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.