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Vol. 27 No. 3
May-June 2005

Past President 's Column —Looking Back and Pondering the Future

by Piet Steyn

IUPAC has played, and is destined to continually play, a vitally important role in advancing the “worldwide role of chemistry for the benefit of mankind.” As an international non-governmental organization of member countries, IUPAC focuses on the needs of both the developed and the developing world. At this stage of my IUPAC career, the time is apposite to be reflective on the role of IUPAC in developing countries, such as my home country of South Africa, and to revisit my personal involvement in IUPAC, which always brought me great joy and satisfaction.

Within IUPAC, we should always strive to contribute to attaining the six long-range goals of the Union. I fully subscribe to the pursuit of these lofty goals:

  • provide leadership as a worldwide scientific organization that objectively addresses global issues involving the chemical sciences
  • facilitate the advancement of research in the chemical sciences through the tools that it provides for international standardization and scientific discussion
  • assist chemistry-related industry in its contribution to sustainable development, wealth creation, and improvement in the quality of life
  • foster communication among individual chemists and scientific organizations, with special emphasis on the needs of chemists in developing countries
  • utilize its global perspective and network to contribute to the enhancement of chemistry education, the career development of young chemical scientists, and the public appreciation of chemistry
  • broaden its national membership base and seek the maximum feasible diversity in membership of IUPAC bodies in terms of geography, gender, and age

As far as I can remember, the first IUPAC-sponsored symposium in South Africa, broadly directed at industry and the environment, was held in 1969 at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This event presented to many young South Africans, including myself, the first opportunity to participate in a truly international chemistry symposium in our country. During the period of isolation in South Africa, IUPAC sponsored a number of top-quality meetings and ensured invaluable links to the international world of science. In August 1982, I was intimately involved in the organization of the 13th IUPAC Symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products, Pretoria. In July 1985, I acted as organizing chairman of the 6th IUPAC International Symposium on Mycotoxins and Phycotoxins, held in Pretoria. In 1996, I also organized a one-day IUPAC symposium titled “A Sustainable Environment—National and International Perspectives.”

Over the years, IUPAC contributed extensively to polymer sciences in Africa by co-sponsoring workshops on this subject at the UNESCO Centre of Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University. In fact, 12 South African chemists served the international scientific world by their membership on IUPAC Divisions and various committees, including CHEMRAWN, Chemistry Education, and Chemistry and Industry. Currently, James Bull of Cape Town University serves as scientific editor of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the flagship journal of the Union. Three more scientists are currently involved in IUPAC projects, and 16 are IUPAC fellows.

Scientists from South Africa and from a number of other countries benefited from IUPAC’s strong stand on the ICSU principle of the free circulation of all bona fide scientists. IUPAC sponsorship of scientific meetings always guarantees scientific quality, merit, and excellence. It is therefore not surprising that South African chemists, who longed to be part of the international world of science and learning, initially joined IUPAC in its Affiliate Membership Program. In addition to the 30 or so Members and Fellows, South Africa also counts 50 IUPAC Affiliates. To be an Affiliate is a good way to learn gradually about IUPAC and stay acquainted with the Union’s activities. I would like to make a plea to readers of Chemistry International to share with your colleagues your experiences with IUPAC and motivate them to become affiliates.

It is disconcerting that only two countries from Africa—South Africa and Egypt—retain full membership in the Union despite several concerted efforts . . .

As a South African, I am deeply committed to the science-based technological development of the African continent, a continent rich in human potential and natural resources. However, it is disconcerting that only two countries from Africa—South Africa and Egypt—retain full membership in the Union despite several concerted efforts to lobby support for increasing membership in the Union. The value of research at universities and at research institutes in Africa is currently receiving the attention of highly influential international bodies. Perhaps the year 2005 could witness the dawn of a new era of science and technology for Africa.

While IUPAC is an organization whose formal members are chemical societies or academies, it is nevertheless “all about people.” Top chemists worldwide contribute to IUPAC on a voluntary basis toward the worldwide advancement of chemistry. Since 1973, as a young chemist from a developing country, until the present, I have had the wonderful opportunity of interacting with the IUPAC leadership, particularly in more recent years very closely with Presidents Bard, Zamaraev, Fischli, Jortner, and Hayes. It was equally satisfying to collaborate with Secretary Generals Guy Ourisson, Tom West, Gerrit den Boef, and Ted Becker.

I was elected in 1973 during the Munich (Germany) General Assembly as an associate member of the Food Contaminants Commission of what was then the Applied Chemistry Division. I contributed to the chemistry of mycotoxins—toxic substances produced by fungi—and in subsequent years actively participated in the many IUPAC-sponsored mycotoxin symposiums.

In subsequent years I was elected vice-president and president (1991-1995) of the Applied Chemistry Division and played a key role, under the leadership of Albert Fischli, in its reconfiguration into the successful Chemistry and the Environment Division.

At the General Assembly in 1999, I was elected IUPAC president; serving as vice president (president elect) in 2000–2001 and president in 2002–2003. Now, as direct past president, I also serve on the Scientific Advisory Committee of the 40th IUPAC Congress: Innovation in Chemistry, which will take place in Beijing in August 2005. As planned, the Congress stands to contribute significantly to the science-based development of China and the Far Eastern countries. IUPAC is dedicated to ensuring the success of the Congress in Beijing, and I make now a second plea to readers to actively participate in this high-profile scientific event.

A distinct highlight of my IUPAC career was working as a member of the Strategy Development and Implementation Committee under the inspirational leadership of Joshua Jortner and Ted Becker. The team effort led to the transformation of IUPAC from an old-fashioned commission-driven organization to a vibrant modern project-driven organization. It was most gratifying to learn at the Bureau meeting in Slovenia in October 2004 that the project system is, in fact, working well.

Many good things developed over the last few years. I have already alluded to the IUPAC vision statement and the defining of our six long-term goals. In addition, more recently, the Governance Structure Committee was established under the leadership of Leiv Sydnes, my highly valued colleague and the current IUPAC president. To alleviate financial market fluctuations and ease our national membership dues, mechanisms were developed, with the help of the Finance Committee and the Treasurer Christoph Buxtorf, to enable the billing of national subscriptions in national currencies. In addition, IUPAC received much credit for its professional advice to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on the impact of scientific advances of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

In December 2003, as IUPAC president, I participated in a conference devoted to research and education in the Middle East. The meeting succeeded in attracting top-level chemists from the Middle Eastern countries and undoubtedly led to a better understanding among the scientists living in that part of the world.

A conspicuous point in IUPAC’s environmental activities was, beyond a doubt, the SCOPE/IUPAC Symposium on Endocrine Active Substances held in Yokohama, Japan, in November 2002. The papers emanating from the workshop filled a record edition of Pure and Applied Chemistry. I wish to pay special homage to our dear colleague Junshi Miyamoto, who as president of the Chemistry and the Environment Division, inspired this scientific triumph. In April 2003, while the outcome of this project was being finalized, Junshi Miyamoto passed away unexpectedly after a short illness.

Also during my presidency, the naming of element 110, darmstadtium, took place during the Council meeting in Ottawa. I am delighted that much progress has been made on this important front and that element 111 was finally named roentgenium this past November 2004.

Now in its sixth year, it is gratifying to continue receiving excellent essays from young researchers applying for the IUPAC Prize for Young Chemists. The 60 applications from 22 countries entered for the 2005 award are currently being evaluated and it is expected that the prize winners for this year will be announced shortly. It will be a privilege to meet and reward these young chemists in a ceremony held at the coming Congress in Beijing in August.

The Future
IUPAC as a scientific Union is fortunate to have a close relationship to the chemical industry. However, we are also exposed daily to the rapidly changing world. It is most disconcerting, for instance, to learn about the closure of a chemistry department at a well-established university. I believe the future lies in attracting the brightest young minds to the chemical sciences and by involving them in challenging multidisciplinary research programs. Recent IUPAC-sponsored meetings already point the way, as evident from the topics of these meetings: bio-informatics, electronically active polymers, high-temperature materials, biophysical complexity, plasma chemistry, and spectroscopy and macromolecular systems. I am sure that these topics and the challenges of nanotechnology and its applications will satisfy the brightest of young chemists. Indeed, the future is not what it used to be.

Pieter S. Steyn <psst@sun.ac.za> is the IUPAC past president and chairman of the committee adjudicating the Prize for Young Chemists. He has been involved with the Union since 1973 and is currently senior director of Research Development at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.


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