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Vol. 34 No. 2
March-April 2012

Secretary General's Column:

What Is IUPAC’s Place in an Ever-Changing World?

by René Deplanque

This is the first time that I am writing the Secretary General’s column. First, I would like to thank all those people who believed in me and elected me to be Secretary General in San Juan, Puerto Rico; to the others, I will do my best to prove that I am the right choice.

At this time, I will offer a few words about how I see my position within IUPAC and about the important issues that we face for which we have to find answers now and in the future.

We are living in an ever-changing world. This is nothing new, but the velocity of change has increased dramatically. Every future has a history; therefore, we have to guard our achievements and continue to improve all this for the future.

We have to open up to the outside world.

IUPAC is the guardian of the language of the chemist. Chemistry is the only science that has defined its own language. This language is understood all over the world and is independent of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

To guard and to improve the Union, we have to analyze all of IUPAC’s organizational and information structures. In the past, IUPAC was very much concentrated on the actual tasks of our divisions. We were internally focused and our interaction with the outside world was mainly through our publications and maybe our members.

This approach began to change in the last few years, as we became heavily involved in organizing the International Year of Chemistry 2011. Even though we were the main organizers and took on the brunt of this task, together with our member societies, it was UNESCO and others who received the praise. This went so far that when our special IYC pin was given away by national societies, they were praised for this generous gift. I am not complaining, it is a great honor to work for our common good with such honorable organizations like UNESCO. However, and this is the question we all have to ask ourselves, where is IUPAC? Having asked this question I will come to my first statement: IUPAC must not be something lost in the clouds, an organization that nobody really understands. Many people know it only as the organization responsible for standardization in chemistry. We have to put IUPAC back on stage, where it belongs.

As I said in my election statement:

  • IUPAC is not only the periodic table.
  • IUPAC is not only the color books.
  • IUPAC is not only all the divisions, the Council, and the General Assembly.
  • IUPAC is all of this and more.

On the basis of all our achievements we have to continue to enable the chemist to identify him/herself with the aims of IUPAC. We need to open up to the outside world. We have to prove to all of our members that both our standards and IUPAC as an organization are extremely valuable for their daily professional lives.

To really achieve this, we have to take a very long road. We have to redefine who we are. We have to define what we own. We have to define and assure ourselves that our main aim is to foster science in order to help scientists to achieve their goals in industry and academia and make this known.

To define a standard and have this accepted all over the world is not just a technical process, in which people come together and agree about the procedure. It is a scientific process developed by scientists for use by scientists in industry and academia. It requires a very definite and clear understanding of the whole process of scientific work. To standardize new structures, which were just discovered using the scientific method, requires both credibility and expert knowledge and understanding of the total process. Only scientists of the highest reputation, nominated by their countries and by their professional societies, can be members of this elite group that is charged with defining a world standard.

Naming structures or naming new elements and having those accepted is a great task, because those names will be there for generations to come.

Having said this, I would like come to my second statement: IUPAC must help to spread the use of standards in all parts of industry and science in both developed and emerging countries. It cannot wait until this is done by others.

We have to redefine who we are. We have to redefine what we own.

We have to implement tools, management structures, and strategies. IUPAC can help show our societies and our chemists in academia and industry what can be done and what should be done. This can be achieved by improving discussions, speeding up information exchange, augmenting awareness, and foremost, helping our divisions and standing committees to do their important work in close cooperation with the IUPAC Bureau. In doing so, we still have to decide whether we want to have a weak and liberal or a strong and effective structure. This choice depends on the financial strength and growth of the Union. At the moment, our central structures are not strong enough to help our divisions spread their results most effectively to those in need. The results are published and there is the hope that they will reach all interested bodies. This is the start of the discussion about what kind of IUPAC we will have in the future. For this dialog, we need the input and commitment of all our members and other groups associated with IUPAC.

We have to improve and implement our knowledge-transfer lines worldwide to ease communication among chemists everywhere and especially to open new networks with colleagues in emerging regions. Even though this is an important task, we should never forget who founded IUPAC: it was industry. We must strengthen our relationships with industry groups; new lines of communication with industry must be opened. The recently formed InChI Trust is a good example of such a successful collaboration with industry.

As it became evident that IUPAC did not have the resources to speed up the development process of the new InChI standard, a series of major publishing houses came together and founded the InChI Trust. It is fully supported and operated by the scientific publishing houses, but the final decision about what will become a standard is made by the independent InChI subcommittee of IUPAC. This path appears to be a good method for raising the money needed to speed up the process of developing the InChI code while maintaining IUPAC’s independence.

Let’s explore whether similar arrangements can be used to solve other problems. Under the guidance, and within the framework, of IUPAC, we should try to improve the speed with which our standards and guidelines are transferred to other parts of society. We should start a discussion about industry and academia and the application of standards in chemistry. Following the InChI Trust argument, why not ask the publishing houses to work with us as a group to explore the use of chemistry standards in the scientific publishing process. Structure and strategy would be defined by the user and guided and advised by IUPAC.

Ideas like this can be implemented for any type of process for which chemical standards are needed. We cannot do it immediately, but we can start to think about it. We will need a large improvement in our networks and our lines of communication. We will also need the finances to do so.

I will talk with our divisions about how this could be achieved and I will talk with the key players in the outside world regarding how we can build a partnership of transfer.

Let’s see what the future will bring. Samuel Goldwyn Mayer once said “I never make predictions, especially about the future.” But I can predict one thing: I will work constructively to ensure that we continue the excellent and important work we have already done, as well as improve communications, build communities, and ensure transfer of knowledge to those in need. I will do my utmost to improve and guard our achievements. With this aim I know that I am in agreement with all our new officers, with our Bureau, and everyone who is working for the good of IUPAC.

I really look forward to working with all of you and all the friends of IUPAC to improve the future of our science and our society.

René Deplanque <rdeplanque@iupac.org> became IUPAC Secretary General on 1 January 2012, following the elections held by the IUPAC Council in August 2011. Deplanque is managing director of the Fachinformationszentrum CHEMIE GmbH in Berlin (FIZ CHEMIE BERLIN; the Chemistry Information Centre). Since 2000, he has been a professor at the Technical University Berlin.


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