I blog fairly regularly about the scientific opportunities opened up by the online digital availability of huge amounts of interesting stuff. One very useful set of stuff concerns the properties of small molecules, that may be of interest in general or, more particularly, because of their possible use in chemical biology/genetics (also known as chemical genomics), especially using fragment-based methods, and the possibility of mining such data using the powerful methods of chemometrics and  cheminformatics. This week I learnt about the progress being made by the Chemspider operation that is a fully open access portal for small molecules and their properties, recently acquired by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The utility and number of users are growing apace, and the increasing availability of its features via Web Services will enable software programs to interrogate it when they need to explore chemical space automatically. The academic cheminformatics community in the UK is currently rather small, and there are consequently considerable opportunities for those who would invest in expanding it.

The Food Security agenda is recognised as a global issue, and with colleagues from NERC we had a very useful discussion with counterparts at INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. While global warming is likely to affect more quickly countries such as France that are closer to the equator than is the UK, there was a very close consonance of view as to the necessary drivers to which funders need to respond to ensure that agricultural yields are increased over time, especially when water may be in short supply.

This week also saw the awarding to BBSRC-funded researchers of several Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Further and Higher Education. Two were for research that had delivered improved plant varieties, in IBERS at Aberystwyth University and at Lancaster University – see also a previous blog – while the third was for ageing research at Newcastle University. All of these areas are significant strategic priorities for BBSRC.

Another strategic priority involves bioenergy and industrial biotechnology, an area we are beginning to scope out more fully. Bioenergy has been an important area for us since the eponymous review of 2006 (pdf), and there is increasing recognition that we need to develop photosynthetically derived sources of chemicals as well as of energy (as does INRA – pdf). Earlier in the year, the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team (IB-IGT) published a report (pdf) setting out the opportunities, along with a series of recommendations to which the Government responded (pdf). The first of these was that an Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum should be established, and this week I attended its first meeting, co-chaired by Ian Lucas MP, the Minister for Business and Regulatory Reform,  and Ian Shott (previous Chair of the IB-IGT Report). This very useful meeting helped considerably in developing some of our ideas and strategies, and introduced me to a number of new areas such as the starch products of Roquette and the oleochemicals of Croda. With many important science drivers to assist innovation, there is a wealth of opportunities in industrial biotechnology, fermentation, biocatalysis and enzyme engineering (especially here, where the UK needs to grow its enzyme industry) that we are well placed to exploit.

A significant contribution to any exploitation will come from the next generation of young scientists, and BBSRC organises an annual event for our students and postdocs. This year’s was held in Newport, Gwent, and involved a series of presentations and activities, including an excellent after-dinner speech from Professor Tim Wess, an unusual and informative stand-up demonstration of networking skills from Rob Brown, and short and effective pieces on entrepreneurship (Jo Daniels of Q-chip) and spin-outs (Tim Hart of Zyoxel). The hubbub of discussion during the tea breaks, and the evident level of enthusiasm from the 100 or so delegates, made it clear that these programmes are very much appreciated for exposing folk to ideas they may not normally see, thereby helping them to think effectively about their careers.

Much of science advances through the development of novel methods, and while reading through the Annual Report of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute I was struck by one particular paper with a title that highlighted the importance of getting these right.

This coming week I have several meetings about digital research information, including with the Research Information Network. Ensuring that the necessary tools and available data – such as those at Chemspider – are effectively joined up will be a recurring theme. We have long recognised the importance of funding data resources, and an editorial in the latest Nature states “A good model to emulate would be the United Kingdom’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which allows databases and other such resources to apply for ring-fenced funding, saving them from having to compete with hypothesis-driven grants, which are the agencies’ mainstay”. In the immortal words of Afferbeck Lauder, “Egg wetter gree”.

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