Then, you can look and say ‘okay 20 of those are from Britain, that means we have got a really strong representation in that subfield’ and then if you’ve got none in that subfield then you go ‘okay, so we have got none in that subfield, we must be terrible at that’.

Interviewer - Ben Valsler

And the reason that the EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research council, want to do this, is because it gives them some idea of where to put their money. So if they can see that there are certain areas either they want to support an area of strength and say ‘look, Britain is already doing really good research in this and we want to put a bit more money in’ or they might want to look at an area and say ‘we are tailing behind on this, this is something where we do have British researchers but they are not yet competing on international level’ so that could be an area for future research funding.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And are they going to let these data out when they’ve got the list of the dream team?     

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Well, that’s the thing everybody wants know: ‘is my name on the list?’ But unfortunately, although they will announce the results in terms of which areas are good and bad, they are not planning to release the individual names of the people on those fantasy football teams.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

What spoilsports they are!

Interviewee - Neil Withers

I know it would be, it would be good but perhaps it’s something that you in the lab can do yourself, you can think ‘okay, who would be my top 10 people in my area’ and then you can ask the other people in your lab and get together and then you’ve got a super group from your team of who you are think are the best people in this area.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

I am quite taken with the idea, though it does sound quite good, is there any evidence that it does work? Has anyone done it before?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Yes, It’s been done before, the National Academy of Sciences in the US have tried it, but I don’t really know how much they got out of it or if they still do it. We should stress that EPSRC aren’t putting all their eggs in this matrix basket. They are going to do some other things like bibliometrics and expert panels and stuff so this is just another thing. Because if you think about it a lot of scientists, an important thing for them is their reputation among their peers and this is a way of capturing that information without using citation metrics or prizes or grant funding but this gives an idea of the sort of reputational impact if you like which could be important.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

And when does this come out?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

It’s bench marking for 2013-2014.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So, imminently.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Hopefully so.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Interesting to see what they find. Ben…

(30:44 - . UK overtakes US on research quality metric)

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

This is not the only piece of bench marking that has been going as well. The UK government commissioned a report to try and see where we are in terms of international ranking for science. It’s called the International Comparative Performance in UK Research Base, so this looked at data for 2013. What they want to know is: how are we doing in different areas of research? How do that compare to the rest of the world? And things like how good we are at converting that research into a working financial products. How much does that support the economy as well?

Interviewer - Chris Smith

How did they actually make those measurements?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

So this is using a very different set of metrics to the ones that EPSRC want to use for their virtual conference. They are using the more traditional measures. So they are looking at numbers of citations, although these are then weighted for the certain research area that it is in order to try and to remove any bias. But also looking at things like patent applications, both those that were accepted and those that were rejected. And they have looked at how many citations for UK papers they find in those, because that then gives you an idea of how UK research is being used in an entrepreneurial way. Not necessarily just in the UK, but it still supports that. The suggestion and I had a look through the actual report itself which is 838 pages long…

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So you did read it all, then

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

Well, I have got the executive summary in front of me...

Interviewer - Chris Smith

Page one.

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

But I can confirm that it does have the words ‘punches above its weight’ in no fewer than five occasions throughout this report, which gives you an idea of how positive it really is about the UK. And we are saying that we have got 0.9% of the global population, just 3.2% of R&D expenditure, but for that we’re getting 9.5% of all journal article downloads, 11.6% of citations and 16% of the world’s most highly cited articles, so for a small island with a small population, we are doing really quite well in terms of science. The interesting one is that patent one and it does seem that UK research is being mentioned in a disproportionately large amount of patent applications.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

More critically, are we on those patents?

Interviewee - Ben Valsler

We have a 2.4% of global patents awarded to the UK. That’s pretty good as it is. But actually 10.9% of patents cite UK research. That includes historical research of course, so it may be that we laid the groundwork in the 60’s for things that are now coming out. It might be that these are things like graphene patents where you are going to cite the UK research that was originally done, but the further development that has been done in other countries of course will have allowed them to patent more research. So, it certainly implies that that we are important in that scheme and it doesn’t necessarily mean people are just taking our data and commercializing it.

Interviewee - Neil Withers

It is important to note the disparity between that, between the numbers you have said there, because if our share of the global patents is 2.4%, but our share of citations in papers and highly cited papers is more like 10 or 15%, we are not as strong in patent publishing as we are in scientific article publishing, so perhaps that’s something that we need to be concerned about.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

So Neil your EPSRC conference league measure or Ben’s executive summary. Who’s going to win?

Interviewee - Neil Withers

Well I think the point is that you need both of these because it’s worth noting that the one commissioned by the Business, Innovation and Skills department is pretty much purely papers and citations which only looks at one important, but just one aspect of science and scientific quality, where the EPSRC one looks at very almost sort of softer metric that’s much harder to measure. So I think with all these things you need to take a broad look at everything and not put all your eggs in the citation basket.

Interviewer - Chris Smith

But regrettably, our egg timer has run out for this month, so we must leave it there. Thank you to Chemistry Worlders Neil Withers, Ben Valsler and Jen Newton and to our guests Steve Liddle and Maurice Whelan. Meera Senthilingham took care of the production for us this month and my name is Chris Smith. We’re both from thenakedscientists.com. Do please join us again next month for more reaction from the world of chemistry. Goodbye.

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