An Assessment of the Chemistry-Biology Interface

Introduction

The Society of Chemistry commissioned this project in order to have a better understanding of the role of chemistry in biological research today1. The overall aim was to provide evidence to underpin recommendations to academic and other research institutions and to funding bodies regarding how best to foster high-quality research across the chemistry-biology interface and indeed, across other disciplinary interfaces.

The project comprised:

  • interviews with the BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and the Wellcome Trust
  • a review of the existing literature on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and research at the chemistry-biology interface;
  • an Internet survey of 446 scientists working at the chemistry-biology interface (May/June 2007); and
  • six follow-up case studies with survey respondents (27 researchers July/August 2007).

The review of previous studies made it clear that success and improvements in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work require the co-ordination of all those involved.  The literature implies that research conducted across traditional disciplines may require significant changes to traditional academic ways of working, university structures, research funding, and the research (and researcher) assessment mechanisms.

Importance of chemistry-biology interface research

A fairly high level of knowledge transfer was reported.  Over a third (35%) of respondents said that their work had led to a patent, 12% that it had led to the establishment of a new company, 7% that they had developed new therapy(ies) and 7% that they had developed new medicine(s).

Infrastructure and Environment

Working practices

The driving force behind working practices was the nature of the work being done and the contribution required from each discipline.  Key to successful collaboration seems to be a shared vision for the work around a specific problem and an acknowledgment that experts in both disciplines have more than subject knowledge and techniques to offer.

The most common working relationship involves cross-departmental collaboration within an institution.  Physical proximity and personal interaction facilitate collaboration and are important to the success of the collaboration but common goals and good personal relationships can overcome distance and enable collaboration between institutions.

Institutional Support

he main actions institutions had taken to facilitate interdisciplinary research were to bring people together by convening seminars and similar activities and establishing interdisciplinary centers.  Mechanisms reported to support multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research included:

  • facilitating physical proximity and promoting interaction at a personal and departmental level (although the infrastructure is important, it is not pre-eminent in facilitating effective collaboration);
  • interdisciplinary centers (including physical buildings and virtual centers);
  • regular inter-departmental seminars;
  • joint undergraduate course provision;
  • cross-departmental PhDs;
  • joint faculty appointments; and
  • physically adjacent chemistry and biological sciences laboratories.

Respondents identified a number of barriers to research at the chemistry-biology interface:

  • institutional structures that are designed to maximize RAE scores;
  • a lack of coordination between departments;
  • competition between departments for funding and other resources; and
  • a lack of suitable laboratory space.

Research Funding

Half of the respondents (50%) agreed or agreed strongly that ‘The interface of chemistry-biology is not understood by funders’ and a fifth disagreed.  Those based in chemistry departments were more likely to agree than those based on biological science departments (61% compared to 42%).  These findings suggest that there is a significant communications gap between researchers and the Research Councils.

Only two of the 446 respondents had been funded solely by industry in the last three years, although 25 (6%) reported that industry was their main funder.  Nearly a fifth (18%) had not received any funding from BBSRC, EPSRC or MRC and for 37% of the sample, none of these Research Councils were their main source of funding.  This 37% tended to be funded by the Wellcome Trust, industry, the EU and Cancer Research UK.

Over half (57%) agreed that ‘It is difficult to get funding in the UK because grant reviewers do not have the right expertise’.  Those based in chemistry departments were more likely to agree strongly with this than those in biological science departments (34% versus to 17%).

The case study discussions found that in research at the chemistry-biology interface often the chemistry is not ‘novel’ or cutting edge, even though the findings from the research would be new.  This means that reviewers with a chemistry background may not see the proposed work as worthy of funding, although the biological questions may be important.

Current Health of Chemistry-Biology Interface

Research

UK researchers are working on a wide variety of topics at the chemistry-biology interface.

Chemistry and progress in medical research

Some 82% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘Medical research is dependent on chemistry to move forward in understanding basic biological systems’.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, those based in chemistry departments were more likely to agree than those based in biological science departments (87% compared to 77%) and were more likely to agree strongly (49% compared to 28%).

The state of research at the interface

The most commonly cited area of strength in research at the chemistry-biology interface, stated by 26% of all respondents was structural biology/enzyme function/structure-function/protein folding.  The Whitesides report also identified protein chemistry as an area of strength.  The second most commonly cited area was medicinal chemistry which included medicinal chemistry, drug discovery, drug delivery, drug design and informatics and chemical genetics.

The current hot topics in chemistry-biology research were thought to be synthetic chemistry and protein chemistry.

Publication

Some of the case study researchers said that a lot of journals are interested in their work.  Others felt that publishing interface research was more difficult than getting single discipline research accepted.  These differing views may be a result of the research fields.  However, it was said that papers covering very new topics can be difficult to place because it is not clear where to submit them.

The future of research at the interface

A sizable minority (42%) said that they did not think that current undergraduates would be equipped to do research at the chemistry-biology interface.  Those in chemistry departments were much more optimistic about this than those in other departments.  There was concern that recruitment at post-doctoral level for researchers at the chemistry-biology interface is very difficult in the UK.   Getting PhD students for the field was also thought to be difficult but less difficult then finding post-doctoral researchers.

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1 BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC and the Wellcome Trust also contributed funding.

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