Chemistry Blog

May 23

Making sense of chemical stories


Discussions on chemophobia (or whatever you want to call it) is a perennial favourite on chemistry blogs. But the conversation rarely extends out of our echo chamber. But now Sense about Science have joined the discussion with the publication of a guide entitled  Making Sense of Chemical Stories.

Sense about Science is a respected charitable organisation that  ‘equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion’. In short, they facilitate discussions between concerned/interested groups and relevant experts.  The aim of their guide is to bridge the disconnect between the lifestyle view (and popular definition) of chemicals and the realities of how chemistry is used to support the modern world. It does this by tackling common misconceptions about chemistry.

One of the key misconception that they address is that natural chemicals are somehow safer than man-made ones. The wrongheadedness of which is nicely illustrated by a pair of infographics  (designed by Compound Interest) that don’t shy away from admitting synthetic chemicals are often toxic but also make it clear that whether a chemical is naturally occurring or man-made tells us precisely nothing about its toxicity.

SAS - Natural vs. Man-Made Toxicity FINAL (1)

 

SAS - Dose Makes The Poison FINAL (1)

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is being promoted to the public, journalists, life-style press and policy makers. It, along with the infographics are freely available to download and distribute under a creative commons license. Or if you prefer a hard copy (or box full of them) email enquiries[ at ]senseaboutscience[dot]org  with your contact details.

 

 

May 21

Update: Photo Friday (#picpickoftheweek)


In January the Hanson Research Group (@HansonFSU) introduced Photo Friday, a twitter-based ‘best picture of the week’ (#picpickoftheweek). Since then my students have created an amazing collection of photographs depicting our research, equipment, and chemicals. I’d like to highlight my six favorite photos so far (in no particular order).

In the first picture a reaction mixture, under UV light, is cooled to -78°C using a dry ice-acetone bath. Emission is usually more intense when molecules are cooled because it slows vibrational relaxation (non-radiative decay).

rxnThe second picture shows a fluorescent dye in dichloromethane being poured into an Erlenmeyer flask under UV-light (365 nm).

PourPicture three offers a glimpse inside the excitation monochromator of our fluorometer. The device is composed of a grating, to disperse the white light (xenon lamp source) into its components, and mirrors to direct the monochromatic light toward the sample.

MonochrometerPhoto four is a very stylized look at one of our variable magnetic field cuvette holders. The knob you see in the bottom right is used to move the neodymium magnets closer or further away from the cuvette. With the magnets next to the cuvette we get a field of about 0.35 T at the point of emission. The dry ice adds an ethereal feel to the photo but more importantly allows us to see the laser beam.

Laser through magnetic fieldEmission from molecules bound to semiconducting films depend on the energy of the chromophore, the conduction band of the semiconductor, the solvent, and other variables. Photo five demonstrates how the distance between the molecule and the semiconductor can affect emission intensity.

Film emissionThe concentration gradients that occur when a solid dissolves in solvent is easy to visualize using fluorescent molecules, as shown in picture six. Eventually the color will even out but the process is relatively slow without stirring.

DissolveFollow us on twitter (@HansonFSU) for more more of our #picpickoftheweek.

May 18

The Rules


Here at chemistry-blog we feel the need for a sacred text setting out the etiquette to be followed by chemicals scientists everywhere.

Henceforth these shall be known as The Rules (an idea blatantly stolen for cyclists), and they shall set us apart from those that peddle particles or organisms.

The Rules have been distilled from precedents and consensus. However more may be required.

1) There is ONE periodic table. Do not tolerate poor imitations of Mendeleev’s genesis.

The ‘periodic’ tables of Muppets, Harry Potter, cocktails etc. are not periodic hence they are just tables.

2) DNA is a right handed helix. Should you see it depicted otherwise you must bring it to the attention of twitter immediately.

Amendment: Dear Reddit, yes I know Z-DNA is left handed and if the news outlet using the image has labelled it as such then you don’t have to inform twitter. Okay?

3) The rubber balloon was invented by Michael Faraday, it is therefore a perfectly acceptable piece of laboratory equipment. 

To avoid the embarrassment and bother of having to buy balloons form the party shop all chemistry departments/companies should stock them in their stores, where they shall be known as Faraday spheres.

4) Acceptable uses of liquid nitrogen include making ice cream.

5) Always wear your safety specs in the lab. Do not wear them (even on your head) in seminars, at lunch or wondering around campus.

An exception is made when you have a nice pair of wrap around specs and can’t find your cycling glasses, thus allowing you to adhere to cycling rule #39 whilst circumventing rule #36.

6) Do not use the phrase ‘chemical-free‘, ‘no chemicals‘ or similar, EVER!

Except of course when ridiculing those that do.

7) It never gets easier, yields just get better. 

8)  Chief Editors of Nature Chemistry are bestowed with the honour of being verbed.

9) Lab coats should be white.

Maybe you think that wondering into the lab looking like something from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical makes you stand out from the crowd. It does, but not in a good way.

The only the exception is in undergraduate lab classes where it is acceptable for instructors and demonstrators to wear a splash of colour to distinguish them from the hoi polloi.

Amendment: Blue nomex coats are OK, but ONLY when you really need one.

10)  Zinc and cadmium are not transition metals. Keep up.

11) When taking part in a photo op do not don a lab coat and sit at the bench unless this is where you work.

If you have the title ‘Professor’ no-one believes that the lab is were you spend your day and frankly you look a bit awkward in your pristine coat, perched before a piece of equipment that you can’t remember how to use.

12) The journal PNAS is pronounced as you would expect. Stop trying to to pretend otherwise.

13) Sulfur is not spelt with ‘ph’ no matter which side of the Atlantic you are on.

14) Helium is for NMR instruments, stop putting it in Faraday spheres

15) Before you waste an afternoon in the library be sure to spend a month or two in the lab re-discovering something that’s already been published. 1

16) The structures in your graphical abstract are not to be arbitrarily coloured in, no matter how pretty it looks. 2

17) If you book the instrument USE the instrument.3

The booking calendar is not for letting everyone know when you think you might use the instrument unless something else comes up, like grabbing a coffee or writing an inane blog post.

18)  Clean out the god damn pump trap.4

It is not a place to conduct an unregulated experiment.

Contribute to The Rules through comments or twitter via the hashtag #ChemRules and together we’ll build our code of behaviour.

19) Always wash your hands BEFORE going to he bathroom.5

This also applies if you’ve been cooking with chile peppers.

1 Courtesy of Cantrill (the noun not the verb). 

2 Good point, thanks Fluorogrol.

Well said Chad.

Thank you Alex.

5  A excellent rule suggested by a Rabbit on Redit.

May 15

Who knows reviewers’ identities?


A couple of posts ago I shared a pretty unpleasant experience I had after peer-reviewing a grant application. In short my anonymity appeared to have been breached and I received ,what I took to be, a thinly veiled threat from the grant’s author.

Some of the comments that followed thanked me for bring the case to light but were critical because I hadn’t gone far enough and named names. Therefore what had the post achieved? I take the point, but I’m still not prepared to name the persons or organisations.

However, I did contact the funding body involved who were willing to investigate the matter. They also suggested that I first file a freedom-of-information request asking for details on how anonymity is protected and with whom reviewer identities are shared.

For the sake of completion I asked the main science research councils in the UK (not just the one that was involved in my incident) for the same information (details below).

In short most committees (that’s typically upwards of two dozen people) are aware of the identify of reviewers. This is probably not news to most, but I figure its good to know who knows who you are.

In most cases identities are revealed in the committee meeting. Which made me consider how the reviewer knew my identify before the committee sat. Until I remembered that I had reviewed the grant twice (it had been rejected the first time, but a resubmission was requested). So a panel member from the first meeting must have made a note (mentally or otherwise) of my name and then shared it.

It strikes me that its rather too easy for reviewer anonymity to be breached. So what’s to be done? In the short term maybe its worth checking who is on a panel. Then if you know of a relationship between a member and the proposal’s author, that might result in a leak,  refuse to review the grant. In the longer term, should the system change so that reviewers are truly anonymous? And as for me, my next step is to take up the offer of that investigation.

And in case you are interested here are the more detailed responses from the research councils.

The BBSRC website provides a document called “Peer review and freedom of information’. Part of which states that the identify of reviewers is

‘…available to the members of the peer review body.’

I asked for clarification on what constitutes a ‘peer review body’. To which they responded

‘.. peer review body refers to Research Committees and any other ad hoc panels that assess grant applications.’

they added that

Their identity [of reviewers] is revealed to the peer review body only as part of normal business meeting

The other research councils have similar freedom of information documents to the BBSRC, however they are less clear on the policies with regards to reviewer identities. So I asked them directly if identities are revealed to panels/committees and how anonymity is assured.

NERC replied :

Panels see the reviewer names but they are required to keep all the business of the meeting confidential including reviewers names and which members of the panel introduce the proposal and we rely on them to do that. That confidentiality is set out in the Reviewer Protocols. These are available on the NERC website and part of signing up to the Peer Review College. Access to proposal information is via Je-S [ grant submission/review system] and panel members are required to sign up to the Reviewer Protocols before they can see the proposal information in order to review it. Details of the Reviewer Protocols can be found at:

http://www.nerc.ac.uk/funding/application/peerreview/members-details/PRC-reviewer-protocols.pdf

The EPSRC‘s statement was:

Each reviewer has an anonymised reference for each proposal they are sent, but their identity is indicated in the meeting schedule provided to the panel members. Each schedule is customised so that if the panel member has a conflict of interest the reviewers remain anonymous for the affected proposal.

All panel members are sent guidance which includes our code of practice based on the Nolan Committee’s seven principles of public life – for further details please refer to the link below.

http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/peerrev/panels/Pages/protocols.aspx

And from the MRC I received:

At the board/panel meeting itself the names of the reviewers are projected onto a screen for each application in turn.  This information is not provided in hard copy to any of the board/panel members.

At Fellowship panels, the information is provided to the chair of the meeting and the information is securely destroyed immediately following the meeting.  Other panel members may request the information at the meeting and may be provided with this information verbally at the meeting to enable better decision making.

The Biomedical catalyst panel meeting is currently the only exception to this as information is revealed to panel members prior to the meeting. This is because the meeting is jointly run with the Technology Strategy Board.

 

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.

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