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
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
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
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