The 41st Annual Meeting of the British Mass Spectrometry Society.

Science, People & Politics. ISSN: 1751598x. Issue 3 (July – Sept.) 2021.

Major UK science infrastructure
gets greenlight for bid preparation.
Circa £100 million in contention.


By Helen Gavaghan

Against a backdrop of the usual science cross talk, specialists in a critical analytic field known as mass spectrometry heard Wednesday evening (8th September 2021) that they have the go ahead to submit a bid - which will be in the region of £100 million - for infrastructure funding. It is hard to think of a field of science which would not be affected if UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) makes such an award. Partly, the money would pay for next-generation equipment. Not that the old machines are ready for the scrap heap, said Mark McDowall, a member of the British Mass Spectrometry Society's executive committee.

Existence of the option to bid to UKRI, and information that preparation time for the bid has been extended by twelve months, emerged during the annual British Mass Spectrometry meeting this week (8th and 9th September 2021) at Sheffield Hallam University.

Mass Spectrometry takes tiny amounts of matter and categorises that material according to the intensity of the charge to mass ratio. It can reveal the components of matter and their nature. The method already answers questions in forensics, medicine, archaeology, geology, plant biology, vaccine development and genetics, among many others. New science and data analysis methods are already underway with existing equipment. Next generation machines could deliver results from mass spectrometry that reveal new understanding of regions of physical nature manifested in stereo chemistry and stoichiometry, for example.

Already, and with existing equipment, mass spectrometry pushes ethical boundaries and raises significant privacy issues. For example, Melanie Bailey, from the University of Surrey, told delegates of methods she is working with which have potential to determine the medical condition of people from traces in their fingerprints, even when those fingerprints are not in a legally designated database. She says there is potential to check from matter on fingerprints for what she called compliance, in taking serious antipsychotic medication. Bailey seemed unaware of limitations in hospital, the traumatic nature of the medications she discussed, or the difficulties patients face. Bailey next discussed work in which police might be able to apply mass spectrometry to make identification of individuals and where they have been, not from fingerprints in a lawful database, but from what can be picked up from the fingerprints of people who may never have come in to contact with the law. This is a plausible field in general development. Bailey has recently been made a full professor.

Shimon Atunde, a doctoral student from the University of Leicester, is mid-way through research using mass spectrometry looking for biomarkers of cardiovascular disease. He wants to identify low concentrations of small proteins in blood plasma which have biological and medical significance as surrogates for biomarkers of heart failure. Atunde's research supervisor is a clinician. When I asked Atunde if ethnicity and environment would be important in the work, his intuitive response was yes, but that the work is not yet complete. Cardiovascular disease is also of importance to the World Health Organisation as a pan-national priority.

Jackie Mosely, chair of the British Mass Spectrometry Society, was keen to emphasize the need for her community's participation in moving to the preparation phase of the infrastructure bid to UKRI. Equally importantly, those in the field of mass spectrometry want to know the needs of the wider scientific community. Mass spectrometry can provide data giving insight into topics as varied as dimer formation (a two-polymer subunit) in biology and cloud formation. The latter matters as the world prepares for the global climate-change summit in November. Another key area, says McDowall, is battery design essential to a net zero carbon future.

As currently envisaged part of the infrastructure bid would be designated for training in how to use the equipment, but it may not be applied to funding doctorates. An important need under discussion – which is taking place across all science internationally - is data standardisation. Consistent standards for data curation and accessibility are needed.

When I asked scientists if data standardisation might interfere with the autonomy of the principal investigators I was told, “no”. The general point was that we are now in an era of big data and artificial intelligence. How can raw data be annotated so that the normalised, calibrated, and benchmarked outputs of that raw data from laboratories across the country, all working on different problems, can be standardised for storage. Proper curation and archiving, with annotation of limitations relevant to individual disciplines or across disciplines, would enable general uses for meta-analyses, for example, or hypothesis development.

Large hardware for mass spectrometry can cost between £500,000 and £3 million. Less expensive add-on items can significantly enhance performance, both of current and future infrastructure, and leading manufacturers were present at the conference.

Several informed people commented that they were worried in case any products decommissioned in the UK were disposed of without care. Some expressed concern that such machines might be sold in a way taking advantage of needs in developing countries. In that context it might matter that the mass spectrometry industry is undergoing transition from helium to hydrogen for use in one form of the technique. The dilemma is that helium is a much more finite resource than hydrogen.

The conference was notably energised by meeting in person, and it broadened the spectrum of people making presentations so that industrialists and students were included. The take home message from Mosely to the broader UK scientific community? What are your "moon shots", tell us so that we can hone our infrastructure bid?

McDowall says the BMSS will co-ordinate the consolidated bid to UKRI in 2022 on behalf of the UK MS Community. "If that bid prevails we expect that sub-bids would be invited to implement the proposed 6 national MS research centres together with an associated networking, training, and standards 'ecosystem' to leverage that investment."

Pre-publication online at 19.00 BST on 11.09. 2021 as
This item will appear in the KINDLE edition of Issue 3 (July-Sept.) 2021 of Science, People & Politics.