Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Keeping Up With The Literature.

In the latest Chemistry World, Derek Lowe stated that keeping up with the literature is impossible, and he argued for filtering and prioritizing. I agree with his first statement, but I do not think his second option, while it is necessary right now, is optimal. That leaves open the question, what can be done about it? I think this is important, because the major chemical societies around the world are the only organizations that could conceivably help, and surely this should be of prime importance to them. So, what are the problems?
Where to put the information is not a problem because we now seem to have almost unlimited digital storage capacity. Similarly, organizing it is not a problem provided the information is correctly input, in an appropriate format with proper tags. So far, easy! Paying for it? This is more tricky, but it should not necessarily be too costly in terms of cash.
The most obvious problem is manpower, but this can also be overcome if all chemists play their part. For example, consider chemical data. The chemist writes a paper, but it would take little extra effort to put the data into some pre-agreed format for entry into the appropriate data base. Some of this is already done with "Supplementary information", but that tends to be attached to papers, which means someone wishing to find the information has to subscribe to the journal. Is there any good reason why data like melting points and spectra cannot be provided free? As an aside, this sort of suggestion would be greatly helped if we could all agree on the formatting requirements, and what tags would be required.
This does not solve everything, because there are a lot of other problems too, such as "how to make something". One thing that has always struck me is the enormous wastage of effort in things like biofuels, where very similar work tended to be repeated every crisis. Yes, I know, intellectual property rights tend to get in the way, but surely we can get around this. As an example of this problem, I recall when I was involved in a joint venture with the old ICI empire. For one of the potential products to make, I suggested a polyamide based on a particular diamine that we could, according to me, make. ICINZ took this up, sent it off to the UK, where it was obviously viewed with something approaching indifference, but they let it out to a University for them to devise a way to make said polyamide. After a year, we got back the report, they could not make the diamine, and in any case, my suggested polymer would be useless. I suggested that they rethink that last thought, and got a rude blast back, "What did I know anyway?" So, I gave them the polymer's properties. "How did I know that?" they asked. "Simple," I replied, and showed them the data in an ICI patent, at which point I asked them whether they had simply fabricated the whole thing, or had they really made this diamine? There was one of those embarrassed silences! The institution could not even remember its own work!
In principle, how to make something is clearly placed in scientific papers, but again, the problem is, how to find the data, bearing in mind no institute can afford more than a fraction of the available journals. Even worse is the problem of finding something related. "How do you get from one functional group to another in this sort of molecule with these other groups that may interfere?" is a very common problem that in principle could be solved by computer searching, but we need an agreed format for the data, and an agreement that every chemist will do their part to place what they believe to be the best examples of their own synthetic work in it. Could we get that cooperation? Will the learned societies help?
Posted by Ian Miller on Sep 16, 2013 8:07 PM Europe/London

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