The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is calling for the instigation of a five-point plan to transform the speed of scientific discovery.
The society’s demand for a national strategy forms part of a newly published white paper, Digital Futures, outlining the ways in which technology could exponentially accelerate responses to future global emergencies.
Embracing digital techniques could, asserts the RSC, make scientific breakthroughs up to a thousand times faster.
“Digital technologies enable chemical science researchers to see further and go faster, working seamlessly across disciplinary and international boundaries,” said the RSC’s head of research and innovation, Deirdre Black.
“This kind of step-change in the number of experiments we can do means we can be more ambitious in the challenges we take on” – Professor Andy Cooper, University of Liverpool
Research tasks that sometimes take months could be completed in minutes, runs the argument, with advances in AI, robotics, data analysis, modelling and simulation identifying patterns and potential solutions with previously inconceivable speed.
Digital Futures is a follow-up to the RSC’s 2019 Science Horizon’s report, which asked more than 700 academic researchers worldwide to offer their thoughts on key trends and emerging research areas in chemistry.
The report outlined key areas of technical opportunity, including many techniques already being deployed to fight COVID-19:
- Data – Bringing together information from a range of sources to enable improved, quicker, larger-scale work
- Modelling, simulations, AI – Crucial across the board, from tracking the spread of disease to designing or discovering new molecules, to producing materials for everything from medicines to batteries
- Sensing/diagnostics – Detecting disease, understanding how medicine interacts with the human body, or how pollutants affect the environment
- Robotics/automation – Helps perform experiments inordinately more quickly than conventional methods, and facilitates remote science
“At the moment there is an unprecedented national and global effort to understand, prevent and treat COVID-19,” said Black.
“It is important we don’t lose the momentum gained by the increasing realisation of the transformative power of data and digital technologies deployed in science R&D. That requires strategic and targeted investment, which is why we are calling for a national strategy to ensure maximum benefit for society.
“This will drive growth and prosperity by attracting inward investment and the best minds in the world, which is already moving to take advantage of these cutting-edge techniques.”
The five-point plan:
- Secure targeted investment in skills, training and infrastructure to fast-track digital scientific discovery and innovation
- Enhance international collaboration, across all scientific disciplines, between industry and academia
- Attract the best digital talent into scientific research and offer development opportunities for people already working in the field
- Uphold data standards and ethical international data sharing
- Draft recommendations for integration of digital skills in the learning of chemistry across all levels of education
Professor Tom Welton, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, believes the UK can greatly boost both economic growth and innovation by sharpening focus on its work in the digital, life and physical science sectors.
“Bringing this all together in a national strategy that propels science to the next level will enable the country to lead the world in designing and making next-generation medicines, batteries and materials that can anticipate and mitigate global crises in the future,” he said.
The kind of work favoured by Welton is currently being carried out by the University of Liverpool’s Cooper Group, which has developed a robot to massively accelerate the speed of discovery.
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Once given a hypothesis, the robot undertakes the necessary experiments to prove or disprove the theory, autonomously making its own decisions along the way. This has proved invaluable during the pandemic, with scientists able to work remotely and not have social distancing restrictions impact their work.
The invention has already been given the nod of approval by the commercial sector, with Unilever set to use the robot for product innovation.
“Systems can work nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said group leader, Professor Andy Cooper.
“This kind of step-change in the number of experiments we can do means we can afford to tackle bigger questions, be more ambitious in the challenges we take on.”
Meanwhile, over in California, a group from the UK has used the internet to enlist thousands of fellow researchers in the battle against COVID-19.
PostEra’s non-profit Moonshot project received over 3,500 suggestions from 400 contributors when they asked for help to identify molecules that could assist in overcoming the virus.
Within days, AI software had distilled the replies into a list of 250 compounds, along with recipes for their synthesis. The first 100 are currently being evaluated at the University of Oxford.