Reflections on the REF, climate controversy and the pros and cons of fracking

Arguing with the REF

From Mike Green

I read with interest what I thought was a less than enthusiastic article by Richard Catlow and Graham Hutchings on the outputs from the recent REF (Research Excellence Framework) exercise.

Having experienced the process at first hand, I am dismayed by the hundreds of thousands and probably millions of man hours spent across all disciplines gathering information, writing, rewriting, reviewing and assessing the submissions. The time could have been far more productively spent educating our children and advancing research. I was also concerned about the thousands of academics who were inhumanly treated, retrenched and had their careers blighted as a result of not being considered ‘REFable’.

The intrusion on industry in trying to get meaningful outputs from business sensitive research was painful, and the infighting and back-biting that is now taking place because individual departments have slipped in the table is lamentable, as indeed is the amateurish spin doctoring of the data now taking place. We should also not forget the poaching of academics before the submission date to artificially boost a department’s output and the stagnation in recruitment that subsequently occurred while people were waiting for the results to be published.

Perhaps even worse in some departments will be the apathy or feeling of emptiness now that the process is over and with so little concrete to show for it at the end of the day. Indeed, for some poor souls there is no ‘summer’ break since discussions are already taking place about the next campaign.

It was a totally demotivating experience and I am so grateful that, having retired, I don’t have to go through it again in 2020.

M Green FRSC
Newcastle, UK

Richard Catlow and Graham Hutchings respond:

We are puzzled and disappointed by the comments from Mike Green following our article about the outcome of the REF2014 exercise for chemistry. We were surprised that our article seemed to have been misunderstood, as it argued, we thought clearly, that the outcome of REF 2014 was very positive for our discipline and indeed showed the impressive achievement and impact of UK chemistry departments in recent years. Moreover, this positive response to the outcome appears to us to have been shared by the great majority of our community.

Equally perplexing is the letter's implication that research evaluation is unnecessary. Can it be seriously proposed that substantial public funding can be assigned without any check on the quality of the resulting research; or that funding should not in some way follow quality? As our article argued, we may need a debate about how this is done, but the need is indisputable.

The comments relating to industry and impact are also difficult to comprehend. From our experience, industry values its relationship with academic chemistry and indeed the REF exercise showed how fruitful this relationship has been. Surely colleagues in industry are willing to help demonstrate the success and impact of these partnerships.

Regarding 'career blight', we would argue precisely the contrary. There are many early-career scientists now in post whose recruitment was stimulated by pressure to strengthen departmental REF submissions.  Also, the letter refers to apathy following the REF outcome; on the contrary, the outcome should be energising. We have demonstrated the strength of our discipline in the UK and we can now build on this with confidence.

R Catlow CChem FRSC
University College London, UK
G Hutchings CChem FRSC
Cardiff University, UK

Survival story

From Tony Kallend

Derek Lowe’s article ‘Ignorance is no defence’ brought back memories from more than 50 years ago when I was completing my PhD at Cambridge with the the late Howard Purnell (later President of the Royal Society of Chemistry) on the kinetics of the gas phase thermal decomposition of dimethyl mercury.

Although we knew that even the vapour of dimethyl mercury was toxic, we synthesised it in an ordinary laboratory fume cupboard and carried out experiments with a conventional glass vacuum system. In a neighbouring laboratory another of Purnell’s students, Graham Pratt, was studying the pyrolysis of tetraethyl lead.

The tragic case involving Karen Wetterhahn only happened more than 30 years later and I cannot imagine that common sense, let alone current health and safety legislation, would allow me to complete such research these days.

Dimethyl mercury is stated to be ‘one of the most potent neurotoxins known’. I consider myself lucky to still be alive at the age of nearly 80!

T Kallend CChem FRSC
Kent, UK


Storm warning

From John Leisten

The politicising of climate has made it personally difficult for climatologists to speak critically about their subject. This surely places an onus on the major scientific institutions to see that the public is not receiving unbalanced information. I am consequently angry that the article ‘Emissions must hit zero by 2100’ should entirely ignore those whose facts and figures tend to rubbish the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s confident predictions.

Ignoring dissent and pretending that the debate is over and won, is politically correct but scientifically contemptible, and a particularly disturbing result is the teaching of climate change dogma in schools.

There is a mass of writing that takes issue with the IPCC. If it is specious, then well and good, for most of it is hidden from the public in the vastness of the internet. If, however, the criticism is valid, resources will be used pointlessly as politicians bend to a wind of emotion that the science societies could easily have calmed.

This is a hugely important issue. I won’t leave the RSC (because it’s as much my society as yours) but I am too ashamed of it at present to write its initials after my name.

J Leisten
Queensland, Australia

Editor: In any story, we must ensure that in seeking objectivity we do not give undue weight to views that would misrepresent the balance of debate. In this respect, our reporting reflects the prevailing scientific consensus, which is also reflected in the RSC’s position on this topic.

Right to roam

From Timothy Hele

The recent research into acetaldehyde photolysis and its ‘defiance’ of classical transition state theory (TST) is an admirable piece of experimental work. As a theoretical chemist, I might offer some advice on the use and limitations of TST.

TST produces the exact classical rate when there is a position-space surface dividing reactants from products (the ‘transition state’), and where there is no recrossing of the dividing surface by classical dynamics. While TST is accurate for many direct reactions and high temperatures, reactions involving radicals (such as that reported) frequently lack a meaningful transition state, and reactions with long-lived intermediates (such as roaming reactions) show so much recrossing that the TST rate is meaningless.

Even if TST does give the exact classical rate for this system, this would be very far removed from the experimental result because of pronounced quantum effects in reactions involving light species such as the hydrogen radical. There have been attempts at a quantum transition state theory (QTST) since Henry Eyring’s work in 1935, though a rigorous QTST was only published in 2013.

An added complication for acetaldehyde photolysis is that it proceeds through multiple electronic states, and to the best of my knowledge there is no rigorous form of TST that can cope with this (since the ‘barrier’ could be in electronic rather than position space).

Some approximate quantum methods may be applicable to this system (such as non-adiabatic ring polymer molecular dynamics or mixed quantum·classical methods), and I hope that experimental research such as this will inspire their development.

University of Cambridge, UK

Fracking fears

From John Mottram

Regarding John Davis’ and Frank Smith’s letters on fracking, the facts are straightforward in my opinion. The US is benefiting hugely from fracking technology through energy independence. Britain would also become more independent of overseas energy sources by using this technology, with the usual political oversight to ensure that any safety matters are resolved.

Scaremongering on this issue is rampant. I visited an elementary school where the children had apparently been subjected to an anti-fracking talk by a teacher. Several children had written cards with comments, one of which read: ‘We’re all going to die!’

Overtly political scaremongering of this sort is despicable. I am reminded of a tongue-in-cheek comment made by Nigel Lawson in his book  An appeal to reason: ‘For many [anti-capitalists], green is the new red.’

J Mottram CChem FRSC
Poole, UK

From Michael Sammes

Reading the letter from John Davis concerning the alarming paucity of information available on the chemicals used in fracking, I find myself wondering about the quantities of water involved.

How much is going to be required and how is this water to be sourced? Our rivers and aquifers are already overstretched. Will this industry be given priority over other users for access to water? What percentage of this water will be recovered in a form that can safely be reused? I do not recall these questions being addressed either in the media or by those who express such enthusiastic support for fracking. It seems that there is pressure from government to pursue this process while important questions concerning the environmental impact remain unanswered.

M P Sammes FRSC
Chippenham, UK

Red light for photo therapy

From Lionel Milgrom

In his recent letter, Charles Stewart is correct to describe Foscan as one of the most promising anti-cancer drugs of the 21st century. However, I doubt his prognosis that patients – particularly in the UK – may be the eventual beneficiaries of Foscan coming off patent.

Since 2010, the UK government has been sitting on a report into photodynamic therapy (PDT) as an anti-cancer treatment, and it appears NHS England has yet to agree funding for PDT. So, apart from a few dermatological applications, PDT for cancer treatment is only available here privately.

The route to Foscan requires very few steps, making it arguably one of the simplest synthetic anti-cancer drugs, and PDT has none of the awful side-effects of chemo- and radiotherapies. Further, photosensitisers like Foscan can now be targeted directly to tumours, and PDT could be used to detect and treat cancer at the same time, in principle making cancer therapy an out-patient treatment.

However, mismanagement, neglect and corporate skullduggery could mean PDT becomes one of the most promising anti-cancer treatments we never had.

L R Milgrom FRSC
London, UK

Gas phase exotica

From Keith Fisher

The story ‘Iridium forms compound in +9 oxidation state’ reported the formation of IrO4+ in the gas phase.

More than a decade ago, (Inorg. Chem., 1996, 35, 4177), a multitude of metal sulfide gas phase ions were reported including the ion IrS9+ and the intriguing ion LaS21+. A study of 29 transition metal monocations (produced by pulsed laser vaporisation of metal targets) reacting with sulfur in the gas phase calls into question the assignment of oxidation states to these gas phase species until the true structures are known.

Maybe the +9 oxidation state is not so unusual, but more importantly the gas phase species point to condensed phase synthesis targets.

K Fisher FRSC
New South Wales, Australia