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Learning to share again

We've learned since kindergarten that "sharing is caring," but applying that concept to chemicals is a bit tricky.  If you've ever been in a synthetic lab, you've seen an abundance of chemicals, some new and some so old that the labels are barely readable. Most bottles are rarely opened; they adorn shelves and slowly degrade over the decades. Labs also steadily add to their inventory, as they order fresh reagents to pursue new reactions. Consequently, multiple labs in a department end up with overlapping sets of chemicals, which is economically and environmentally wasteful.

Many chemistry departments have setup inventory systems, so people can check for a reagent in surrounding labs before purchasing a new bottle. Not everyone likes to use the system, as it can be a bit inconvenient. People have to do leg work and interact with other labs to borrow reagents.  What's even scarier is that you have to trust other research groups to properly store and treat their chemicals.  Similarly, you have to trust that whoever borrows a reagent from your lab will return it in good condition.

This becomes particularly problematic if your reaction ends up failing. You then have to wonder if you used bad reagents, had poor technique, or picked the wrong conditions. This added doubt might discourage some people from sharing. However, if you think about it, using communal chemicals isn't riskier than trusting previously published research. We often design projects and invest significant amounts of resources based on what other groups report. The main difference is that we know people are held to high ethical standards in publishing papers. Thus, for an inventory system to work, we need to treat the handling of communal chemicals with the same level of care.  Sharing can save money and reduce the buildup of toxic chemicals, so the efforts would be well worth it.