From Clive Delmonte

Sir John O’Reilly’s comment on peer review covers many pertinent points, but I feel there is a further crucial aspect to consider (Chemistry World,  February 2007, p36).  

The accepted paradigms in science are that non-experts defer to the opinion of experts, while the experts find themselves threatened by proposals which may challenge their authority and prestige, giving them an incentive to block change.  

This situation is compounded by the anonymity accorded to reviewers which might lead easily to abuse. A reviewer ought to be willing to be identified and to defend his or her commentary on a research proposal or paper. 

I have had a paper, and research proposals, rejected by experts; that is, by scientists whose own work would have been challenged.  

I have had to agree to include a passage in another published paper in which I do not believe in order to accommodate an anonymous reviewer before he would agree to its publication. 

This is becoming an unhealthy situation and one in which prominent scientists have to die before significant change becomes possible. 

C Delmonte CChem FRSC
Norfolk, UK


From Ronald Dell

Biofuels are deemed to be carbon neutral. The argument generally advanced for this view is that since the plants were formed from atmospheric CO2 by photosynthesis, burning them does not add to the global inventory of carbon.  

While this assertion is correct, it is misleading as it fails to differentiate between history (ie when the photosynthesis occurred) and the future (when greenhouse gases will exert their global warming effect). From the viewpoint of climate change it makes no difference whether the CO2 in the atmosphere originated from fossil fuel or growing plants. Nor is the future rate of photosynthesis likely to be much impacted by the projected use of biofuels. 

There is in fact a different argument as to why these fuels may be regarded as carbon neutral. It is that all vegetation when cut down will ultimately decay anyway, mostly to greenhouse gases, over a period of months to decades and therefore one may as well burn it and extract the useful heat rather than allow the chemical energy stored in the plants to go to waste. 

R M Dell CChem FRSC
Abingdon, UK


From Chris Rhodes

The feature on carbon credits suggests ways to reduce the peril imposed upon life on Earth by global warming (Chemistry World, February 2007, p40). However, it looks as if peak-oil is with us [Hubbert peak theory predicts that world oil production will peak before rapidly declining], meaning that the world is running out of the cheap light crude oil on which our modern globalised society is based.  

Inevitably, transportation will be cut significantly over coming decades, because none of the putative alternative technologies such as hydrogen and biofuels can match the gargantuan quantities of oil that are used currently for this purpose.  

CO2 emissions will be cut unavoidably by the decline of the world’s oil supply, and our real challenge is how we will survive in the post-oil era, essentially by re-localising our societies. These issues are discussed in detail on the website.

C Rhodes CChem FRSC
Caversham, UK


From John Holmes

I was dismayed to read that the research status of UK chemistry departments is to be analysed by yet another form of points gathering (Chemistry World, January 2007, p13).  

The lack of a number is of course unsatisfactory for administrators of granting agencies and the like who wish to justify their decisions by quoting them. This has the appearance of being both objective and comparative, but what, if anything, has been usefully measured? Moreover, the problem with the UK system is compounded by the allocation of research funds to departments as a whole, rather than to individual researchers, in that all staff suffer from a bad overall score. 

In contrast, in Canada, it is still the individual scientist’s excellence that matters most. Although the Natural
Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada is now a wholly government-operated bureaucracy, the evaluation of chemists and the quality of their research is still based on a non-numerical, peer-review system. 

From my own personal past service on the NSERC chemistry committee, I can say that its (then) adopted review methodology essentially ruled out any old boy network and that the process was considered to be very fair. The research was judged on the excellence of the individual as determined by their track record, their proposed research for the next granting period, and from written reviews (wholly non-numerical) from experts in the field from outside as well as from inside Canada. Moreover, the committee was not static, there being an overlapping quadrennial turnover of the members. This helped to quell the following of fashion in some areas of research.  

My additional experiences with other nations’ granting methods is that numerical schemes quickly become loaded at the high end, so that anything scoring less than 95 per cent is unlikely to be funded, thus making a nonsense of the exercise. 

The best research is done by scientists enabled freely to pursue studies of greatest personal interest. This makes for happier scientists, and contented scientists tend to make better instructors at all levels of teaching. 

J L Holmes MRSC, 
Ottawa, Canada


From Ian Whitfield  

As a very old scientist (University College London 1934-39), I am concerned about the decay of scientific method. I read so often ’scientists believe that.’ Yet it was the abandonment of belief in favour of the results of experiments that has been the key to science’s success. 

Hypothesis is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for scientific progress. The phlogiston theory was a good hypothesis, but did not stand up to experiment, so we rejected it. Darwin’s theory of the origin of species is likewise a good hypothesis, but has never been experimentally established, so it remains a hypothesis, though widely believed. 

A second modern fault, rife among nutritionists and medical students, is the old canard that correlation equals causation. Hence all the ’studies’ that one week tell us that coffee is good for us, and the next week bad. 

I hesitate to mention global warming. To question the major role of CO2 in this is a heresy of medieval proportions. Not perhaps meriting burning at the stake, but certainly loss of all grant support. No experimental evidence is available. (I hope I do not need to enter a caveat that computer models are not independent experiments, merely extension of the hypothesis.) The greenhouse gas theory seems to be a pure case of Humpty-Dumpty-ism: ’Anything I say three times is true’. So many scientists have repeated the mantra that it has become an unquestionable axiom. 

We must grant that in highly connected non-linear systems, the design of controlled experiments on Popperian principles is very difficult. We must however find ways to do it. Otherwise science will simply become another ’religion’ dependent on faith. 

I C Whitfield, CChem FRSC
Droitwich, UK


From George Perry

Reading Bench Monkey  by Dylan Stiles (Chemistry World, December 2006, p37) stirred memories of solvents and other chemicals at the start of my career in chemistry. 

In 1944 I joined the fine chemicals company A Boake Roberts in Stratford, UK. This specialised in perfumery products, essences and flavours. They were also purveyors of fine chemicals for use in the general chemical trade. 

I was a laboratory assistant in the testing lab and it was my lot to obtain samples of many of the products. When I located a particular product, I would take a sample by inserting the dip stick - a long glass tube. Sometimes for the liquids I would suck them into the tube. Many times I had a mouthful of toluene, nitrobenzene or something equally obnoxious. Solids were sampled by hand using the spatula - there were no rubber gloves to wear. 

Life was not dull, more so when the air raid warning sounded and we all dashed for the air-raid shelter. A chemical plant was no place to be during an air raid.  

My experience at Boake Roberts was not wasted because when I finally started out on my career, my knowledge of solvents and the many other organic compounds proved invaluable. I knew the boiling points of many common solvents and the melting points of solids. Many compounds I could identify by smell or even appearance - something which came in useful in my BSc degree chemistry practical examinations. 

G S Perry CChem FRSC
Reading UK


From Alun Morinan 

A couple of pharmacological errors appeared in A humane way to die?  (Chemistry World, February 2007, p8). Sodium thiopental and other barbiturates stimulate rather than inhibit (block) central GABA receptors. These drugs act by opening the chloride ion channel at the centre of the oligomeric receptor protein thereby hyperpolarising the cell membrane and depressing the CNS. Blockade of GABA receptors would have the opposite effect, producing CNS excitation and therefore convulsions. 

The short acting muscle relaxant succinylcholine is broken down by enzymes, in particular butyrylcholinesterase, and this accounts for the drug’s short plasma half-life. However, in rare cases of suxamethonium sensitivity, where there is a reduction in or complete absence of enzyme activity, prolonged neuromuscular block occurs. 

Pharmacology aside, it would be much more humane if the US states of Florida and California abolished the death penalty, rather than looking for ’better’ ways of executing people. 

A Morinan Institute of Psychiatry
King’s College, London