Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Synthetic organic chemistry

This research area involves devising new ways to design and synthesise organic molecules, with an emphasis on developing new reagents or new novel synthetic methodologies based on new chemical reactivity.

Partners involved:
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The scope and what we're doing

This research area synergises with the areas of Catalysis (which includes organocatalysis, asymmetric catalysis, metal-mediated catalysis and associated mechanistic studies of reactivity and selectivity) and Chemical Biology (which includes use of controlled molecular assembly to explore biology).

It is central to addressing the immediate and longer term challenges faced by the UK chemicals manufacturing, materials and electronics, and healthcare sectors. Many of these will only be tackled successfully by developing novel, efficient, selective and sustainable ways of making organic molecules with new properties.

We aim to support activity that will protect the UK’s high international standing and enable the community to contribute to EPSRC prosperity outcomes. In both industry and academia, there is high demand for trained organic chemists at all career stages and we will continue to support a strong ‘people pipeline’ to provide the workforce and develop the future leadership that the UK requires.

How we will meet our aims

There are several ways in which we will meet our aims.

Proactively linking with end users

To meet our aims, the community will need to continue to be energetic and proactive in building appropriate links with end users, for example, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and established chemicals, pharma and agricultural companies – and to engage in greater levels of intra and interdisciplinary collaboration where this delivers genuine added value.  For example, with data science and chemical engineering, to develop approaches to chemical synthesis that are sustainable and scalable; or with biology, pharmacology and chemical biology, for the discovery of drugs and new antimicrobial agents.

This would be expected to enhance research impact.

Greater integration of research

The community will need to increasingly explore the benefits of integrating research on synthetic methodological development or new reagents with research areas such as:

  • chemical biology
  • medicinal chemistry
  • medical imaging
  • catalysis
  • synthetic supramolecular chemistry
  • polymer materials.

Organic synthesis will continue to provide practical, often elegant solutions to accessing molecules with challenging structures.

Explore further collaboration

The community will need to explore opportunities for collaboration at the interface between organic synthesis (focused on use of new catalysis tools) and chemocatalysis and biocatalysis (developers of these tools) in the field of clean and efficient organic chemistry based on catalysis.

Address topical areas within research

The community will need to address areas of topical and growing research interest, such as:

  • computer-aided approaches (machine-learning/AI) to identifying new molecules, new reactivity, new methodology, synthesis design, and the development of robotic and automated approaches to organic synthesis
  • new synthetic routes to the development of bio-based synthetic polymers that are biodegradable, recyclable and eco-friendly alternatives to oil-based plastics.

The result will be a diverse portfolio that matches researcher ambition and societal needs.

We will continue to work with other funders, such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) to ensure interdisciplinary research is dealt with appropriately across remits.

Why we're doing it

Historically, synthetic organic chemistry has been strong in the UK, which continues to produce internationally excellent and world-leading outputs in natural product synthesis, new reaction discovery and medicinal chemistry – an allied field drawing heavily on organic synthesis and crossing into MRC’s remit.

The area is a core field, enabling advances in many other fields in chemistry, biological sciences, materials science, medical imaging and pharmacology – for example, the translation of many of the advances arising from the Francis Crick Institute will require a strong base in cutting-edge synthetic chemistry.

The area underpins many chemical-using sectors that are crucial to the UK economy, such as pharma and agrochemical, and where there is growing need for more environmentally friendly processes based on new chemical reactivities and synthetic methodologies.

All chemical manufacturers require more sustainable synthetic approaches with less dependence on critical raw materials or petroleum-based feed stocks, while the emerging synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology sector requires organic chemistry methods and skills to deliver innovative products and processes.

The significant training investment in this area reflects the continued strength and growth of industrial sectors that need these skills.

Chemists trained in synthesis are essential for manufacturing pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, flavours and fragrances, paints and polymers.

The change in the UK landscape away from large pharma companies has led to growth in contract and custom synthesis organisations and SMEs, preserving the high demand for skilled synthetic organic chemists.

However, this change firmly puts the onus on universities to provide a skilled UK workforce, where once pharma companies were a major training environment.

​​View evidence sources used to inform our research strategies.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships. Find out more about research area connections and funding for Synthetic Organic Chemistry.

Find previously funded projects on Grants on the Web.

Last updated: 6 January 2023

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