National strategy for digital scientific discovery urgently required to tackle global crises

Source: press release, 6 July 2020

The University of Liverpool’s Cooper Group has developed one of the world’s most advanced automated robot chemists, able to perform hundreds of experiments in a single day
The University of Liverpool’s Cooper Group has developed one of the world’s most advanced automated robot chemists, able to perform hundreds of experiments in a single day (photo: University of Liverpool)

The Royal Society of Chemistry says that digital techniques that could make scientific discovery up to a thousand times faster must be urgently embraced in a new post-COVID national research strategy.

Recent advances in AI, robotics, data analysis, modelling and simulation have allowed scientists to augment their research to advance discovery more quickly, with many of these techniques being exploited to accelerate research into coronavirus treatments, reducing the time it takes to do some tasks in labs from weeks or months to just hours and identifying patterns and possibilities that humans alone would not see.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has published its Digital Futures report on how the new wave of technologies can turbocharge research speeds to respond to future global challenges and crises – with chemists, biologists, data scientists, public health and environment experts, clinicians, regulators, industry, governments, funders, and philanthropists all part of the solution.

Deirdre Black, Head of Research and Innovation at the Royal Society of Chemistry, says: “The future of chemistry is resilient, digitally enhanced, multidisciplinary and globally connected. Digital technologies enable chemical science researchers to see further and go faster, working seamlessly across disciplinary and international boundaries. At the moment there is an unprecedented national and global effort to understand, prevent and treat COVID-19. 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.”

“Having tools such as these at our disposal heralds in a new era of discovery, and one which promises to deliver bigger and more significant improvements to the world we live in. More than ever and in light of COVID-19, we need a national strategy that positions the UK at the forefront of global science to solve global challenges. 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,” Black continues.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s five-point plan is to:

  • Secure targeted investment in skills, training and infrastructure to fast-track digital scientific discovery and innovation.
  • Enhance international collaboration – across all scientific disciplines –spanning industry and academia.
  • Attract top digital talent into scientific research and provide development opportunities and lifelong learning for people already working in science.
  • Support and enable data standards and ethical international data sharing.
  • Develop recommendations for integration of digital skills in chemistry learning in school, further and higher education.

Professor Tom Welton, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, says, “The UK can draw on its strengths in the digital, life and physical sciences spheres to turbocharge research, innovation and growth in all three areas. 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 – leading to a more sustainable and resilient world.”

“The battle against COVID-19 is in its early stages, but innovators have embraced the opportunity to augment their research capabilities by using emerging techniques in the digital space, demonstrating the enormous potential this offers by enabling research to advance orders of magnitude faster than has been previously possible,” adds Welton.

The Digital Futures white paper is a follow-up to RSC’s Science Horizon’s report in 2019. The project engaged over 700 academic researchers globally to seek views on key trends and emerging research areas in chemistry.

Data and digital technology emerged as one of the main themes. RSC set up strategic advisory forum consisting of 14 experts from academia and business. The outputs of the forum’s discussions were then written up by RSC staff into the white paper now being published.

The report highlighted several key areas of technical opportunity, with several techniques already being deployed in the COVID-19 response:

  • Data – Bringing together and sharing data from different sources to enable better, faster, bigger science.
  • Modelling, simulations, AI – Crucial in everything from tracking spread of disease or pollutants, designing/discovering new molecules and materials for everything from medicines to batteries.
  • Sensing/diagnostics – Detecting disease, understanding how medicine interacts with the human body, how pollutants interact with the environment.
  • Robotics/automation – Perform experiments orders of magnitude faster than conventional methods and eventually facilitates remote science.

One example of robotics and automation in the lab comes from the University of Liverpool’s Cooper Group, which has developed a robot that can dramatically accelerate discovery via physical experimentation.

Once the hypothesis has been programmed into the robot, it will work completely autonomously to carry out the necessary experiments, making decisions and measurements along the way to prove or disprove the theory.

Not only will this accelerate innovation speed, but it will mean scientists can continue to work remotely without social distancing restrictions impacting on their work. The efficacy of the robot has already been validated, with Unilever set to use the robot to work on product innovation, something that’s especially useful during COVID lockdown.

Describing the impact a scientist using his technology could make, group leader Professor Andy Cooper says, “Those systems can work nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With automation, we can do some materials synthesis experiments a thousand times faster than an individual person can. This kind of step-change in the number of experiments we can do means we can afford to tackle bigger questions. We can be more ambitious in the challenges we take on rather than incrementally exploring around what we already know.”

“I see these systems being used as tools by scientists. The biggest opportunities are to find reactions, materials and technologies that we simply wouldn’t find without using these methods. We also see mobile robotic chemists that can be operated remotely as way to maintain R&D momentum in a situation where some degree of social distancing is needed,” explains Cooper.

Meanwhile, PostEra, a group of researchers from the UK now working in Santa Clara, USA used the internet to enlist the help of thousands of researchers across the globe when asking for assistance to identify new molecules that could help tackle COVID-19. Their non-profit “Moonshot” project asked researchers working from home to suggest how early insights into the composition of the virus could be used to devise a treatment.

Within a few days, they had received more than 3,500 suggestions from 400 contributors. They then used their own AI software to work out which compounds would be easiest make, most likely to work, and least likely to be toxic. This produced an initial list of 250 compounds, along with recipes for their synthesis.

By comparison, researchers using traditional techniques identified 66 possible options in two months. The first 100 compounds identified by PostEra and its network are now being tested at the University of Oxford.

The Digital Futures report can be found at: