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Vol. 26 No. 6
November-December 2004

Chemists in a Vulnerable World

by Leiv K. Sydnes

Leiv K. Sydnes
IUPAC President 2003-2004

In a recent issue of Angewandte Chemie there was an essay by Professor Carl Djerassi, entitled “Chemical Safety in a Vulnerable World—A Manifesto.”1 In this article, Djerassi argues that the “absence of adequate knowledge in many less-developed countries of the extent and nature of their exposure to dangerous chemicals is their greatest vulnerability.” In order to overcome this deleterious situation, he calls for the formation of a steering committee to encourage and facilitate North/South interaction on new approaches to chemical safety. Based on his positive experiences with ICIPE (International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology) in Nairobi in the 1960s, and the USA-Brazil chemistry program of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Djerassi then proposes that a group of chemical societies in developed countries (“the haves”) should take on this task in partnership with the chemical communities in less-developed countries (“the have nots”).

I find the proposals and ideas outlined by Djerassi certainly commendable and absolutely worthy of the support of the chemical community. However, for several reasons I was surprised that he did not mention a single word about IUPAC. First and foremost, IUPAC has been addressing challenging issues similar to those mentioned in the article. In addition, it is important to acknowledge that IUPAC already has the committee structure Djerassi proposes for collaborative projects. And finally, it is noteworthy that all the chemical societies mentioned specifically in his article have been and are still actively involved in a variety of IUPAC activities.

In essence, IUPAC is based on the partnership between volunteers that forms the basis for Djerassi’s proposals. Since IUPAC was founded in 1919 this partnership spirit and the voluntary work performed by thousands of chemists around the world have enabled the Union to make recommendations on chemical nomenclature and terminology, provide and critically evaluate chemical data, set standards for chemical analyses, and promote global cooperation between chemists and with other international organizations. The results of many of these activities have been published in Pure and Applied Chemistry, IUPAC’s own journal. In addition, IUPAC has supported national and regional workshops and meetings to disseminate knowledge and skills related to specific problems and challenges in troubled countries and regions. These activities are not glamorous and do not usually generate news headlines, but standardization of chemical measurements, terminology, nomenclature, and analytical methods also are of crucial importance to commerce and society in the “have-not” countries.

Several of the projects in the current IUPAC portfolio are of the type Djerassi proposes in his essay (i.e., projects specifically connected to problems in developing countries). Let me illustrate the IUPAC approach to problem solving by describing briefly what is being done with the problem of arsenic contamination of the ground water in Bangladesh,2 one of the important issues mentioned in the article.

Last year, a task group of volunteers, chaired by Drs. Satinder Ahuja and John M. Malin,3 was appointed. Based on ideas generated by interaction with chemists and chemical engineers from around the world and by working actively with local chemists and authorities, potential solutions for this serious problem are being considered. Extensive discussions, involving a number of national and foreign volunteers, were held in Dhaka early this year, and a progress report was presented at and discussed during the CHEMRAWN XV conference “Chemistry for Water” held in Paris in June.4 The issue will be further developed and scrutinized by the task group, and a regional workshop with input from all parties involved will be held in Bangladesh next year. The purpose of this conference is
1) to promote collaboration between “researchers [..] from the ‘industrial superpowers’”1 and “local counterparts in the host country,”1 who are actively addressing the problem, and
2) to evaluate how local government agencies can assist in implementation of the solutions proposed.

Another project—based almost completely on voluntary work and performed in cooperation with the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD)5—addresses the “Standardization of Analytical Approaches and Analytical Capacity-Building in Africa.” The project, chaired by Dr. Walter R. Benson, aims “to upgrade selected laboratories in Africa, thereby enabling them to produce reliable and internationally accepted analytical results for farmers and enterprises in the private sector that seek to export commodities to markets in the USA, EU, and Japan, where compliance with international standards is required.”6 In order to reach this goal the following working strategy has been adopted: make teams of experienced chemists and local staff members, facilitate interaction, and organize working sessions with practical work both within and outside Africa. As pointed out by Djerassi, close cooperation with instrumental people in the African countries is required for success. This aspect of the project is therefore taken very seriously.

Space does not allow me to present other examples involving IUPAC projects in developing countries, such as those addressing contamination from mining in some African countries, improvement of chemistry education in many countries around the world, management of biodiversity in several Asian countries, or development of sustainable agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the IUPAC experience is the same: successful volunteer work requires an attitude of mutual respect, willingness to work persistently, and strong coordination with the people in charge. Careful selection of the task group is therefore a crucial part of the planning of IUPAC projects, and that is not easy if the volunteers of the right calibre are not available. I therefore appreciate very much that Professor Djerassi so wholeheartedly urges Ph.D. students or postdoctoral researchers (or even advanced graduate students) from the industrial superpowers to go out and work in collaboration with their younger local counterparts in developing countries.1

More involvement by young chemists in voluntary work is definitely needed, and involvement in an IUPAC project may be a place to start. Welcome as an IUPAC volunteer! IUPAC involvement and effort not only provides personal satisfaction, but also contributes significantly to the application of chemistry in the service of Mankind.

References
1 Carl Djerassi, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2004, 43, 2330–2332; reprinted in Chemistry International 2004, 26 (5), 12–14.
2 The problem has been described in an article by Rebecca L. Rawls in Chem. & Eng. News 2002, 80, 42–45.
3 A description of the project and information about the task group members are available through the IUPAC Web site at www.iupac.org/projects/2003/2003-050-1-021.html.
4 Mike Freemantle, Chem. & Eng. News 2004, 80, 42–45; Alan Smith, Chemistry International 2004, 26 (5), 26–28.
5 IOCD was established in 1981 after initiative of Professor Pierre Crabbé. The organization and its activities are described in J.-M. Lehn, E.R. Blout and R.H. Maybury, Chemistry International 2002, 24 (3), 3-5.
6 A description of the project and information about the task group members are available on the IUPAC Web site at www.iupac.org/projects/2004/2004-017-1-500.html.

Leiv K. Sydnes <leiv.sydnes@kj.uib.no> is the current IUPAC president, a member of the Norwegian Chemical Society, and professor at the University of Bergen.


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