UK to Slash Funding for Organic Synthesis

August 18th, 2011

This is going to get ugly.

The United Kingdom’s EPSRC—akin to the NSF in the United States—is going to slash the funding of research in synthetic organic chemistry.  In response, the country’s synthetic organic chemists have taken to the streets and set fire to several buildings written a short letter to Prime Minister David Cameron expressing their frustration.

This battle has been shaping up for a long time, and it looks as though it is finally coming to a head.   I think there are tenable arguments in support of both sides of the issue; any decision simply boils down to where your priorities lie.

On the anti-synthesis side, you have those who feel that organic synthesis has reached an area of diminishing returns.  Proponents of the cuts will argue that organic synthesis is a mature field where new advances are modest and unlikely to have major industrial applications.  You also have those who believe that total synthesis—which still seems to constitute a major focus of research in this field—is a largely fruitless exercise where molecules ostensibly made for potential therapeutic activity are actually made just for the sake of making nasty-looking molecules.

While many people do question whether organic synthesis is still interesting, the strongest argument against it probably runs closer to a cost-benefit analysis…  Yes, synthesis can be interesting, but science funding is a zero-sum game and there are other areas of research that are more interesting and/or valuable to society.  I have to think that the recent downturn in the pharmaceutical industry—including the shuttering of Pfizer’s R&D operation in Sandwich—probably strengthens this argument.  The supporters of the budget realignment can argue that we should scale down the training of synthetic chemists now that there are fewer jobs for them.  There are also people who believe that the demise of natural products synthesis in academia has been unreasonably delayed by the historical popularity of the field and the large population of practicing synthetic chemists who stand to benefit by protecting it (e.g., making sure grants for it get funded, etc.)

On the pro-synthesis (anti-realignment) side, you have those who defend the field by pointing out its historical importance, its sustained popularity, its direct applicability to industry, and its potential application in medicine.  With respect to the new criteria for funding, pro-synthesis people can argue the chemistry projects that should be funded are the ones that represent the best science—regardless of the sub-field.  In other words, the synthetic projects that were funded in the past were funded because they were the best projects proposed.  Slashing funding to synthesis will leave these talented chemists out in the cold and will lead to the funding of scientifically inferior projects in other sub-disciplines of chemistry.

Another argument against the realignment in funding is that politicians are messing with scientific funding based on possible misperceptions about various projects’ potential economic value.  The letter to Cameron stresses that the government is overlooking the many contributions of organic synthesis to the UK’s economy.  It should also be noted that EPSRC’s definition of “synthetic organic chemistry” goes beyond total synthesis to include areas like supramolecular chemistry.

It’ll be interesting to see how this battle ends.  If one thing is certain, it is that governments are becoming less shy about dictating how science funding is allocated.  That is, legislators are getting more involved in selecting what types of projects can (and can’t) be funded.  Many people feel that the decision of what science projects to fund should be left to scientists, who are experts in their fields, but the fact of the matter is that science funding is an appropriation of taxpayer money.  Legislators—who are elected by the taxpayers to act in their proxy—definitely have the authority to place specific constraints on science funding and are not necessarily acting against the best interests of society by limiting how this money is spent.

If nothing else, this latest news provides yet another reason for chemists not to ignore the broader public when it comes to justifying their work and communicating its value.

29 Responses to “UK to Slash Funding for Organic Synthesis”

  1. Stu Says:

    This might have changed since the event I’m about to describe happened, but I don’t think it has. One of my friends* with a PhD in chemistry applied to work for the EPSRC and went for interview there. He was told that if he got the job, he would not work on anything to do with chemistry because they deliberately steered people away from areas in which they had any technical expertise (I don’t recall my friend telling me what the reason for this was). So, just throwing that out there for what it’s worth. (*Note, this is actually a friend, not me telling the story about me but pretending it’s someone else. I’ve never applied to work at the EPSRC and almost certainly never will!)

  2. Matt Says:

    If nothing else, this latest news provides yet another reason for chemists not to ignore the broader public when it comes to justifying their work and communicating its value.

    I think this is the most important lesson to be learned here. Our public servants certainly have the right to direct funding. But, its up to us to keep them abreast of the way science works most efficiently and why funding science is vital (… to use the phrase) to national and international interests.
    Unfortunately it takes circumstances like this to bring scientists out of their labs to lobby for science funding.

  3. Simon Higgins Says:

    This is perfectly true and has been their policy for years. The idea is that it discourages the influencing of their staff by academics (e.g. ex-supervisors!). Having seen the way some of my peers interact with EPSRC staff, I think there is merit in this argument. Of course, the down side is that the people responsible for the chemistry program (for example) know next to nothing about chemistry.

  4. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    If nothing else, this latest news provides yet another reason for chemists not to ignore the broader public when it comes to justifying their work and communicating its value.

    This goes back to your point about having a Carl Sagan/Sanjay Gupta type evangelizer for chemistry. We need better and more chemistry writers churning out highly readable volumes about chemists and chemistry. We need to convince the public about the grand unsolved problems of our time- the origin of life- which is a chemical problem.

    We certainly need to do this. But ultimately we cannot keep on justifying the value of science to legislators because it is useful. We synthesize new substances because they lead to better drugs, polymers and agricultural products. But we really synthesize molecules for, as Woodward himself noted, the same reasons that we climb mountains, compose symphonies and create pieces of art.

    At some point legislators and the public must understand that they need to support science not because it’s useful but because it’s really the only way we have to understand the world around us and to impose rationality on unruliness. A half century back they did understand this and supported curiosity-driven research, even in industry. Today we live in a different world that worships instant gratification at the cost of long-term returns. But science cannot kowtow to short-term visions and blinkered goals. We should not need to bend over backwards and somehow connect our science to better mousetraps and faster cars in order to justify our work.

    Ultimately the public will have to understand the following answer to their question- Why should you support synthesis? For the same reason that you once lauded the painting of the Mona Lisa, the creation of the 9th and the writing of The Wasteland.

  5. Steve Says:

    @Simon Higgins: That sounds like a very small upside for a potentially catastrophic downside. I can see that to a certain extent it’s good to stretch the boundaries of a program manager at a research council – much the same as it is for journal editors (they are unlikely to only ever deal with research in areas in which they have research experience) so this is valuable for them when the portfolio of work will be broad and in terms understanding policies and procedures.

    However, if you remove someone so completely from their field is there not a danger that they will be even more likely to be unduly influenced – listening only to the loudest voice? (There are a lot of loud voices in organic chemistry in particular, and it doesn’t always equate to the best research).

  6. Adrien Says:

    Organic synthesis is for sure a nice demonstration of kick-ass total synthesis or “Man on the Moon/Mona Lisa” steps for science, but it’s also continuous development of new synthetic pathways from the new external evolution of chemistry (catalysis, Micro-wave assisted synthesis, new solvents like ionic liquids or greener processes are just few exemples which asked to get back to research). Too many aspects of chemistry and related fields depends on organic synthesis because it’s still the basic of lot of projects: knowing what kind of products we can imagine to fit our goals, and surely getting them in the most efficient way.

  7. bad wolf Says:

    Curious Wavefunction seems to be arguing the field should be supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

    NEA budget, 2011: $154,690,000
    NSF budget, 2011: $6.8 billion
    NIH budget, 2011: $32.1 billion including stimulus

  8. Tt Says:

    While I did my Ph.D. in a total synthesis group, I can’t say that I view it as an area worth funding solely because it is “artistic”. I also don’t think it spurs the development if new methodology. One could argue that process chemists have a much better understanding of methodological gaps than a polymerize total synthesis group. While I can sympathize with the idea of funding basic science because you never know where it will lead to in the future is a great idea, I highly doubt that a total synthesis fits the definition of “basic science”. The best argument you might make is that it trains chemists, bur if that’s true, then why not choose a synthetic molecule that had an actual use…for example, an HIV integrase inhibitor. Maybe design a green, continuous process that is more efficient than the patented route. In my job, I honestly can’t think of a single instance where I read a total synthesis paper and tested dome reported conditions from it. I hate to say it, but it might be time for funding agency to significantly raise the bar on funding for synthesis and demand an actual application. I’ve even discussed this with various academics looking to hire new professors and they all say that any applicants they get which are primarily synthesis are immediately sent to the recycle bin…DOA

  9. Tt Says:

    Oops… iPhone typo… strike “polymerize” from my post

  10. excimer Says:

    @CW: “For the same reason that you once lauded the painting of the Mona Lisa, the creation of the 9th and the writing of The Wasteland.”

    Organic synthesis is to chemistry what a crayon is to the Mona Lisa: in the right hands, it may help to inspire new and wonderful things; but it’s a crude tool, which spends too much time distracting people from the beauty of the things that lie underneath. Nature uses oil paints of every color, brushstrokes of such subtle and intricate form, that has yet to be touched by any modern organic chemist. How many Nicolaous, Danishefskys, Coreys, Evans, and Overmans will it take to realize that trying to draw the Mona Lisa with crayons is futile and filled with hubris?

    Nature made a Mona Lisa; we have crayons. That’s all we have, and as it stands, that’s all we’re gonna get. We should aim to draw something new with them, at least.

  11. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I am not sure I understand. Should we give up because our tools are still blunt and only a Woodward or Corey can create a Mona Lisa with them? At the very least this limitations points to the development of better tools which is another good reason for supporting synthesis. I agree that trying to draw on nature’s palette with these crude tools is futile but it’s not been that bad. Plus it has taught us so much (mainly through model systems) about how nature does it. If you are making a point about not funding more of the same I do agree, but the same is the framework on which we build the new.

  12. Matt Says:

    @CW @eximer and others,

    I think what @eximer is trying to say is that NOT EVEN Woodward or Corey can make a Mona Lisa. An argument that seems to be made in some of these comments is that the best organic chemistry can actually give us right now are new crayon colors … or perhaps one of those cool boxes with the sharpener … or even a Trapper Keeper. And, perhaps THAT is what we should convince the funding agencies to focus on, which will, in turn, turn the Ochemists vision back to these issues.

    Given the needs of the market (read: available pharma jobs) perhaps a slight turndown in OChem isn’t necessarily unwarranted. Part of the argument against the EPSRC seems to be that they’re doing it in such an incompetent manner.

    We NEED to start having conversations about what science/chem/Ochem can and cannot give to society. We NEED to start having rational conversations about the best ways to let science/chem/Ochem operate in order to best benefit science and society (both now and the future). And we need capable administrators who are capable of carrying out these marching orders.

  13. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Sorry, I misread the above comment. Yes, not even Woodward or Corey can create a Mona Lisa, but they can create good seconds. I think the value of good seconds in science is under appreciated. Good seconds create the intellectual capital necessary for even contemplating the creation of a Mona Lisa and more importantly, they spin off a lot of unintended value in the form of student training, accidental discoveries, unexpected directions of research etc. We only have to think of how much unintended good came out of Woodward’s tinkering. Sometimes these spin offs consist of invaluable intangibles; for instance a lot of Woodward’s work inspired chemists to think more stereochemically and changed the general direction of synthesis. One of our goals in convincing legislators and the public of the value of synthesis is to point out the side-benefits of creating what may be crayons or sharpners. The collateral benefits of science sometimes outweigh the value of the direct products and this is a point that sorely needs to driven home. A similar argument may be made for other curiosity-driven research such as that in theoretical physics.

  14. andre Says:

    I hope that excimer is talking about natural product synthesis when he calls organic synthesis “a crude tool” and not the whole broad field. There is much good work to be done (and being done) in the field of synthetic organic chemistry (although I would classify it more broadly as “synthetic chemistry” as the lines between organic/inorganic/biochem synthesis become blurred).

    The problems as I see it are twofold. First, graduate work in organic synthesis has been largely seen as a vehicle for development of pharma chemists and this has been done largely on the strength of public funding. Sure there are grants from pharma companies, but many organic groups (especially at smaller institutions) rely heavily on federal (or state) grants for a large portion of their funding. Total synthesis should have lost most of this public funding a long time ago.

    The second problem is that organic chemists are necessary in academia. Again, this is more true at smaller schools where lecturers are used less commonly, but the service nature of chemistry departments necessitates the need for a solid organic chemistry faculty (for pre-medical, biology, neuroscience, etc students). When schools need faculty they need research done by these faculty and so schools are going to need funding for organic research. Since historically many large organic groups were total synthesis, many organic faculty are currently from the total synthesis fold, and thus that is their research. This was perpetuated in my opinion by the “old boys club” attitude of many of these total synthesis big-wigs and will take a generation or two to overcome.

  15. David Eisenberg Says:

    1. If chemists that are hired by the EPSRC are steered away from chemistry, does it mean that the people who decide on the future of chemistry have no idea what they’re talking about? A bunch of biologists, mathematicians, physicists, saying “Synthesis… sounds boring. Let’s cut it.” I find this image slightly unbelievable.

    2. On the other hand, if supramolecular chemistry is included in ‘organic synthesis’ and is a candidate for cutting down, then doesn’t it make all the realignment arguments that Paul had listed irrelevant? Supramolecular chemistry is unlike total synthesis in many ways, and doesn’t fall under these arguments. Paul might have been trying to find reasons for an irrational act.

    3. Which brings me to the last point: don’t these people have protocols? Can’t we read by ourselves how they came to their desicions? This could be an excellent step to provide true accountability of the government to its taxpayers.

  16. Simon Higgins Says:

    @David This is a main argument of those objecting to the policy – there appears to be no accountability, and no defined protocol for the way they reached their decisions, and their claim that they consulted widely among key ‘stakeholders’ (to use their awful managerialese) have actually been repudiated by several of those groups. The RSC, for example.

  17. Paul Says:

    It’s interesting to constrast the organic sub-disciplines of total synthesis and physical-organic chemistry. Classical total synthesis is alive and (mostly) well. On the other hand, classical physical-organic chemistry is mostly dead. It lives on, somewhat, in biochemical applications. POC is responsible for filling most of our sophomore organic texts, but after two or three decades of frenzied work, it entered an area of diminishing returns and everyone jumped ship.

  18. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    As you rightly pointed out, classical physical organic chemistry reached a saturation point but then was transformed into investigations in biochemistry and materials science. The book by Anslyn and Dougherty provides a great overview of the current incarnation of what can be called physical organic chemistry.

    The point about supramolecular chemistry is interesting. As Prof. Eisenberg pointed out, I don’t think supramolecular chemistry should be regarded as part of traditional organic synthesis because the central questions that the two disciplines address are quite different. Traditional organic synthesis asks if an arbitrary complex molecule can be synthesized. This problem has been largely solved. Supramolecular chemistry really asks if we can come up with the rules by which any kind of organic molecules self-assemble through weak interactions and produce function. This problem is far from being solved.

  19. Nick K Says:

    This move is long overdue, and will help to address the problem of the huge oversupply of organic chemists. The letter by Tony Barrett et al seems to be motivated by the fear that the supply of academic cannon fodder (grad students and postdocs) will dry up.

  20. David Eisenberg Says:

    @Curious Wavefunction:
    I’m not the David Eisenberg who’s a Prof. in UCLA; I’m the David Eisenberg who’s a PhD from the Hebrew University. :-)

  21. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Cogent argument nonetheless!

  22. luysii Says:

    It may be time for a look at this, to buck up your spirits

  23. luysii Says:

    This sort of thing is not new. For another post of 4 years ago on the subject (originally appearing on the old ChemBark — see

  24. Alex Says:

    Since it seems that there is a glut of synthetic chemists, it is probably prudent to reduce funding for PhD’s. I recall that the C&EN article said that some grant money would be restricted to post-docs and could not be spent on grad-students. That’s a good first step.

  25. eugene Says:

    Well, that’s a shame. Considering that in some places they keep complaining that there aren’t enough organic chemists in departments these days to collaborate with materials sceintists and whatnot, so a one week synthesis takes a few months and is made out to be some valiant effort with lots of dead ends and mysterious filtering procedures, by the neophyte nano or materials chemistry student.

    I mean, look at this Hebrew University place. Sounds like it’s in Israel. There is like, probably only one or two guys there who do traditional organic chemistry full time and probably only on a single class of molecules. Then companies will start complaining that there aren’t enough qualified organic chemists in the area. I’m pretty sure TEVA is in Israel. I had a two hour skype call from a friend of a friend who just started working for TEVA. He was trained as a physical chemist but still hired since they couldn’t find proper organic chemists, and he wanted me to teach him how to run columns. Over skype…. Sad (I did give some links to the Tenderbutton archive on columns).

    Industry will always need organic and synthetic chemists trained at the highest level. A lot of them. Enough to justify not shutting these programs down and continuing the funding. What has changed, is that industry is not willing to pay for these chemists. Global society does get a lot from investment in training good synthetic chemists; other applications will never, ever justify decreasing synthesis funding because they are now more important and give more back to the society. When I think of how much organic chemistry is necessary for a lot of research, I just can’t imagine it being pushed lower than it is today. It’s just that the scientists will come from cheaper individual societies because learning organic synthesis has become a bit routine. Like from India. We’ve pretty much optimized the training process for organic chemists in the last 50 years or so, so i’ts pretty easy to copy. This doesn’t mean that other areas of chemistry are immune from the same trend catching up with them in 10 years or so.

  26. Tyrosine Says:

    “Yes, synthesis can be interesting, but science funding is a zero-sum game and there are other areas of research that are more interesting and/or valuable to society.”

    Why assume that science funding is a zero-sum game? I always worry when I hear people talk about zero-sum games because it’s often a mental constraint to growth rather than a real limitation. Why can funding be diverted from other areas to science? Why can’t funding for science be increased from industry? Why can’t funding be used more efficiently to enable more grants?

    All this may be possible but the real questions is why should it? Total synthesis is the ‘mountain climbing’ of organic chemistry. Sure you can dress it up as developing new methodology, making bioactive (usually millimolar activity *rolleyes*) natural products available, and training students but ultimately total synthesis is hobby science. The taxpayer doesn’t want to pay for people to climb mountains, and in today’s economy when people are doing it tough – who can blame them?

    The saviour of organic synthesis is to discourage young academics from tyring to imitate the total synthesis superstars of the past and to have them start plying their skills where they are actually needed in multi-disciplinary research. Groups in materials research, self-assembly, advanced polymers, organic electronics, cellular biology and many others are crying out for people who can make molecules. Instead we have people working on the 15th total synthesis of stychnine.

    Yes, total synthesis is like art – but unless you can explain why the taxpayer should pay for our art lessons I can’t see this situation reversing.

  27. Tehshik Yoon Says:

    It’s a valuable exercise for any research community to ask if its scholarly output justifies its continued existence. I think there are interesting points being raised here on both sides of the issue. To me, the most compelling one is Curious Wavefunction’s: We need continued research in the synthesis of complex molecules because the literature shows us how crude even our most sophisticated synthetic tools are. Thank god we can make semi-synthetic Taxol, but what happens the next time we find a potential cure for cancer that is simply too complex for us to make on any reasonable scale?

    This discussion aside, I think there’s a much more interesting and, in my opinion, much more critical issue that underscores the entire conversation. Namely, when you ask how total synthesis is still justified as an academic pursuit, what you’re really asking is how you measure the value of any academic research endeavor. One criterion that has been mentioned a few times here is a “cost-benefit” analysis. This is the criterion that is probably most often mentioned to me in the context of total synthesis, and it’s also the one that I find the most problematic, for a number of reasons.

    First, how do you measure benefit? Is it in deliverables to society? Total synthesis has historically done pretty well in this regard, both in terms of new drugs to market and top-notch chemists in the pharma and agrochem industries. And then how do you define the “benefit” of fields like origins-of-life chemistry? This is unarguably one of the most fundamental questions chemists have ever asked, and yet, even as a lifelong fan of the field, I would be hard-pressed to articulate a defense of its “benefit” to society.

    Second, how do you predict the benefit of an academic research program? Consider azide-alkyne cycloadditions. This reaction has become important to biologists, materials scientists, chemical engineers, etc. I find it hard to believe that Rolf Huisgen could have predicted the impact of this reaction in the 1960s when he was first developing it. Or, consider NMR. The discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance was a serendipitous observation made in the course of molecular beam research, and the degree to which this research has revolutionized organic chemistry and medicine could hardly have been predicted in 1938. Or, as a counterexample, consider combinatorial chemistry, which everyone expected to completely revolutionize drug discovery in the late 1980s, to the point that every major pharmaceutical company invested heavily in building expensive combinatorial programs that have, more or less, been abandoned because they didn’t live up to their promise. The history of science should teach us intellectual humility; there is very little we can predict about the ultimate impact of scientific research.

    Finally, and most importantly, a cost-benefit analysis of academic research fundamentally undermines the very nature of the academy. As a society of taxpayers, we fund academic research because we value it on its own merits. Although academic research can certainly be geared towards a proximal societal problem, the academy is the only context in which scholars are free to ask questions whose importance may have nothing to do with their benefit to society. If we can’t justify state funding of synthesis, which has historically been the backbone of two major industries in the US, how do we justify fields of inquiry such as particle physics, which is incredibly expensive and has never even tried to justify its “benefit” to society? How do we justify, for that matter, the existence of art history and philosophy programs in state-funded universities, when the benefits to society are so ephemeral and so resistant to quantification?

    Tyrosine’s closing sentence above is exactly on point, and I think it’s a terrifying prospect: The same broad stroke that would damn total synthesis also does away with art programs, along with English literature, philosophy, and art history. It also leaves no room for fundamental science like particle physics, pure math, and neuroscience, or for most of the social sciences. If we stop funding research in any field that is unable to justify its benefit to society, what’s left in the university is a rag-tag collection of departments whose only unifying attribute is their commercial prospects. And, man, does that sound awful to me.

  28. Carmen Says:

    Wow– some great discussions on here. I thought I’d add a tiny contribution to the fray: a neat article about whether organic synthesis is a valid research endeavor… from Clayton Heathcock… from 1994.

  29. wolfie Says:

    It is good that some Americans even took the pain to come to Italy 17 years ago. Then, we almost stayed at the hotel Palumbo in Ravello, had we not been Ph.D. students. This time, having two children, we go to the other side of the peninsula : to Vico Equense, Hotel Mega Mare.

    Is genomic research worth the pain and money ? We may judge them in a century when the world has improved.

    Look at the latest Woddy Allen film : this is the way how many Americans see Europe : a collection of postcards. You’re not really serious, my dears.

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