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Vol. 30 No. 3
May-June 2008

Vice President's Column—Adding a Stone to the IUPAC Edifice

by Nicole J. Moreau

It has been eight years already since I began to take an active part in IUPAC. That period coincided with the beginning of the project system in its present form. The high effectiveness of the system and the general high standards of our organization make me very happy and proud to belong to the Executive Committee and to be one of the five officers. To be honest, I feel somewhat anxious to be as successful as my predecessors. When I look at the work of some recent presidents, I need to be very optimistic to be up to the task! However, without challenges life would be somewhat monotonous.

I am fully aware of the huge potential and the tremendous strength of the IUPAC membership, working with so much willingness and determination for the benefit of science worldwide. Thanks to their efforts, chemists in scientifically emerging countries are having a far easier time learning and practicing chemistry. I sincerely hope to bring my stone to this edifice. As I begin my term as vice president of IUPAC, it is still the moment to express wishes. But before that I will tell a story.

Each year since 1951, Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics, physiology, or medicine accept an invitation to a unique meeting in Lindau, Germany, on Lake Constance, to discuss issues of importance to their fields with students from around the world. The meetings include lectures by, and informal discussions with, the Nobel Laureates. Back at the end of the ’60s, three young French chemists close to finishing their Ph.D.s were chosen to represent their country at the event. It was their first scientific travel out of their country. As I was one of them, I recall how it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

Just imagine hearing Harold Urey describe his investigations into the origin of the planets, and the chemical problems of the origin of the earth. Or picture Leopold Ruzicka teaching—in German!—about isoprene annelation and steroid hormones, and then, because he had just referred to Adolph Butenandt, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize, stopping, looking at the audience, and saying “Wo bis du, Butenandt” (Where are you, Butenandt?), and Butenandt coming up on the platform to have a discussion with him. For the audience of young scientists, it was almost a miracle to see such celebrities having such conversations in front of them. The meeting included a reception on the island of Mainau, hosted by Count Bernadotte, to increase personal contact between the junior participants and the Nobel Prize winners. The most striking thing was how we, as young students from all over the world, were proud to be chemists, how science looked beautiful to us. Perhaps it was a period in which young people were less concerned about their future than they are nowadays, but we were very enthusiastic and full of dreams and imagination.

Why are these memories so strong? Because for a young person, it is fantastic to be proud of and to believe in what one does, to admire great chemists, to read the literature in order to recognize the ingenuity of others, and to think of chemistry as such a smart science.

I wish that young people would find the enthusiasm of their predecessors and pursue the path of science, especially of chemistry. However, in doing so, they should be proud of their membership in the community of chemists. Why does a chemist, when asked what he/she does for a living, shyly admit that he/she works in chemistry? Because his/her interlocutor—by that I mean the public—does not know what chemistry is. The public often thinks of our science in relation to pollution, as a hindrance to sustainable development, or as a field that contributes to the detriment of human health. It is this same distorted vision that leads some to think of a drug not as a matter of chemistry, but of medicine; to regard synthetic vanillin as a poison compared to natural vanilla; or to believe that the abuse of pesticides or fertilizers is the fault of chemistry, and not of the farmers who perhaps use them thoughtlessly.

So, who can best help convey a less dubious, more correct image of chemistry? This may not be so easy for industry, which will be suspected of bias; perhaps the teachers, but generally they do not seem overly concerned with the image of chemistry; and not the politicians, since they appear to be poorly informed about chemistry issues and they might hesitate to upset their electorate. What remains then are the national chemical societies, and, on the international level, IUPAC, because of its status as an international, unbiased organization that is not industry driven. However, how can people trust something they do not know? The prerequisite is therefore to make IUPAC known. This same argument has been put forth in many of these columns. We all know that IUPAC effectively serves the worldwide chemistry community, and that among IUPAC’s missions, the one of communicating the right image of chemistry is very important. But how to do this efficiently? It seems to me that a bottom-up approach might be a good one.

The work of IUPAC’s numerous volunteers is considerable, and as I discover its span and its multiple facets, I am more and more proud of our organization. Its internal communication is good, even if it is not so easy to achieve and maintain. The problem is not IUPAC’s itself, it is that in most countries, IUPAC and its many roles are very poorly known, even among the chemical societies. It is unusual that a chemist in one of these countries would use the IUPAC website to research a particular fact or to locate information about a particular conference.

IUPAC cannot be fully effective without communicating well with the global chemical community. We must not forget that since its inception in 1919, IUPAC “has fostered worldwide communications in the chemical sciences, uniting the academic, industrial, and public sectors of chemistry in a common language.” This should not be a boring notion for chemists, but on the contrary should be an object of pride, of satisfaction: We can immediately communicate with colleagues from other countries and languages, thanks to this universal language. When things are so easy, one tends to find it quite normal and to forget who is at the origin of the convenience. Anyway, we must not confine us to this sole merit, but show that IUPAC actually does other things.

If one looks at IUPAC’s vision statement, it reads “advancing worldwide chemistry.” In this case, worldwide not only means from IUPAC towards the world community of chemists, but it also means from the bottom up, from the regional and national levels. It seems that if we want to make IUPAC known, it is less the role of IUPAC as a whole than the role of each IUPAC member in his or her country or sphere of influence. What we ought to do is to each make a resolution to play such a role in our own country or sphere of influence, in addition to our specific responsibilities within a division or a committee. It is up to each of us, as individual members of IUPAC, to explain the Union’s purpose when attending a meeting or a congress, to write about IUPAC in a national publication of our chemical society or in our university’s journal, to take advantage of a science festival to show an IUPAC poster or presentation.

Can we be successful? In communicating about IUPAC, let’s not only target accomplished scientists, but also young scientists as well–and here is where my story about young chemists is relevant. For instance, we might expand on our efforts to encourage young chemists to attend the biennial IUPAC Congress. They might argue that our congress is not convenient for them because there are too many thematics involved, that their interest is, for example, the chemistry of fluorine compounds, and that they should not waste their time attending lectures about other topics. Then we ought to tell them that if they want to progress and go outside the small niche in which they performed their Ph.D. or their post-doc, they have to broaden their minds to other disciplines. If they attend a general congress, they may well discover domains they didn’t know existed or have discussions about research that can supplement what they are doing, thus giving more originality to their own work. And in any case, it can be very fruitful to meet people with different interests. We can show them that eminent chemists such as Nobel Prize winners attend IUPAC congresses. Aren’t recent conference themes such as “Chemistry at the Interfaces,” “Innovation in Chemistry,” “Chemistry Protecting Health, Natural Environment and Cultural Heritage” attractive ones? and how about the 2009 IUPAC Congress for which “Chemistry Solutions” is key theme?

Another argument for chemists to speak up is that in this period in which ecological problems (pollution, climate change, evaluation of risks, toxicity, greenhouse gases, and the protection and restoration of our environment) are major issues in every country, IUPAC should not be shy to play some political role. Chemistry is at the heart of sustainable development, not to hinder it, but to help to ensure it. As chemists, we have to make IUPAC known, not only to the general public, but also to stakeholders, leaders, and politicians. And each of us can do that in his or her own country, under the guarantee and behind the nongovernmental status of our organization, its independence, and objectivity. Then we could help IUPAC to create a platform for influencing decisions, based upon its expertise and reputation.

Nicole J. Moreau <[email protected]> has been vice-president of IUPAC since January 2008. She has been an elected member of the Bureau since 2000 and a member of the Executive Committee since 2006. She is also general secretary of the French National Committee for Chemistry.

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