Targets vs. Science

Most of the projects you see nowadays are directed at achieving a particular goal, and that’s a good thing. It can be easy to get distracted by other, unimportant details when there is a big difficult puzzle set out in front of you.  But what is the cost of this approach to science?

Suppose two groups are working on the same molecule.  One group goes with the brute force method and makes the molecule in a perhaps predictable and inelegant fashion.  The other group comes up with a beautiful idea and takes the time to execute that idea well, optimizing conditions so that there are no major weaknesses in the synthesis.  Which is better?  They both attained the same goal (making the molecule).  To complicate things, suppose the former group reports their synthesis 3 months before the latter.  Then what?

I am of the mind that the appearance of one synthesis shouldn’t cheapen the impact of a later synthesis, but it’s hard to argue that the chemical community thinks the same way.  How often do you see a second synthesis of a natural product show up in Org. Lett. instead of JACS simply because it was second?

More than just the implications for publication records and C.V.’s, how does this cause scientists to change their approach?  Some investigators are really embracing the approach where they just care about getting to the target first, no matter what the cost.  It seems that the chemical community is rewarding these types with high profile publications and certainly with funding, so it is a self-aggrandizing process.  What really irks me about this approach is how much thought gets lost in the process.  How many new reactions do scientists miss because they are only looking to get to that end product?  I’d bet there are a lot!

I can’t help but make the comparison to the business end of science.  Think about the med. chem. approach to chemistry: make a ton of compounds, yields or direct routes are irrelevant, just get the compounds to the bio assay.  It’s good business, and it certainly works, but a lot of elegance is lost in this approach.  Elegance is somewhat unimportant in med. chem. though because that’s not the point, but I see that mindset spilling over into academic chemistry and that is a poison to the field.

Academic chemistry should be about investigating new ideas in order to learn new things.  If professors think that the goal is just to serve industry, then we aren’t learning anything.  Industry does what industry needs to do, and it does it well.  The academic end should be pure and free of the dollars and cents involved, but if all you think about is finishing targets while ignoring the learning, you’ve missed the point.

Call me an idealist, but somewhere people need to be doing science for the sake of science.

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