Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What is the historical funding level for organic synthesis?

Also in this week's C&EN, a really great article by Tien Nguyen covering the 2018 National Organic Symposium, held in Davis, CA. There are some really great anecdotes in the article (including Wender's joke about deprotection, which is a classic (I feel)), but I thought this was worth highlighting: 
Prompted by these remarks, Robert Lees, a program manager at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences who oversees synthetic organic chemistry grants, commented that several of the speakers so far felt the need to defend the field of organic chemistry and asked, “Where is this feeling that you’re under attack coming from?” 
Lees wondered if the feeling of threat stems from worries about funding for organic research. From his perspective at NIGMS, he said that synthesis isn’t facing any more stress than other scientific disciplines and that he hopes that chemistry students aren’t going to other areas out of fear of a lack of funding opportunities. 
Kozlowski responded by reiterating her sentiments about the need for organic research and stressed to the student attendees, “I think there’s miles of open space.” 
Although Baran wasn’t present for the exchange, he told C&EN that he disagrees with Lees and emphasized that there aren’t nearly as many institutions funding pure synthesis as there are institutions funding fields like biology.
This is not the only time that Professor Baran has expressed sentiments that chemistry is disproportionately underfunded (my words, not his) compared to other fields. Here, you have a subject matter expert (Robert Lees) who disagrees with him.

I guess that we need a historical comparison of both NIH and NSF funding for basic molecular biology compared to synthetic organic chemistry in order to falsify the Baran hypothesis - I wonder if it is even possible to put this data together?  


  1. I guess you could call me a "chemical biologist." I'm a biochemist/molecular biologist with a lot of training in organic synthesis. My husband is an organic chemist. So here is my two cents on the differences:

    To me, it's hard to make a fair comparison, because the reagent and instrument costs in molecular biology tend to be so much higher than organic chemistry. For organic chemistry, you need chemicals, solvents, glassware, a solvent drying system, inert gas, maybe an HPLC, and then everything else is basically covered by facilities (NMR, LC/MS, mass spec when you publish, small molecule crystallography). You are also rarely detecting tiny amounts of chemicals in extremely complex mixtures (like, say, metabolomics, or proteomics) meaning that ultra high resolution analytical equipment is less of a thing. I suppose there are some groups doing reaction discovery who might benefit from these advances in analytical chemistry, but it's not your typical synthetic organic group who goes in that direction. There is also more automation slowly creeping into organic chemistry (robots for screening and the like) which has long been there in biology, but again, those are not your typical academic organic groups. A biology group is more likely to need more sophisticated instrumentation, but also the costs of restriction enzymes, kits, and sequencing are higher. And of course any time you move into animal models like mice, the costs get much, much higher.

    On top of that, because every pre-med and biology student needs to take gen chem and organic chem, there are many more TA support opportunities for graduate programs in chemistry. Of course, it is not ideal for a student to TA for their entire PhD, but at some of the large publics, it can be used as a crutch to support larger PhD programs/groups than could be supported otherwise. There is simply not a need for so many TAs in the biological sciences. This means that PIs in the biological sciences are much more wary of having larger groups than they can support through grant dollars. This is obviously not the case for Phil Baran, but in general something chemistry faculty have to think about less.

    I would also say at the graduate student/postdoc level, the exit options into industry are much more obvious for chemists than biologists, and the typical PhD length and postdoc lengths are shorter. This means that especially at the postdoc level, PIs often have to plan that any postdoc they might accept will be there 3-6 years, whereas in chemistry it is typically 3 years tops. This also puts another stress on PIs to fund personnel. Postdocs with more experience NIH payscale salaries are then higher, and often because postdocs are so long, people start having families which means the PI might need to pay for higher fringe benefit costs.

    It seems to me that all of science is facing a crunch right now, and everyone always thinks the grass is always greener.

  2. When I was in grad school in the early 2000's, the most super-competitive Type A personality grad students joined organic synthesis groups. Now that the pharma industry has collapsed, is some other subdiscipline now attracting this type?

    1. As someone who finished grad school a couple years ago, this still seems to be the case for organic synthesis groups. I've never been sure why, exactly - I think something about the long hours and perceived "I work so hard" cache that comes along with that attracts that type - but it's an interesting mismatch now, since as you said it has become extraordinarily difficult to get a job directly out of grad school with solely that training (that is, if you're not from one of the top groups at an Ivy or public equivalent, or you don't work on photoredox).

      What I've seen is that this pushes people who are trained in purely organic synthesis out into other subdisciplines for their postdocs, and/or leads their advisors to broaden their project scopes - I knew one PI in grad school decided to start doing some polymer chemistry, pretty much for the sole reason that it's (perceived to be) easier to get funding in that discipline.

    2. Still attracting this type. The strangest thing to me is that a lot of the obsession with being hardcore, type A, macho, and working with your hands seems to lead to a lack of interest in figuring out ways to get results working smarter rather than harder. I find biologists and especially engineers are interested in figuring out how to automate and figuring out how to draw trends between sets of data by parameterization (for example, integrating programming into data analysis). From what I understand, there is plenty of this in industry, especially in process chemistry.

      It seems to me that there is a lot of room in methodology particularly for more optimized and streamlined screening, which most organic grad students, postdocs, and PIs seem to think can be overcome by working a million hours and setting up a million conditions by hand.

    3. Chemical biologist turned analytical scientist working in industry here: my limited experience and observation has been that folks who make things often times are viewed as "more valuable / important" (the "God" mentality) - why, because, the perception is that having a tangible product (a complex natural product after 40+ steps marathon synthesis) is way easier to quantify than "run 80 different assays to support the synthesis of said complex natural product" - what's the glory in that? Frequently the process / med chem folks are ones ended up as inventors on patents, as it is easier to write specific claims around a tangible product than the blanket statement of "a bunch of assay work" (unless the patent is about a specific assay).
      Hence, I feel, that people who are stereotypical Type A, ultra competitive, driven, etc., tend to be drawn to total synthesis / methodology (the perceived "hardcore" chemistry sub-disciplines) as it would seem that the "important" roles in industry lie within traditional syn. org. functions.

    4. At my small PUI undergrad, I passed O-chem without trying very hard because most of my competitors were bio majors or pre-meds (a good percentage of whom didn't pass). We all thought P-chem was the hardest area because the grading curve was against other chem majors. I was shocked to discover that organic was considered the hardest area when I got to grad school.

    5. Just a nit to pick with anon 12:29: US patent law states "the threshold question in determining inventorship is who conceived the invention. Unless a person contributes to the conception of the invention, he is not an inventor". Picking an established biological target to treat disease X is not inventorship, nor is running experiments in support of a project, i.e. "a bunch of assay work". As you point out, if an assay is developed to support a project, that constitutes inventorship. But merely performing experiments in support of a project does not qualify.

  3. The magnitude of the "funding crunch" really depends on one's perspective. Assistant profs at R1's are now on the hook to bring in a LOT of grant money before tenure, largely based on escalating startup packages. Expectations of $750k to $1M in external funding are now relatively commonplace. This means that a PI doing basic chemical research would need to bring in 2-3 grants of about $300-$350k each within 4-5 years to receive tenure. From this perspective, every rejected grant application appears to be the result of the "funding crunch". On the other hand, a PI at a more modest institution receiving $250k in startup might be expected to bring in at least $250-300k in external funding within 5 years. Landing one federal grant is still no trivial feat, but it is certainly less daunting than landing three.

    We're a hypocritical bunch when it comes to funding; we complain about tight funding and stiff competition, yet all of us want the biggest startups, shiniest instruments, and newest lab spaces. We're simply seeing the natural evolution of the "arms race" in academic science.

  4. Well they damn sure better fix this or we're not going to have enough organic chemists to meet the demand.

    1. The demand? The days of DuPont hiring one hundred new organic Ph.D's every year is long gone and not coming back. Have you seen the number of industrial research labs being bulldozed?


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