Collaborative Organic Synthesis (a subversive proposal)

Every months we get several new chemistry blogs – I don’t have time to do more than glance at them but I was struck by a newcomer, TotallyRetrosynthetic. (TotallyFoo is a metasyntactic linguistic style sparked off by TotallySynthetic.) Retrosynthesis is the process of working out how to make a chemical compound by starting at the target and working backwards – if you want to climb a mountain start at the top and descend and then retrace your steps. Of course for chemistry this is done on paper. (it ought to be done in silico as well, but organic chemists fear they will lose virility by using computers to help them).
TR suggests a subversive proposal – they chemists should collaborate and distribute the work:

Join the project to help the cause

I would like to extend the suggestion made to European Chemist to become a member of this project (in the comments section of Daphnicyclidins post here) to others as well who are willing to contribute to the cause of this project. It need not be Daphnicyclidins. It could be your dream proposal that you had come up at some point of your career which never saw the light. All you have to do is join this project as a member, create a new page where you explain briefly about the importance of your “myresearchproposal” and post it there. I will make a post on it on this blog. Peers would review it, comments would flow, and the idea would refine and evolve further.
Then person ‘A’ from Australia could try the step 1 of your proposal since he has the required expertise and the materials, and post his experimental results here. Then ‘B’ from Brazil can pitch in and evaluate the feasibility of key transform since he has the closely related model compounds in his lab, and post his results here. Then person ‘C’ from China could carry some computational studies for the observations of the ‘B’ or the proposed out come of step 10 and list his results and inferences. Biochemist ‘D’ can collaborate for molecules that are made and screen them against his targets. Some funding agency ‘X’ could sponsor projects that are worth of pursuing. It could be any proposal, as long as it is yours):
The flow of the materials, ideas, expertise and resources in the fashion described above would render your dream project become reality that you never thought of, be it because of your limited resources or lack of opportunities. I agree that it might take time and efforts, but isn’t it what anyhow some project would take even in a traditional setup; and never see the light at all, at times, because it met a dead end at some final stages since it was done in the closed doors, and never tapped the expertise of other scientists out there and thus wasted the taxpayers’ money. Imagine, the same project being carried out else where in the world or in the immediate next door with the taxpayers’ money again, because it was not done in an open fashion. I could be exaggerating a bit, but I want you to give a serious thought to it.
I am sure that the regular members of Chemical Blogosphere know the ‘potential’ that is referred to. Let that proposal of yours, and your scientific talent be not wasted!
Alternatively, some PI could come forward to try your proposal with his resources in a traditional fashion. He is welcome to do so upon mutual agreements.
The objectives and advantages could go on and on ……….
So, I welcome you to join me if you are willing to become the part of this project and take it forward. You never know your ideas might add something that I did not think of as far as the project is concerned. So pull out that proposal you drafted that has been sitting under the heap of papers, and refine it a bit with your added expertise, and post it to MyResearchProposals. I would also suggest those of you who wants to be A, B, C, D, and X also join the team, and you are important here. If you just want to be a mere knowledgeable peer you are most welcome to be a member so that you can review the things and leave your impact.
Click here to see the file to check what is it that we have been talking about.
I would suggest trusting in the scientific attitude of the scientists . After all, we are talking about the progress of science. As you all know, this project is still in its incipient stage – things will be defined, and actions will be planned as we progress.
(Caution: You be the judge for your proposal or idea, and decide if you want to be part of the things here, and act accordingly.)

This is a wonderful vision. It is, of course, what we try to arrange in Open Source where different software modules are offered and different people agree to accept them. It’s hard, often fails, but works very well in many cases.
Could it work in chemistry? Yes, if chemistry is seen as a collaborative science where there is a common goal for the benefit of humankind. Unfortunately we have a little way to go. Currently synthetic organic chemistry is often a competitive sport rather than a distributed science. The goal is to make things that are more impressive than your competitors, rather than make things that are useful in themselves. It’s rather like the plumage wars that male birds engage in. And graduate students are often seen as wage slaves or cannon fodder. A regular reading of the chemical blogosphere reveals that the non-Open process results in over-hyped yields (i.e. the reported success of experiements), badly presented supporting data, etc. While these are relatively infrequent (I hope) the blogosphere from those who actually do the work are sufficiently concerned that it is a common topic.  In way of contrast who ever heard of an Open Source programmer who manufactured code?
I’m not suggesting that chemistry should go Open and start collaborating. It won’t happen. But why don’t we pursue the idea of Open Chemical Synthesis directed against real targets of benefit to humankind. The idea of international collaboration should be feasible – many years ago the EC (I think) funded the sequencing of the yeast chromosome by farming out each chromosome to each of 17 nations. This could be done in Open Medicinal Chemistry. So I hope TR gets some critical mass of interest and maybe finds a funder who wants to do science rather than sport.

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