War… what is it good for?


I was searched by the police again this morning. Not that this happens all the time, but I’ve been searched at Kings Cross station three times over the last two years, as part of some recently introduced anti-terrorism scheme. I don’t really mind, although given that there are 77.5 million passengers passing through Kings Cross every year, I can’t help but feel I’m bucking the statistical average (for more mind-boggling London Transport facts, click here)

This got me thinking about how the situation in the Middle East ripples out to affect everyone, and in particular, how it affects chemists. For example, the Department of Homeland Security in the USA recently announced a list of 300 chemicals that require regulation to deter terrorism. The list includes several commonly used chemicals, such as ammonia and chlorine. US universities and other research sites will now be required to make inventories of these chemicals if they have more than the DHS-approved quantities. This may be something of a logistical nightmare, but it could have been worse – acetone was originally proposed to be on the list. How many chemistry departments are there that don’t use acetone?

Perhaps more worrying is the effect of the war on funding. Several US academics that I’ve spoken to have said that government funding for research has been squeezed, because money is being diverted in other directions. But then again, this might depend on the area you work in; biosensors for detecting toxins such as ricin are a hot topic nowadays, with interest not just from government funding bodies, but also from business. But as David Russell (a UK chemist who works in this area) pointed out in a recent interview in Chemistry World, it’s a shame that more people aren’t interested in biosensors for cholera. Subscribers to Science might be interested in reading the following open letter to the NIH on the theme of funding for security-related research, and the NIH’s response.

And then there are more personal cases, such as the recent example in the UK where a man labelled as a potential terrorist has been prevented from taking basic-level chemistry classes (Nature subscribers can read our news report about this here.)

So has the war against terror affected your working life? Has security at chemistry departments increased in recent years? Or are you seeing any trends in areas of research that attract funding? I’d be interested to know.


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)

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