I  U  P  A  C

 Bringing IUPAC up to date

Is an organisation formed in the aftermath of World War I still relevant to the needs of the 21st century? Most chemists are familiar with the name IUPAC from their first course in organic chemistry, where they studied IUPAC nomenclature for the first, and perhaps last time. A somewhat smaller number know that IUPAC is the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. For those chemists whose familiarity with the organisation does not go much beyond this, the question naturally arises: what's left for IUPAC to do?

One thing is the standardisation of nomenclature, terminology, symbols, procedures and data. All of this is vital, but often goes unnoticed by practitioners who are unaware of how the process works.

The need to validate data for use in models and equations of state becomes more crucial as more data are produced and individual chemists have less time to examine the provenance of the data in published data sets. And the language of chemistry must change as the science develops. As in any other language, there is a need to accommodate slang and neologisms, but also to uphold the rules of grammar and the meanings of words. One of IUPAC's core activities is the publication of a series of guides to the nomenclature of chemistry.

But IUPAC does much more than develop recommendations on nomenclature, terminology and evaluated data. Each year, it sponsors more than 20 international symposia in most areas of chemistry, and a biennial congress that focuses on newly developing fields in the chemical sciences.

It also organises CHEMRAWN (Chemical Research Applied to World Needs) conferences in areas of socio-political importance. It contributes to advances in methods for teaching chemistry, especially in developing countries. Its committee on chemistry and industry sponsors conferences and workshops on topics of interest to industry, such as chemical plant safety.

IUPAC's mission is to 'advance the worldwide aspects of the chemical sciences and to contribute to the application of chemistry in the service of mankind.' In doing this, IUPAC promotes the norms, values, standards and ethics of science, and advocates the free exchange of scientific information and unimpeded access of scientists to participation in activities related to the chemical sciences.

However, as with many international organisations that work through volunteers, IUPAC has been criticised as being too slow, too rigid and dominated by the members of a 'charmed circle'. These criticisms have been voiced in one way or another for 40 years, but have been more publicly expressed in the past decade. The sentiment expressed is that chemistry has changed but IUPAC has not.

IUPAC has responded by re-examining the basic purposes of the union and the way in which its scientific work is organised. It has set up the strategy development and implementation committee, comprising IUPAC officers and prominent chemists from outside IUPAC.

This committee has developed a strategic plan and recommended a new management process for IUPAC's scientific work. Assuming its recommendations are adopted in general, if not in detail, then IUPAC will have responded to the three criticisms cited above in a decisive manner.

The new management of the union's scientific work will be centred in seven broadly constituted division committees, rather than in 37 'permanent' commissions. This addresses the issue of a rigid structure by converting the working part of the union from commissions with long-term members to working groups with a membership assembled for the duration of the project.

This also addresses the charmed circle issue. The need to create working groups for each new project will encourage outreach to chemists worldwide. The short-term nature of the commitment to a working group will encourage young scientists and those in industry to devote time to IUPAC without the need to make the long term commitment that membership on a commission implies.

The timeliness question will be addressed in two ways. The first is by defining projects in terms of goals and time limits. It is expected that most projects will take about two years from approval to completion. The necessary corollary to this is the funding of projects at a level necessary to allow completion in the planned time. By devoting more resources to fewer projects, those projects should be completed more quickly and the results will be more useful to practising chemists.

These proposed changes assume that there are many chemists who would be willing to participate in IUPAC activities given the opportunity. The organisation is opening itself to the global chemical community. All chemists are considered potential participants in IUPAC projects. By encouraging input from all chemists, IUPAC expects to receive more project ideas in areas of interest to industry and society.

The union will be relying on electronic communication to involve more chemists in its work. I invite all of you to visit our web site (http://www.iupac.org) to see what IUPAC is doing now and to revisit it regularly to see what it will be doing in the future.

But more than visiting, I invite you to participate. Let us know what you think are the important issues in your area of chemistry. The success of IUPAC depends on the willingness of chemists around the world to take part in its activities. If the planned changes result in more participation, then they will have been successful.

Dr Jost is executive director of IUPAC, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, US.

Chemistry & Industry, August 3 issue, page 628

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