November 2011



The head and chairman of the EPSRC faced robust questions from the House of Lords science and technology committee yesterday over the direction of the funding council’s roadmap for the physical sciences.

David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, and John Armitt, chair of the council, were both quizzed by top scientists from the House the Lords over the council’s ‘shaping capability’ strategy, the inclusion of ‘national importance’ as a criterion in assessing grants and whether the EPSRC will be a funder or sponsor of research in the future.

The council’s plan to require grant applicants to articulate their research’s importance to the country over a 10-50 year timeframe came in for particularly close scrutiny. John Krebs, a top zoologist at Oxford University, pointed to a page on the EPSRC website that stated that national importance was going to be given the same weighting as research excellence. Delpy responded that this was in error and that research excellence was the primary critereon for funding research with national importance coming into play in the case of a tie break. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, described efforts to try to predict research’s importance as an ‘entirely unrealistic requirement’. Delpy and Armitt defended national importance as something that the EPSRC has been requiring in grant applications in one form or another for some years. Armitt added that the council’s ‘transparency’ in spelling out its policy on the importance of research’s contribution to society had created a ‘rod for our own back’.

The council’s shaping capability strategy also came in for criticism. The strategy has proved controversial among some researchers, particularly in the chemistry community, for its emphasis on targeting funding to particular areas. Critics have claimed that the strategy makes a mockery of peer review and leaves EPSRC administrators in charge of the future direction of UK science. The committee asked whether the council’s shaping capability strategy and national importance criterion would strangle blue skies research. Delpy responded that peer review on grant panels would still spot new and exciting ideas as they come along.

Responding to questions about whether the EPSRC should be a funder or sponsor of research, Armitt said that the council’s role was to try to help the community set out a research agenda as it sees it. He added that in the past funding council’s had been seen as ‘fruit machines’ and that researchers kept going for another spin to see if they could hit the jackpot. He said that this could not continue and that the objective of setting an agenda for the research community was to get the ‘maximum bang for your buck’.

Patrick Walter

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A stone-cold mineral that played a vital wartime role. Lars Öhrström tells the story of cryolite in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

A stone-cold mineral that played a vital wartime role. Lars Öhrström tells the story of cryolite.
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BASF wants €115bn in sales by 2020 – Rasitrio approved in EU – And Facebook apologises for Merck mix ups (more…)

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What’s the ideal class size for a chemistry lesson? How about 4207.

It’s been confirmed by Guiness World Records that Israel has smashed the World Record (previously 562 people in Belgium) for the number of participants in a mass chemistry lesson with 4207. OK, that wasn’t all in one classroom, instead the Iraeli Science and Technology initiative coordinated the participants in 13 venues across Israel.

Everyone taking part built a chemical garden, something I remember doing with my Mum when I was a girl. And this seems an ideal time to revisit the periodic table of videos demonstration:


For the record breaking attempt, everyone had to perform the experiment at the same time. The IYC water experiment has been going on throughout the year but has had more participants overall. I can’t wait to find out what the final number is for that.

Laura Howes

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The ever prolific George Whitesides is at it again. Last year he made a soft pneumatic gripper that picked up eggs (and as I recall, anaesthetised mice), now he’s modified his work to make what someone in the office described as a ‘crawling snot robot.’ Check out its moves:

The undulating crawling robot is made in the same way, and of the same materials, as the grippy robot. The main body of the robot was made out of a commercially available silicone called Ecoflex, with small chambers in it that expand when filled with air. The base of the robot is made from slightly less flexible poly(dimethyl) siloxane and this means the robot always bends in the same way. The robot can move each of its legs independently, allowing it to move in different ways over different terrain. It can even do the limbo under a bar 2cm above the ground (uninflated the robot is only 0.9cm thick). But although the robot can limbo, it is of course susceptible to punctures and can’t carry heavy loads. That’s where you chemists come in. Tucked away at the end of the paper is a challenge. ‘Incorporation of other classes of materials and structures will extend their [the robots’] capabilities. Highly extensible materials, and structures that combine high yield stresses, Young’s moduli, and toughness would make possible the application of high-force (using high pressures), make these robots more resistant to puncture, and also enable them to perform tasks requiring application of higher forces than is possible with these siloxane elastomer-based systems.’

If you fancy investigating more or just seeing the robot in more detail the work is published in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1116564108).

Laura


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27 November 2011: Have something to say about an article you’ve read on Chemistry World this week? Leave your comments below…

(more…)

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Explosion in China kills 14 – Gilead to buy Pharmasset for $11bn – And Merck to pay $950m in Vioxx case (more…)

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Curiosity is the most advanced Mars rover ever

Curiosity, the most advanced rover ever to be sent to Mars, is set to launch this Saturday, 26 November at 15:02 GMT (10:02 US Eastern standard time).

The rover is packed to the gills with prospecting equipment, including a laser that can vaporise rock samples to analyse their chemistry using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS). To read more about the instruments on board and the chemistry they are hoping to uncover, see our feature article from November.

The rocket carrying the rover will take around 8 months to get to Mars, arriving on 5 August 2012. At that point, it needs to descend to the planet surface. The equipment Nasa has designed to accomplish this is quite remarkable, and you can hear John Grotzinger from Nasa explaining all about it on the November edition of the Chemistry World podcast.

Let’s hope Curiosity lasts somewhere near as long as its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, which were designed to run for 3 months and ended up trundling over the surface for over 6 years (in between a few minor mishaps and breakdowns).

Phillip Broadwith


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201106723_ftp-2_410

Snowmen turn to snowballs © Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.

Like me, you’ve no doubt put this year’s hottest nanogadget – the nanocar – at the top of your Christmas list. But have you given any thought to how exactly you expect Santa to wrap it up? I didn’t think so. Luckily, someone else has.

Seung-Man Yang at KAIST in South Korea has been folding up polymer bilayers to make microcapsules that might just do the job (along with various other, much more practical jobs). (more…)

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Meet the molecule responsible for every move we make in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast. Hayley Birch takes the tortuous path via frog hearts, cats, rats and horse spleens to uncover the crucial neurotransmitter once regarded as a mere ‘synthetic curiosity’.

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