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Vol. 26 No. 3
May-June 2004

Up for Discussion | A forum for members and member organizations to share ideas and concerns.
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end your comments by e-mail to edit.ci@iupac.org

This section of CI provides a way for members and member organizations to share ideas and concerns. For this issue, the Japanese National Adhering Organization sent us, without prompting, the following report of activities of its National Committee for Chemistry. In publishing here a version of this report, we hope to echo the concerns of other organizations and facilitate consultation and dialogue, and the sharing of best practices.

Chemistry in Japan—A Report from the National Committee for Chemistry

by Akio Yamamoto

The National Committee for Chemistry in Japan—a committee that belongs to the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), the NAO for IUPAC—comprises 61 members. The committee is charged with deliberating on “important matters related to chemistry and coordination of the research programs in and outside of Japan,” and is therefore the link with IUPAC.

The committee members are selected based on recommendations from other chemistry-related societies. The committee, which has one of the largest memberships among other national committees of the Science Council of Japan, represents a broad cross section of the chemical community in Japan.

During the past several years, the committee has been involved in domestic and international efforts to promote chemistry. Between 2000 and 2003 the committee undertook a project to address problems facing the chemical community. After extensive discussions, the committee finalized the report and released it last year. Following is a summary of the report’s recommendations.

Summary of the Report of the National Committee for Chemistry, The Science Council of Japan

The report’s recommendations are divided into three parts directed to the government, the public, and fellow chemists.

Message to the Government
Among the issues the committee discussed, the following problems emerged as the most important.

  • Improvement of University Facilities is Urgently Needed—Although we acknowledge the recent increase in research grants given to universities and other research institutions, we have to point out the unsatisfactory conditions of university buildings, particularly in chemistry-related departments. Space is often very limited, making laboratories dangerously congested. In order to meet international safety standards, it is urgent that these facilities be improved.
  • Support for Graduate Students Should be Improved—A lack of support for Ph.D. students discourages many talented students from pursuing Ph.D. program. More scholarships, research assistantships, and teaching assistantships should be provided for these students.
  • Information Databases Should be Upgraded—The present compilation of scientific and engineering data is unsatisfactory to allow the nation to make reasonable judgments regarding science policy. Information databases in universities should be improved to track the progress of science and engineering.

Message to the Public

  • The committee disagrees with current usage of the term “chemical substances” in the mass media.
    The mass media often use the term “chemical substances” to refer to synthetic compounds, especially those that are poisonous or harmful. However, the term “chemical substances,” when properly used, applies to any substance on earth; water, table salt, sugar, and air are all chemical substances. There are many natural substances that are quite poisonous and any seemingly safe substance can be harmful to the human body when taken in excess. Certainly there have been incidents in which chemicals were carelessly or inadvertently released to the environment and caused great harm. It is quite clear that chemists should make every endeavor to keep the environment unspoiled. However, we discourage incorrect usage of the term “chemical substances” because it creates an incorrect image of chemistry.
  • When discussing the risks involved with chemicals, the mass media should take into account the ratios of risk to benefit and of cost to benefit.
    Nothing can be absolutely safe. Therefore, the committee requests that the mass media present a balanced portrayal of the ratios of risk to benefit and of cost to the benefit when discussing chemical issues.
  • The contribution of chemistry to the improvement of human life should be properly recognized.
    Chemistry has played an important role in improving human life and liberating us from various, previously incurable, diseases.

Message to Fellow Chemists and Chemical Engineers

  • Look Outside One’s Own University—The custom of hiring staff only from within is still prevalent in Japanese universities. A survey conducted by committee members revealed that in many chemistry-related departments this trend is still persistent, although there are signs of improvement. The committee recommends that students be advised to go to different universities when they pursue advanced degrees. In order to enhance the mobility of researchers, university staff should be hired with preference to those who have been trained in other institutions.
  • Industry Should Recognize the Value of Ph.D. Students—In Japan, the chemical industry’s recognition of the value of graduate students with Ph.D. degrees is still low. We urge the industry to provide proper recognition. At the same time, we urge university professors to put more effort into producing Ph.D. students with adequate training in graduate courses so that the value of degrees can be properly evaluated. The present system of giving Ph.D. to industry chemists based solely on the basis of their submitted theses should be reexamined.
  • A Coalition of Academic Societies Should be Encouraged—There are 31 societies related to chemistry in Japan. There is therefore a great deal of redundant effort to make each society function properly. Many these societies are also having financial difficulties. It is time to call for coalition of these societies with future possible project of unification. The committee for chemistry of SCJ requests each chemistry-related society to take action.

Other Comments
In its report, the committee put forth a number of additional findings and recommendations:

  • The present trend of chemistry-related departments adopting more fashionable names without the word “chemistry” may undermine the status of chemistry in society. We urge these departments to keep the word “chemistry” when restructuring.
  • The subject of chemistry has been excessively curtailed in university entrance examinations to the detriment of universities and future generations.
  • Better methods should be developed for encouraging cooperation between academia and industry.
  • Japanese chemists should play a more active role in international organizations such as IUPAC and Asian chemical societies.
  • The Chemical Society of Japan finally decided to send a delegation to the Chemistry Olympiad. We, the Committee for Chemistry in SCJ, support the decision and are prepared to extend our assistance in sending the delegation.
  • A sustained effort should be undertaken to increase the percentage of women actively participating in education and research in academic institutions.
  • The present custom in national universities of compulsory retirement at an early age causes the unnecessary loss of talent and experience. A system needs to be established in which capable elderly members of the chemical community can continue their research without blocking the promotion of younger scientists.

After release of the report, the committee members’ terms ended. The new members of the committee, led by Chairman Hiizu Iwamura, are eager to help Japan and the Japanese chemical community resolve the issues outlined above.

Akio Yamamoto was chairman of the National Committee for Chemistry in Japan from 2001 to 2003.


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