Responses to the REF, forensic fraud and baffling bonds

Response to the REF

We are puzzled and disappointed by the comments from Mike Green following our article about the outcome of the research excellence framework (REF) 2014 exercise.

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 should 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

Gas from biomass

I enjoyed reading the piece ‘Driving towards success with biomass-derived petrol’. I was a little surprised, however, by the statement that biomass-derived fuels ‘have only seen success as substitutes for jet fuel additives or diesel’. The following sentence says, if I have read it correctly, that fuels for spark ignition cannot be obtained from biomass.

I expect that the writer excluded ethanol from this discussion (which is widely used in spark ignition engines) on the grounds that its production, unlike the production from g-valerolactone (GVL), involves micro-organisms. I see this as by no means unreasonable, but it is still sound to compare the manufacture of gasoline from GVL with its production from biomass-derived synthesis gas.

An internet search on gasoline production from biomass returns numerous web sites and stories, one of which announces a ‘$35M pilot plant for converting woody biomass to gasoline · vehicle testing starting’.

This process is still under development but so is the GVL route. More importantly, the announcement above calls into question the assertion that using biomass-derived fuel in place of gasoline is precluded by the structures of the hydrocarbons in the former.

J C Jones CChem FRSC
Federation University Australia

Cleaning up the lab

Rebecca Trager’s report on malpractice in US forensic labs, ‘Hard questions after forensic failures’, is as a serious warning for the UK and other countries.

It is unlikely that we are immune from such scandals. In fact, Gene Morrison’s prosecution in Manchester eight years ago for deception and perverting the course of justice received little publicity in the scientific press at the time despite the magnitude of the crime. But it indicated that without proper checks and controls large-scale scientific fraud is possible.

This is why the justice system needs access to reliable forensic science laboratories and experts. It is equally important for forensic scientists to retain their scientific independence from those instructing them. The professional bodies have the difficult task and responsibility of monitoring the experts and upholding scientific integrity.

David Klatzow’s recent book Justice denied is subtitled The role of forensic science in the miscarriage of justice. It shows what a serious problem false and poor science is, not only in South Africa but also over many years in other countries where there has not been sufficient separation between law enforcement and forensic science. There is also the problem that defence access to prosecution data is often impeded and, at the same time, defence reports, often paid for from legal aid, are withheld for the justice system if they are unfavourable to the defence case. However, the situation has not been helped by the continuous erosion of legal aid allowances for defence experts.

Closing the UK’s Forensic Science Service led to greater fragmentation of forensic science in this country and the loss of many trained and skilful scientists. It has taken time to replace what has been lost and discarded but we now have the problem of ensuring that results being used in the judicial system, which affect so many people’s lives, are reliable, of the highest scientific and professional integrity and are equally accessible to both defence and prosecution.

R Denney CChem FRSC
Sevenoaks, UK

One way of reducing the litany of laboratory scams committed by chemists (forensic and others) is to license the practice of chemistry through a professional body operating under an act of parliament to set standards for membership and discipline members and whose main purpose is to protect the public.

Licensing chemists will not eliminate the problem but it would surely make chemists think twice about falsifying results if it is not only their job at risk, but their entire career. Learned societies such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, the American Chemical Society and the Canadian Society of Chemistry may appear in some ways to fulfil these functions but their main and worthy purpose is advancing the profession, not protecting the public.

In Canada, professions are licensed through the provincial governments but chemistry is not a licensed profession, except in the province of Quebec where chemists have been licensed for several years. However, things are rapidly changing in the rest of Canada. Several provinces have enacted or are actively considering legislation requiring that lab reports be signed off by chemists authorised under the respective provincial professional chemistry association and for chemists to sign off on environmental reports.

Strangely enough, resistance to licensing comes from some at the corporate level who see it as a threat to their long-established pattern of hiring low-paid labour (often with little or no background in chemistry) to run their laboratories and using quality systems as a guarantee of accuracy. In other words, who needs a competent chemist when the quality control system is working fine? The same argument, however, doesn’t hold when applied to doctors, accountants or other professions.

Licensing doesn’t guarantee integrity but it does help to maintain it and gives the public some reassurance that their interests are being protected.

G Duncan CChem
Ontario, Canada

Mercury misadventure

Tony Kelland’s letter ‘Survival story’ reminds us that dimethyl mercury has been handled successfully using conventional fume cupboards.

One wonders how its discoverer, George Buckton, managed it in 1858. A few years later, in 1865, two members of Edward Frankland’s research group repeated the synthesis and died within months.

George Buckton lived to the age of 87, dying in 1905. It may be significant, though, that he switched from chemistry to entomology the year that Frankland’s researchers died.

S Cotton CChem FRSC
University of Birmingham, UK

Baffling bonds?

In his opinion article, Santiago Alvarez develops a discussion on the nature of chemical bonding.

However, my problems come much earlier than that. After hundreds and hundreds of hours spent in chemistry lectures and delving into innumerable books, my most basic questions remain unanswered.

For example, what happens if two unbound hydrogen atoms collide? When is it apparent that their ‘spins’ are parallel or anti-parallel? If parallel, what happens then? Do they just bounce off each other?

I’m sure someone must have the answer, but it’s not me.

C Delmonte FRSC
Fakenham, Norfolk