26 No. 5
Have We Lost Contact with Some of Our Old Friends
by Christoph F. Buxtorf
Let me start with a personal and a local point of view! I was born in Basel, Switzerland, a town that has benefited from chemistry since the mid-nineteenth century and is today home to the headquarters of chemical and pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis, Roche, Syngenta, Ciba, Clariant, and Lonza. For this reason, chemistry and the natural sciences have always been important to me. In fact, my father worked as a chemist in the industry, and we even worked together for two years at the same company.
Switzerland as a whole also has a long association with chemistry. We have had our share of Nobel prizes in chemistry and related sciences. And for almost two decades and until 1968, the secretariat of IUPAC was in Swiss custody, with the expenses mostly paid by Swiss industry.
However, in today’s environment even my hometown of Basel sometimes seems ashamed of being associated with chemistry. This clearly started after the warehouse fire in Schweizerhalle in 1986. With this spectacular accident we reached an important and irreversible turning point. For the first time the word “soft chemistry” came up and shortly later the expression “life science.” Then the word “chemistry” began to be eliminated little by little from everyday language, until it was almost never heard. No wonder that today we have to explain, even to our former supporters, the role and benefit of IUPAC.
The reasons for the bad public perception of chemistry and the decline in the number of chemists in top management positions are many: spectacular accidents, pollution, chemical weapons, and more. Nevertheless, this is surely not the place for lamentations—I am just referring to some of the events that triggered the change. But it seems that we have lost contact with some of our former friends, which presents a burden not only in the “old territories of chemistry” but more and more in countries with newly developed chemical industries. In those countries, the Adhering Organizations have great difficulty in paying the National Subscriptions, which are IUPAC’s main source of income. The national dues are proportional to the “wealth of the chemical industry” of a country, and are not based, for example, on the number of chemists or size of national research budgets. This is one of the reasons to be closer to industry.
What could be done to reverse this tendency? IUPAC committees are currently addressing two topics of high interest to the chemical industry: The Committee on Chemistry and Education endeavors to change the public perception about chemistry and the Committee on Chemistry and Industry has underway and is planning several projects to improve safety in chemistry. IUPAC should take further steps by increasing communication with industry in the World Chemistry Leadership Meeting, which assembles the presidents of the national chemical societies, regional chemical federations, and leaders of the chemical industry to discuss subjects of importance to the global chemistry community. IUPAC should also pursue building closer relationships with Company Associates. May the very generous donation from Samsung General Chemical Corporation to the Macromolecular Division not be the only rare and shining example.
In discussions with those in the chemical industry, I have heard that IUPAC should build on its strengths in the fields of nomenclature and standards, in organizing high-quality meetings and congresses, and in enabling worldwide networking. Industry would like to participate in “white books,” projects, and other fields of applied chemistry. In certain sensitive areas industry would welcome the neutral and scientific-based opinion that IUPAC can provide.
The old contacts are no longer “self-evident.” They need “love and care.” There is plenty of room for improvement and I am asking specifically the National Adhering Organizations and the National Chemical Societies to reach out and make contact with our “old friends” so that we honor the “A” in IUPAC. Ask your industrial partners to join our Company Associates program. The officers of IUPAC would be glad to assist you in your efforts. There is room for a broad range of possibilities. Therefore, my call for help goes also to the Standing Committees and the Divisions. Think about specific projects that could be undertaken in cooperation with industry. If in the end we obtain more financial support from industry, your Treasurer will be very receptive to say it mildly!
Christoph F. Buxtorf <email@example.com> is the current treasurer of IUPAC. He is retired from Novartis Crop Protection where he was head of the Production and Technology Division and a member of the Executive Committee.
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