Blue skies all the way to Mars

Having just turned thirty, I most definitely wasn’t around to see Neil Armstrong take those first inspirational steps on the moon way back in July, 1969. My parents were though, and to this day they remember exactly where they were and who they were with.  At 14 and 15 years respectively, and neither particularly scientifically minded, it is fantastic to imagine the impact this had on them, and on the other 500-600 million people (1) that watched on television.

Following the death of Armstrong last week, the internet has been awash with people lamenting the lack of progress mankind has made in space exploration since this historic moment;  considering that in 1969 colour televisions had only just made the mainstream, yet still, men were bouncing around on the moon playing golf, you can see their point.  We seem to have fallen a little behind in space exploration if you consider it in parallel to the of progression of, for example, the TV  – just have a look in your pocket, or consider what is beyond the screen of that tiny device in your hand right now.

The problem with space exploration is that it is prohibitively costly, and given the current economic woes of the Western world, who would fund it?  People want value for money and a return on their investments, and this is as true in scientific research as it is in any other business.  This may seem like common sense, though the consequence of this is significant.  If these values had been applied in the 50s and 60s, man would never have made it to the edge of the atmosphere, never mind to the moon.

Going to the moon was achieved because people had freedom to explore, and the desire to do something amazing.  There was no profit, no obvious impact on society – except to those astute enough to see value in just figuring out if we can get there, and believing that what we learn on the way could change the world we live in – this was curiosity driven science, or as it is now more colloquially known, ‘blue skies research’. This kind of research is getting harder to fund, and understandably so.  Scientific research is hugely expensive, and university research in the UK (2) is funded heavily by the tax payer (my PhD alone cost the taxpayer more than £100,000), and people rightly want value for money.

So is it worth it? Was spending millions getting to the moon, and is spending billions more getting to Mars value for money? Is funding any ‘blue skies’ research really worthwhile, or is it just a luxury we can no longer afford? It seems the answer to this question, in the UK anyway, is no.  The research councils in the UK, which is the arm of the government that distributes funding for scientific research is becoming increasingly focused on research ‘impact’, and if your impact isn’t obvious and no financial return is forthcoming, then your research won’t get funded.

Only funding research with a significant ‘impact’ may seem a reasonable way to discriminate between hundreds of applications for a limited pot of money, but here is where the most significant problem arises: how can you predict ‘impact’? How do you know what will change the world? Or bring in millions to the economy?  The answer is simple. You can’t. Chemistry Blog nicely illustrates this with discussions on the laser, ‘a physicists toy’ that became so ubiquitous, we use it to point at blackboards. Try searching Google for NASA inventions we use everyday to see the real impact of space research. Then we have graphene, a material that was isolated with sticky tape and what can essentially be described as a block of pencil lead – and stemmed from the ‘Friday night experiments’ (3) which have also given us floating frogs – not the kind of research that you could argue great ‘impact’ for .  The properties of graphene resulted in a Nobel prize being awarded to Geim and Novoselov of the University of Manchester, and now millions of pounds world-wide is being pumped into research following this discovery. NOBODY would have predicted this, and thus would not have initially funded it, and that is the significant issue.

If you hear a scientist bemoaning that they can not get funding for their research into ‘thisideaisnuts’, or read an article about £200,000 research funding for ‘whatthehellisthepointinthat’, take a moment to think about what you have just read.  The greatest discoveries are rarely planned, they are often consequence of doing something ridiculous/exciting/exploratory/crazy/stupid/grand/almost unimaginable (delete at will) – all of which could also be called blue skies research – just like going into space. So although we need value for money in research, scientists need the freedom to explore and be creative, otherwise scientific progress will become incremental, iterative and stagnant. This isn’t a call for researchers to be given free rein on how to spend tax payers money, just for those who don’t necessarily have a scientific background (and who are generally in charge of the money), to give a second thought to what really is important. Immediate impact doesn’t even come close to the unknown possibilities of the universe if we are bold and brave in our research.

Hands up for a (wo)man ot two on Mars.

(1) According to several internet pages of varying reliability

(2) Probably elsewhere in the world as well – though I don’t know this to be fact

(3) I was luck enough to see Geim give a lecture after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics a couple of years ago, so this is pretty much first hand information.

Arnie vs Malaria

I had only ever seen this man in photographs. You can never quite get a feeling of how imposing someone can be until you have seen them in the cold light of day. As he walked into the room there was a murmur of anticipation, but overriding the excitement was panic. His weapon was shrouded in darkness; a tight-fitting sleeve concealed it from view, but we knew it was there. As he laid it down with a delicacy unbefitting of such a powerful man, silence overcame the room. The sound of the zipper  echoed in your ears as he slowly, painfully slowly, began to reveal his weapon of choice. The silver surface that reflected light from above  calmed some, but others became more frenzied, pushing closer, straining, trying to see. As he peeled the ceiling back from the case, the anguish in the room was clear to see; it was upside down, we still didn’t know. The great man lifted the exquisitely crafted tool out of the case and turned it slowly towards us, we finally caught a glimpse of the power contained within. Panic turned to joy, muted whooping came from the back of the room, things were going to be okay……there was the crescent cut apple. It was a mac book pro after all.

I have mentioned the man in question before  as he cropped up in most of the major newspapers a couple of weeks ago. He had just published a paper reporting a highly efficient and cost-effective method of synthesising artemisinin, the leading treatment for malaria worldwide. As this hit the news I found out he was coming to the University of Manchester to give a lecture on this work, so off I went to watch Peter Seeburger tell the story of his discovery.

As you may have figured from the introduction, Professor Peter Seeburger is a grand figure, tall and broad, with an imposing voice. The time Seeburger has spent in Germany where he was born, and his time in the United States where he spent most of his early career, has had the most brilliant impact on his accent; he sounds just like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seeberger is an engaging and entertaining speaker with a great story to tell. He is not a medicinal chemist by trade, nor did he have a particular interest in malaria, but his interest in improving chemical synthesis at a fundamental level opened the door for his recent discovery.

Seeberger has a long-established interest in the synthesis of oligosaccharides (carbohydrates), building complex polymeric compounds from individual sugar monomers. This is historically a painstaking process, but Seeberger has developed the chemistry and technology to create an automated process that parallels the more established solid phase synthesis of peptides. Seeberger began by discussing the impact of his automated system; in his early career working in the laboratory Samuel Danishefsky, it took Seeberger and his colleagues two years to synthesise an oligosaccharide that his student recently made in a matter of days. The ease of now making a broad range of oligosacharrides opened up the door for Seeberger into a new area of research, as this fundamental step forward in synthetic methodology has made the application of carbohydrates in medicinal research tenable. Vaccines for chlamydia, c.difficle, and streptococcus C are all under investigation by Seeberger, and anthrax testing kits employing carbohydrates have been produced.

Though Seeberger’s work in carbohydrates dominates his research profile it is by no means his sole focus, and his recent work on the synthesis of artemisinin for the treatment of malaria was not borne from this, but again from looking at improving the efficiency of sythesising chemical compounds. Bearing in mind that whenever I looked at Seeberger whilst he was speaking all I could see (and hear) was the terminator, you can imaging my joy when he began discussing this work with a picture of the malaria parasite and the following statement:

Malaria. I hate this parasite. I want to kill it.

I nearly fell off my chair.

Taking material that is currently regarded as waste in the current approach to synthesising artemisinin, Seeberger employs  a modern synthetic technique know as flow chemistry, and uses light to mediate some of the required chemical bond forming processes. The development of this technology by Seeberger means that artemisinin factories the size of large cardboard boxes can be made for £10,000. Seeberger states that for approximately £4 million pounds, the tools to provide the world’s supply of artemisinin can be generated. The cost of producing of artemisinin would fall to approximately 10% of what it is today, and could be synthesised where it was needed.

As a grand reflection on his character, Seeberger has not patented his discovery and intends to roll out this technology as cheaply and quickly as possible. Following his lecture tour he had a meeting with the UN, the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, and an unnamed celebrity with a penchant for adopting foreign children.  Fingers crossed this will provide the financial support needed to roll this out.

This research is a great advert for academic research. Had this discovery been made in the chemical industry, it would have been patented and sold. Maybe even more important was that Seeberger’s discovery was not borne out of direct research into malaria, but was consequence of fundamental research into improving methods of chemical synthesis. Fundamental research as a whole is now increasingly difficult to find funding for because of policy to fund research with obvious applications, and this is a problem. Although applied research is essential, it needs to be remembered that this can only take you so far. Without the new fundamental discoveries to provide the scientific understanding and establish the underlying principles, applications can not be developed. So please, to all of those who make sweeping reforms in how scientific research is funded, bear this in mind. If we do not invest in the fundamental research, a few years down the line, we will have nothing to develop applications from.

Here is the paper for the synthesis of artemisinin (the website is down so I will link later)

Angewandte Chemie, International Edition (2012), 51(7), 1706-1709.

This is the paper for the flow chemistry using light to generate singlet oxygen DOI: 10.1021/ol2017643

Chemistry world piece is here : Tube-wrapped lamp makes malaria drug

A guardian interview with Seeberger is here: Peter Seeberger: we can treat malaria for less

Rest of the World 7 – 1 England

A verbal survey of final year PhD students in synthetic organic chemistry at  the University of Manchester.

[Definition: Post doc – the position between a PhD student and a lecturer on the academic career pathway.]


What will you do next?


3 people – Post doc. Location: Germany

1 person – Post doc. Location: Canada


3 people- Post doc. Location: Outside the UK

1 person – Teaching. Location: UK

1 person – Science writing Location: UK

This is obviously a tiny survey population and no conclusions can be drawn, but I wonder if it is indicative of the future of synthetic organic chemistry (or even science) in the UK?

Of those intending to remain in research, is it surprising that nobody intends to look for, or has a job in the chemical industry? And does the general lack of intention to continue careers in UK based academic institution reflect the lack of opportunities?

I would like to know what the reality of where and what people do on completion of  their PhD, and if trends are changing in the current economic meltdown/slash and hope approach to science funding in the UK.

It would be interesting to know if the data on where people go and what they do after a PhD is available for public consumption, please get in touch if you know where I can access this.

I might even make a graph!