Chemistry Blog

Apr 01

The advance of the chemical-free sciences


Chemist have long complained about the use of the term ‘chemical-free’ in marketing, particularly when used to promote organic produce. To bolster our standing, and to sure up the chemical industry, we go one about everything containing chemicals and hence  how ‘chemical-free’ is a meaningless term.

The veracity of the anti-chemical-free movement is highlighted by continuing complaints to the advertising standard agency on the grounds that ‘chemical-free’ is a misleading term. None of these have not been upheld. Meanwhile campaigners have continued the fight by produced numerous posters detailing the chemical composition of natural products, apparently to highlight the absurdity of the term.

However, there is a growing group of dissenters on the other side of the fence. They believe it is perfectly possible to manufacture a ‘chemical-free’ product. Not only have they long been developing such materials, but they have been slowly drip feeding their findings into the scientific literature. The result is that  there is now a significant amount of material that can no longer be ignored by the mainstream. Almost 4,000 peer-review papers exist reporting the existence of chemical free products and these include publications from the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.  Furthermore technical advances have lead to many patents describing chemical-free methods, thus demonstrating practical applications of the science and how it can be turned into workable technologies, all without the need of chemicals.

These findings must now surely lead the  Royal Society of Chemistry to deliberate on now it is going to distribute the  £1 million it offered  for a verifiable chemical free product. Used wisely the money could fund research into further chemical-free technologies.

Clearly the chemical-free sciences are growing, and there are claims that it may well be the scene of future groundbreaking technologies. Its bound to represent the next big idea or buzz word, to sit alongside nanotechnology, synthetic biology and homeopathy in newspaper columns and grant applications alike. So maybe the RSC should consider using its £1 million to fund a new Journal of Chemical-Free Chemistry, plus related conferences so that this up-and-coming field can blossom out in the open.

 

Mar 28

‘Anonymous’ peer-review – a cautionary tale


Some time ago I received a grant proposal to review. Its was from an eminent professor.

I was extremely disappointed, on numerous accounts, with the quality of the proposal. In short I thought it relied very heavily on the authors standing in the community and only paid lip service to the science. And so (naively) safe in the knowledge that my review would remain anonymous, I gave a frank assessment of it.  I advised the panel to reject the proposal.

Satisfied that I had done my job I gave it no more thought until, a few months later, I received an email from the proposal’s author. It started …

I have had a review – see below – for a pending application with [research council/charity]. It is of the “unhelpful” type the community gets, and looks as if it from an unsympathetic, uninformed, prejudiced non-expert – the other reviews were all very positive, but I now have to answer the points.

What followed was a spurious query about some detail in one of my papers, which he/she apparently needed to help address the comments I’d given as an ‘anonymous’ referee.

It seemed to me that the real reason for the email was to tell me off.  But how could this happen? How could the author have found out that I had refereed the proposal? So I sort advice from senior colleagues who had sat on research council/charity committees. And I was shocked by what they told me. It seemed that it wasn’t unusual for the committees to know who the referees are, but even worse committee members were often happy to share this information with eminent grant applicants.

Since this episode I’ve been in a quandary.  What should I do when asked to review a proposal from a high profile scientist? Should I be truthful about what I think, risk being found out and so make enemies? Should I lie and write glowing reviews based on who the applicant is and not what is proposed? Or should I refuse to review applications from the higher echelons of community? To be honest I’m still at a loss.

There’s more. The email went on …

Also, I am getting personal comments from others in the field [lists of other eminent names] to ensure that the [research council/charity name] panel does understand the importance of the approach, to help all of us doing [technique], and not create a negative and highly damaging impression of [technique] at their panel from this kind of review – it playing right into the hands of the [another technique] community which is well represented on this panel.

So it seems that, if you have the connections, its acceptable to seek one’s own referees and lobby the panel with them.

The whole episode has left me with a very bitter taste and a complete lack of confidence in the validity of the  peer-review system.

Finally, this all happened sometime ago, and since then I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should make the incident public. After all, pointing out these goings on is hardly going to make me any friends. But I’m convinced that giving an honest assessment of an application in a peer review has already damaged my chances of getting grants. Therefore I wanted to share this cautionary tale with early career scientists who may still believe in the system.

P.S. The proposal was funded.

Mar 20

New Lab Time Lapse


Eight months ago the Hanson Research Group announced our first experiment on twitter. We set out to capture, via pictures, the transition from an empty space to a fully functioning lab. This involved two Brinno TLC200 time-lapse cameras programmed to take one photo per day. Last week we stopped the camera located in the support lab. Here are the results:

The support lab is predominantly dedicated to solar cell assembly so—from the right side of the screen and moving towards the left—you can see the following: a glass cutting mat, the pressure-heat, cell sealing apparatus and the box furnace. Here are a few things to note:

  • Every time the red handle on the cell sealing apparatus moves a solar cell was born.
  • The fume hood was largely used for storage until about the 6 month mark when we added a horn sonicator.
  • We decided to add a short pause whenever someone was caught on camera.
  • After the initial explosion of activity one of my favorite parts of the video is the dancing chairs.

We originally planned to let the support lab camera run for a full year but then decided to stop it early for two reasons. First, there is relatively low traffic in the area and most of the major changes were completed in the first 3 to 4 months. Second, we became impatient and decided that there were more interesting things in lab  we could capture. Follow us on twitter (@HansonFSU, #picpickoftheweek) to keep up with our future time-lapse experiments – and let us know in the comments if you have any suggestions for other things to capture.

Feb 27

Which science does the most magic?


A few weeks back  Vittorio had a pop at Sigma-Aldrich for marketing fluorosulfuric acid-antimony pentafluoride as ‘magic acid’.  Which got me wondering, just how common is magic in the sciences? And which disciplines are the most mystical?

“Magic’s just science we don’t understand” Arthur C. Clarke

So I checked. A search for ‘magic’ in titles of articles using Scopus pulls up 8,698 hits. That’s a far bit of magic. The Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes (MAGIC) telescope accounts of 141 of them. And since we all know that acronyms don’t count as magic we’ll chuck them out. That leaves 8,557 magical articles.

Let’s also dismiss the arts, humanities and social sciences (not that I have anything against them, but a lot of their studies are investigating magical beliefs, and so they aren’t actually doing any magic). Which takes us to 7,223 articles.

I think we should also bin conference papers because they might have been written by a computer, and there’s nothing mystical about that (down to 6,467 now).

Which means the top 3 most spellbinding sciences are….

Medicine is the clear winner with 1,675 articles. Second there’s physics (and astronomy) with 1,397 publications, and coming in a close third we have chemistry with 1,348 papers.

So there you have it, medics do the most magic.

But hang on a second, there’s something not right here. I think there’s a secret coven tucked away somewhere. And I’m sure it’s made up of those trick solid state NMR spectroscopists and their MAS experiments, or Magic Angle Spinning to use the full incantation. These practitioners of the darker NMR arts manage 1,734 articles by themselves, whilst all the time disguised within the midst of medicine, physics and chemistry.

Who then is the master wizard, with 46 articles? It’s none other than the supposedly mythical Griffin.

 

 

Feb 20

GUEST POST: The Blogversation Continues: Turning Around Public Perception on Chemicals and Chemistry


Guest post by Luke Gammon

This is the second post in response to a conversation started by @chemtacular and @reneewebs (see an excellent summary by Reneé Webster of the conversation so far).

In October last year, Chemistry World wrote an article on chemophobia which asked “Is it the role of industry, working academic scientists or communicators to do the repair work?”. My view (as an academic scientist) is that we must all take on this responsibility. As a PhD student who relies solely on federal government funding (via taxes) I see science communication as a public duty. It is our responsibility to inform, educate and encourage the next generation of scientists as well as the general public.

We’ve all been challenged by @chemtacular to suggest a “course of action” to combat chemophobia and encourage education about chemicals. So, what can we do as individuals and what can we do as a community? Also, how can we encourage future generations and engage with the wider adult public?

Here is a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his New York Times bestselling book “The Black Swan”:

When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.

I see the central message here being about empowerment through access to information. It is up to us to provide the public with as much accurate information about chemistry as possible. We cannot simply correct those who are wrong, we must engage the wider community at local, national and international levels. Remember, knowledge is power.

There are many simple things we can do as individuals – write a blog, engage with your friends, family and even people you meet on the street! Tell them about the great chemicals in their everyday lives and ask them about their fears and concerns. “What’s the first word that pops into your head when I say the word ‘chemical’?”

Now, lets think bigger. Ask your local chemistry department about public outreach events or organise your own (Chemistry of chocolate or beer is always a hit!). Perhaps write an opinion piece for the local newspaper or appear on a local tv/radio program. In Melbourne there is a group called Laneway Learning which organises accessible “cheap fun classes in anything and everything”, including “The Delicious Science of Baking” and “Solar Power – how it works”. They’re always looking for people who might want to teach a class. There are so many opportunities for modern science communication. Go and find out what’s happening in your city.

We are part of a diverse, international and highly passionate online community of chemists (as evidenced by Reneé Webster in her excellent summary of the #chemophobia conversation). It is imperative that we leverage this network in our efforts to repair the public image of chemistry. We need to think big. What can we  do as a collective to stimulate change on a national or international level?

The West Virginia chemical spill is a good example of where lack of information spreads fear. An obscure chemical leaked into the rivers of WV and flowed downstream to taint the water supply. Residents were left confused and scared for hours. The online chemistry community scrambled for toxicity data on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). As it turns out, Eastman Chemical had performed a ‘suite’ of toxicity studies in the 1980s/1990s and has since released this information. We, as a community, need to encourage the public release of this kind of information. Internationally our laws and regulations regarding industrial chemicals should be robust and we can play a role in identifying problems in these policies.

Chemisty – the least shared science*

What about chemophobia in the media and beyond? The simplest way to combat the problem is at its most basic level and that is through education. We need good science education in primary school to get kids excited about doing science. This needs to be followed through to high school education too. How many people have you met that have said “I never GOT chemistry”, “too hard for me!” or “never got past year x science!”? As long as chemistry is viewed as an abstract and complex entity we will continue to lose this battle. We need to pick up our game and make chemistry more relevant, interesting and exciting to the wider society (see diagram below!).

Some of my most valuable classes were spent doing media and language analysis in English class, learning how to pull apart newspaper articles and radio transcripts. Perhaps we could encourage teachers to do critical analysis of some (basic) science news articles in a school setting. Some have suggested we could lobby for a large chemical body (eg. ACS or the RSC) to respond to poorly informed media coverage.

At the end of the day, I agree with Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, who says “Chemistry needs more journalists talking about it” and James Kennedy, of All-Natural Banana fame, who says “Chemistry needs a hero [like David Attenborough or Brian Cox]“. As long as we continue to promote chemistry and show its relevance, chemophobia in marketing and the media will start to lose some of its shine.

*Borrowed from the Sackler Colloqium on “Science of Science Communication II”

Feb 10

The Blogversation Continues: A New Approach to the Fear of Chemicals and for a Course of Action


This post is part of an on-going dialogue between chemists on Twitter in an effort to unite the chemistry community do something about negative portrayal of chemicals in a positive and productive manner. I responded to Renee Webster’s kick off post and we’ve gotten a lot of excellent feedback both on Twitter and from bloggers. I’d like to respond to all these amazing ideas by way of a response to bloggers Dr. Dorea Reeser (Chemicals Are You Friends) and Dr. Luke Gamon (A Radical Approach) who have upped the ante with their contributions to the blogversation. These posts are a wake-up call to the chemistry community by way of a completely new take on the situation.

Before I read these responses I wanted to figure out what to call the fear of chemicals in such a way that it didn’t lend itself to ridiculing people’s legitimate fear. I’ve argued that (#)chemophobia not only falls short of this but it perpetuates a negative image of chemicals. There was also the matter that (#)chemophobia inaccurately describes the way that the media and advertising capitalizes on this fear. I joined other chemists on Twitter in their search for alternatives but felt odd with our second attempt: (#)chemsploitation. Why is a term/hash-tag so important? I am of the opinion that it provides a way of checking that we do not damage our credibility with the way we represent ourselves. These responses elegantly change the focus on the debate on whether or not we need to get rid of (#)chemophobia.

Dr. Reeser explains that she avoids using the term chemophobia because it sends out the wrong message and because to those outside the debate and non-chemists, the term suggests something having to do with chemotherapy. She proposes the term/hash-tag (#)ChemMisConcept both to describe those that fear chemicals and those that perpetuate that fear. It meets all the criteria that I discussed in my previous response and has the added bonus of working in all contexts. The concept of chemical misconception(s) is as specific as it gets and this changes the way we approach the real problem: the fear of chemicals. This fear of chemicals is very real and rational considering that people have these misconceptions given the information they can access. Dr. Reeser reminds us that we have to acknowledge that chemical(s) include: dangerous substances which we should have a healthy fear of; substances where the danger depends on the dosage and those substances that are completely harmless. I agree that it is our job as chemists to explain which is which.

 

Dr. Gamon* agrees with Dr. Reese when he states that the energy that’s going into debating the word could be put to better use. He calls all chemists to take action with a cool head and in a respectful way and I couldn’t agree more. (#)Chemophobia just doesn’t serve this purpose and the term has outlived its use. Dr. Gamon reminds us that we are all brand ambassador, and I agree that we need to act like if we are going to take back the word chemical.

 

Dr. Gamon’s response agrees with a post Dr. Reeser directly cites, and I would be remiss for not addressing Chemophobia-phobia by Dr. Chad Jones* (@TheCollapsedPsi). Dr.Jones also suggest that we should hold ourselves, government agencies and other chemist/companies to higher standards. Education/information, policies and enforcement should be directly informed by evidence-based chemistry. I’d add that as chemists we need to make sure that this evidence is accurate. Dr. Jones and I don’t necessarily agree on our approach (we battle it out in #chemopocalypse, a podcast prosposed by @Chemjobber and had under the supervision of @ScienceIsntScary [link pending]) but I am 100% behind this idea.

 

Whether we have two terms to accurately define how people use the word chemical, is still insufficient to get chemists to act instead of react. In our pod cast, Dr. Jones warns that when we take on another term (say #chemsploitation) we run the risk of falling into the same attitudes as before. So as catchy as the catch phrases we have are, and whether or not we make sure to use them respectfully, they are still not inspiring action to reclaim the word chemical. Let’s retire them, accurately address the misconception and with taking back the word chemical.

 

Thus far @CompounChem’s marvelous info graphics are an excellent start. I enjoy them as a chemist and the non-chemists I’ve shown them to have loved understanding a little more about the chemicals that they enjoy every day (coffee, etc). They are a great way to start discussions. I am open to more ideas on how we can start educating folks about what chemical (and other appropriated words) really means, thoughts? What are some ways we can start doing this now? The more ideas we have, the merrier, and the more resources that we have to talk with different audiences. Do any non-chemists out there have suggestions for what they would like to see?

*The people that I refer to as doctors here have their doctorates or are close enough for me to respectfully add the title.

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