As an affiliate member of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC’s) peer review college, I would like to comment on the article about NERC’s intention to reduce the number of uncompetitive proposals submitted for funding (Chemistry World, March 2012, p17). For several years, I have helped in the assessment of applications for knowledge exchange (KE), collaborative awards in science and engineering (CASE) studentships and more recently the ’pathways to impact’ statements for standard grants. In too many cases, the issue is not about the quality of research but about the quality of the application. Applicants do not help their proposals by the apparently careless way in which they sometimes present their applications, and it seems entirely right that universities and institutes should be held responsible for allowing these to go forward to NERC.

In the last CASE studentship call, NERC had asked applicants to include a supporting letter from their partner, written in their own words. On the day I attended the moderating panel there were 48 applications, several of which did not include a supporting letter. The reason this letter is required is to enable the panel to assess the importance attached to the research by the partner and to judge their level of commitment and enthusiasm. If it is not included, the panel loses this input, the applicant is not following the guidelines, and it is unfair to other applicants who have gone to the trouble to provide one. Irrespective of research quality, none of these proposals was recommended for funding and valuable time was wasted. On other occasions, pages have been missing from applications - in one instance, pages were muddled between two applications from the same department - and applications frequently break the stated conditions of the scheme.

Another aspect of writing applications that researchers should have in mind is that there is a real benefit in using easy to understand English, particularly in KE and CASE proposals where it is unlikely that the panel will be as familiar with their area of research as they are themselves. Some researchers understand this and do it extremely well, but others do not attempt to meet the challenge and present their applications entirely in the language of their speciality. Often we see both approaches from the same department of the same university. Clearly, if the panel does not understand the proposal, it is unlikely to be funded. Institutions have a role to play here in providing guidance and training for their staff.

I do not believe this is adding to the administrative burden of either researchers or institutions; it is about using an approach that will give proposals the best chance of success. Indeed, it is the same approach that we all use in our private lives and is a lesson learned by scientists in industry who need to persuade those who control the purse strings to fund their laboratories. For NERC, it should enable proposals to be assessed purely on research quality, and for individual researchers it should mean fewer submissions and less wasted effort to achieve success.

Mike Welch FRSC CChem 
Warwick, UK


I enjoyed reading the article on DNA nanotechnology (Chemistry World, January 2012, p50). It was an excellent article; however, it lacked reference to the potential contribution that alternative (eg left-handed Z-DNA and Z-RNA, slipped-stranded DNA, doublestranded RNA and A-DNA) and multi-strand nucleic acid molecules will have on this discipline. We must think beyond conventional double-stranded (ds), right-handed B-DNA, which constitutes the majority of DNA,

as the only nucleic acid that can be used in nanotechnology; DNA nanotechnologists must also consider exotic forms of nucleic acids. Transitions in DNA structure can be used to manufacture novel DNA-based devices. The development of non-ds-B-DNA within certain sequences of DNA can be induced by environmental factors, DNA binding proteins and DNA supercoiling. It should be noted that pentaplex DNA has been synthesised by researchers and would be yet another structure to employ in DNA nanotechnology. DNA–protein complexes and other DNA adducts should also be considered as building blocks with both conventional and exotic DNA and RNA molecules for nanotechnological devices. Peptide nucleic acids and locked nucleic acids could also prove to be very useful in conjunction with the nucleic acids mentioned in enhancing bionanotechnology. By incorporating exotic DNA and RNA molecules into potential building blocks for DNA- and RNA-based technology, we will expand the possibilities of nanotechnology products, such as highly complex three dimensional mechanical structures, nanoelectronics, nanocomputers, and drug discovery and development.

C E Gagna MRSC CChem
New York Institute of Technology, US

Quentin Maxwell-Jackson (Chemistry World, February 2012, p32) doesn’t seem to be a scientist, because he doesn’t understand that people who are going to invent something need to be allowed to mess around. That means that scientists should be able to try something out without having to scale a hierarchy of scientifically illiterate managers and financiers.

Perhaps he could explain to we dumb scientists why there’s such a dearth of innovative (and affordable) pharmaceuticals?

C R Lee MRSC CChem
St Martin De Bréthencourt, France


I am sure that many readers of the letter ‘Patent profile’ by J Lenthall (Chemistry World, March 2012, p47) must have thought of Albert Einstein, who himself worked in a patent office in Switzerland. Lenthall gives a good account of the possible attractiveness of a career in patents to science graduates and Einstein’s expression of his own attitude to working in a patent office might add to it:

‘A practical profession is a salvation for a man of my type; an academic career compels a young man to scientific production, and only strong characters can resist the temptation of superficial analysis.’

And he would surely have given every endorsement to the addition of ‘or woman’ to his statement – let it be noted that Einstein was still working at the patent office in 1903, the year in which Marie Curie was a joint winner of the Nobel prize for physics.

J C Jones FRSC
University of Aberdeen, UK


Your correspondent Clive Delmonte (Chemistry World, March 2012, p47) is in good company. The question he raised about the presence and possible impact of pharmaceutical residues in surface waters was first raised by another RSC member, Mervyn Richardson, in a seminal paper in 1985. At that time, analytical methods were not sensitive enough to detect these residues, which are indeed present in most surface waters in the sub‑μg/l range. However, in the last decade a substantial body of literature has developed concerning their presence, along with many other substances of anthropogenic origin, at these low levels in our environment.

There have now been a number of reviews of the literature by national and regional authorities and the general conclusion seems to be that current residues do not pose any significant risk to human health or any short-term risk to the environment.

That said, two environmental impacts have been attributed to pharmaceutical residues: the feminisation of fish species in the vicinity of discharge from sewage works following exposure to ethinylestradiol and the fatal impact of diclofenac on vultures in South Asia from the unlicensed veterinary use of this product. Consequently, there is much research on determining how significant these residues might be to the environment in the longer term and what might be done to minimise any such impact.

D Taylor FRSC CChem
Devon, UK