How important is it to have the best equipped lab, wonders Derek Lowe

I’ve been thinking a good deal about lab equipment recently. And before all the vendors rush to send me their latest catalogues, that doesn’t mean that I have the budget to buy a lot of it this year. No, what I’ve been wondering about is what the availability of good equipment does to research creativity.

You can get a surprising variety of answers to that question. One group holds that there’s little effect at all, that good scientists can do good work with whatever’s at hand. And while it’s true that the best people would probably do the best work no matter how you furnished the labs, I’m thinking on the absolute scale rather than the relative one. And that’s where another opinion comes in: that there is an effect, and it’s strongly positive, with a strong correlation between the lab facilities and the amount of good work done. After all, that’s what these labour-saving devices are for, right? Cutting-edge technology is there to produce cutting-edge results, isn’t it?

Time-saving instrumentation 

It’s true that you can move things along more quickly with some key pieces of equipment. For day-to-day organic chemistry, access to a good liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS) machine comes to mind - having the molecular weights and fragmentation patterns of your unknown molecules is a real step up from just running thin layer chromatography (TLC) of the reaction in most cases. In some areas (natural product chemistry!) good instrumentation is vital, and can easily save weeks, months, or even years of work. There’s really nothing that compares to the power of modern mass spectroscopy and multidimensional nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Some readers may feel that this is all very easy for me to say, working as I do in the well-funded labs of industry. 

But some of this power is compensated for by the fact that we now work on harder problems. That’s what all this instrumentation does; it makes the current questions easier to deal with, while bringing up others that no one’s ever addressed before. Discovering drugs is still next to impossible even with all the equipment we have, or so it seems to most of us who are doing it, most of the time. So the correlation of productivity with modern equipment might not be as tight as one would think. That leads in to another vocal camp of opinion, the people who say that there might actually be a negative effect of all these shiny tools.  

Old-fashioned creativity 

People were more creative in the old days, runs this school of thought, because they had to be. Looking at the ingenuity that it took to solve structures before modern instrumentation, no one can deny that the amount of physical and mental effort needed was extraordinary. I remember standing next to a Mayan pyramid and being similarly impressed by the work that went into it, but if I had to build one now, I’d use wheels at the very least, with pack animals and diesel-powered equipment next on the wish list. The creativity and hard work that went into some of the old-school chemistry is transferable; there’s no reason that it can’t be applied to modern systems as well, with similar results. 

And that brings up the human variable, which is what really confuses this whole question. Just as a chemist who’s always working hard and thinking hard will make some headway under almost any conditions, a lazy or thoughtless one will produce nothing, no matter how up-to-date the laboratory is. Everyone’s seen this even at the level of people using their own camera equipment, so it most certainly applies to scientific apparatus. Any discussion of this issue has to assume that we’re talking about having similar people under these different conditions. 

But can you assume that? The late Peter Medawar pointed out that lack of good equipment caused a person to self-censor ideas, since there’s no point in thinking about experiments that just can’t be run. He felt that this was a pernicious effect of inadequate surroundings, one that wasn’t recognised as much as it should have been (and indeed, was often obscured by stories of scientists making great discoveries with cast-off apparatus). So that hard-working person I mentioned in the last paragraph might be able to produce something in almost any lab, but would surely have a better chance of living up to their potential under better conditions.  

And other things being equal, there are better uses of time than redistilling every drop of used solvent or making one’s own dry ice or the like. My scorn, then, is reserved for people who do such things when they don’t have to, and my sympathy is for those researchers who have no other choice. 

Derek Lowe is a medicinal chemist working on preclinical drug discovery in the US.