In Our View: The Grand Challenge
Twelve of this year’s Power Listers answer one crucial question: what is the biggest challenge facing analytical science in 2023 – and beyond?
| 7 min read | Discussion
Scott McLuckey: There is a lack of recognition of measurement science at the molecular level as an intellectual pursuit in its own right. Progress in all of the molecular sciences obviously requires measurements, but the prevailing view among both scientists (outside of analytical chemistry) and funding agencies is that the measurement already serves the need.
Though many scientists will agree that many of our greatest discoveries and developments were made without a motivation to solve the measurement problems to which they are now applied, there is still a push to stick with a universally understood phrase: “necessity is the mother of invention.” The laser was not developed with either femtosecond spectroscopy or reading bar codes in grocery checkouts in mind. Mass spectrometry was not developed to identify post-translational modifications of proteins. Magnetic resonance was not developed to locate tumors. Simply by looking at the subjects awarded with Nobel Prizes, we can see examples directly related to measurement science that emerged from origins quite distant from their ultimate impact.
Gary Hieftje: Excessive concentration on applications and chasing the most recent “hot” problem instead of emphasizing fundamental research and the development of novel instruments and methods. The latter will build the field and break ground for the future.
Albert J.R. Heck: The administrative burden and social-political agendas of today often interfere – preventing scientists from focusing on science. We need to foster fundamental research, ensuring that scientific talent can focus on their craft to improve the world for future generations to come.
Aebersold Rudolf: I see two big challenges facing the field right now. First, science policy and the ensuing trends in science funding have shifted from the investigation of fundamental principles towards generating rapid and tangible benefits for society. This is readily apparent in the life sciences, where large sums of research funding are allocated to translational research and where funding for developing new analytical methods or for studying fundamental principles of living systems across the incredible breadth of species is hard to come by. The consequence is the starvation of the innovation engine that eventually fuels translation.
The second challenge is the use of the flood of data generated by many analytical techniques to generate new knowledge. In the life sciences, the quality, breadth and volume of data that can be generated from minute amounts of sample is astounding. To create new knowledge from the data, computational tools have to be developed to explore the full richness of the data and new paradigms are required to explain the results. As an example, statistical associations are frequently used to detect connections within large datasets. New conceptual and computational approaches will be required to detect causal relationships between associated events.
Deirdre Cabooter: We need to ensure that students are sufficiently trained in the fundamentals, so they can adequately troubleshoot and truly understand what they are doing and for what reason. I am a little worried about some evolutions taking place in our education system at the moment, where there seems to be an increasing interest in developing soft skills at the cost of the basics. Of course, soft skills are important as well, but I think these can more easily be developed at a later stage when you’re already active in a professional environment. It becomes much harder to catch up on the basics at later stages.
Chuck Lucy: High costs of purchasing and maintaining instruments is limiting students’ hands-on experience. Miniature and portable instruments are helping with affordability, but it’s an enduring challenge. Undergraduate research and industrial internships offer students the chance to play with instruments, gain confidence, and discover their passions. It’s up to us to open up our labs to our students.
Thomas J. Wenzel: From an educational perspective, it is incredibly challenging to find the time and resources to work with faculty members to create an active learning environment across all subjects. The effectiveness of active learning is critically dependent on the qualities of the instructor, but, unfortunately, there are many instructors that have very little experience in active learning. Beginners often need time and feedback from skilled practitioners to refine their effectiveness.
Jeremy Nicholson: For me, it’s irreproducibility in science. Irreproducibility undermines scientific integrity by casting doubts on the accuracy and validity of research. It wastes resources as researchers invest time and funding into efforts that cannot be built upon or validated. This challenge has far-reaching implications for policy decisions, medical treatments, and technological advancements. Publication bias arises when only positive results are published, skewing the scientific knowledge base and impeding progress.
Moreover, replication crises in biomedical research raise concerns about the robustness of scientific findings. A lot of modern biomedical science is multidisciplinary and at the top end requires the integration of physical, mathematical, and biological sciences – this is a challenge to referees and journal editors meaning that there is increased effort required to check if analyses are accurate or even appropriate. As an associate editor of a major journal, I see manuscripts making impossible claims based on statistically underpowered studies using poorly executed experiments and without appropriate validation on a daily basis. These problems can be found in the world’s top journals (and far more often than you might think). Of course, this is driven by the ever-increasing demand to publish and raise grant funding in the background of an increasingly impatient world. However, we as scientists are responsible for delivering, appropriate, accurate and correct data and models to serve societal demands, if we fail to do that we are invalidating the thing that sets science apart from all other subjects, the pursuit of fundamental and objectively demonstrable truths.
Roy Goodacre: It’s well documented that there is a reproducibility crisis in science – some of these issues are highlighted in “A manifesto for reproducible science” (1). The authors in this paper conclude that a staggering “85 percent of biomedical research efforts are wasted, while 90 percent of respondents to a recent survey in Nature agreed that there is a ‘reproducibility crisis’.” This may be dated information, but nothing has really changed.
In chemical analysis, the truth of our measurements should be immutable. For the analytical science field, this is usually represented by mass, abundance, and identity. As analysts, we should be prepared to stand by our data and our reasonings should be evidence-based. In metabolomics, there are significant challenges in metabolite identification. My team's opinion piece on this topic was published earlier this year (2), which further pushes this ideology – ensuring metabolite identifications are based on common sense, facts, and evidence.
Elena Ibañez Ezequiel: Sustainability is the biggest challenge today. We can have new equipment that is more accurate and sensitive, which can be used for studying different fields such as medicine, food, pharma, environment, etc., but we need to be aware of the need for developing greener procedures that can ameliorate the huge threats we have in front of us, such as climate change and sustainability.
Anthony Gachanja: A major challenge in science today is inclusivity for all – including major limitations in availability of facilities for scientists in developing countries. Without the ability to experiment and interact with scientific ideas, it is difficult to explore new territories. Science across YouTube is fantastic – providing opportunities to indulge firsthand, but lab work is still essential for that Eureka moment within research studies. Setting Centers of Excellence is a great step forward – setting up science camps for different grades of learners will keep the fire of science exploration burning.
Koen Sandra: There are multiple challenges revolving around the building complexities and logistics of our field. Therapeutic and prophylactic modalities are more complex, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to optimally handle and interpret the tons of information that our instruments generate on a daily basis. Costs continue to rise and there is a pushing concern for sustainability, yet while we continue to struggle to find skilled chromatographers and mass spectrometrists, our issues will continue. We need more hands on deck with critical mindsets – not just users of the dazzling analytical techniques available on the market.
- MR Munafò et al, “A manifesto for reproducible science,” Nat Hum Behav (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-016-0021.
- G Theodoridis et al, “Ensuring Fact-Based Metabolite Identification in Liquid Chromatography–Mass Spectrometry-Based Metabolomics,” Anal Chem, 95, 8, 3909–3916 (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.2c05192.