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Vol. 31 No. 3
May-June 2009


Secretary General's Column: Moving Ahead with the International Year of Chemistry

by David StC. Black

In my previous column (July-August 2008 CI), I wrote about the proposal to stage the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) in 2011 and outlined the key aims (see box below). I also reported the progress at that time in seeking official United Nations (UN) approval and designation of the International Year. Many readers are now aware that in December 2008 the UN did officially designate 2011 as the IYC. IUPAC issued a press release at the end of December 2008 to this effect.

Because IYC 2011 is now official, we can move ahead with greater purpose and certainty. The reason for the much-earlier-than-expected approval is that the initial recommendation of the UNESCO Executive Board was introduced (by the vigilant Ethiopian delegation) under the banner of the UN long-term program on Sustainable Development. The designation immediately gave IUPAC a clear thematic focus that not only is a key element in the prospectus but is also completely in harmony with the capacity of chemistry to deliver.

Celebrate the Achievements of Chemistry

Goals of the International Year of Chemistry:

— Increase the public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs

— Increase interest of young people in chemistry

— Generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry

— Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Mme. Curie Nobel Prize and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Chemical Societies

This year has seen increasing engagement with leaders of national chemical societies to inform them on progress and to seek their ideas related to IYC 2011 (see Wire). These meetings will continue, and ideas are being generated. But, before I proceed any further, I should say that the main purpose of this column is to seek input from individuals about innovative events that can make IYC 2011 a spectacularly successful achievement. On the organizational front, we are moving forward on the development of a dedicated state-of-the-art IYC 2011 website, which not only is essential to handle the complex interactions and outreach to the general community that will be needed but will in turn translate into a modern interactive web presence for IUPAC long after 2011 ends. We now have a logo, which is an important symbol for us to use to our advantage. We also have the tagline “Chemistry—our life, our future,” which neatly captures the omnipresence, the scientific centrality, and the undeniable importance of chemistry. The IYC 2011 website, which is now running <www.chemistry2011.org>, contains the prospectus. The website will be expanded over the next few months to become a fully functional interactive tool for communication and collaboration.

The IYC 2011 prospectus outlines a range of worthy reasons to justify mounting this endeavor. However, I would like to be somewhat controversial and suggest that the simple answer to the question, “Why are we doing IYC?” is, “For publicity, both for chemistry and IUPAC.” Regarding the latter (and less important) area, IUPAC is increasingly being called upon to act in an advisory capacity as a non-governmental organization (NGO) to help lay down strategic guidelines that are chemically logical, coherent, and sound. In January 2009, IUPAC President Jung-Il Jin visited the UN headquarters in New York and had an official meeting with fellow countryman Secretary General Ki-Moon Ban and the senior officers of the most relevant departments (see Wire). IUPAC is being encouraged to become an official NGO of the UN Economic and Social Affairs Council, and we shall certainly consider the implications of this offer. We shall also work closely with relevant UN agencies and committees to maximize the impact of IYC 2011. Already, the publicity generated by this UN visit is immensely valuable, and Secretary General Ban is almost certainly the first UN secretary general to be aware of IUPAC.

To make a suitable global publicity impact, we need to design some unifying events that will catch people’s imaginations.

Global publicity for chemistry is much more important and requires our best efforts. Although national chemical societies will collaborate to engage with local communities to promote chemistry, they will benefit from the stimulus of being part of a truly global operation. To make a suitable global publicity impact, we need to design some unifying events that will catch people’s imaginations. So far, events based on a “Spectacle of Chemistry,” on “Experiment and Excitement,” and on “Interactivity and Dialogue” have been suggested. International competitions can also be directed toward students: These could include essay writing, poster designing, or crystal growing, for example. An event (or events) that could be held simultaneously around the world would draw considerable publicity.

As a resident of Sydney, Australia, it occurs to me that we can use the start of the year 2011 to publicize chemistry in connection with fireworks displays. The Sydney display from the harbor bridge is a famous tourist attraction and is nothing if not chemistry in action! It is almost the first New Year’s display, as the clock moves around the world to the West and sets off similar displays in many cities. We need to get the fireworks chemistry and IYC information to our respective organizers and broadcasters so that the message can be spread widely. Not only are the fireworks themselves chemical, but people watching on television are dependent on the chemistry involved in that technology. Thousands of people will photograph the fireworks, making use of the chemistry intrinsic to color photography, be it traditional or digital. Even those who just look at the fireworks to enjoy the wonderful colors will do so because of the chemistry involved in vision itself.

Each time an Olympic Games is held, the Olympic torch being carried around the world, transferred from person to person and country to country, creates a publicity spectacle. Perhaps we could stage a similar event by transferring a specially significant chemical or chemicals. I cannot think of what that might be, but perhaps readers can! One problem will be the difficulty with the various customs regulations in moving chemicals around the world. But even that obstacle could generate publicity to highlight our message. Perhaps the regional winning products of an international crystal-growing competition could all be transported to a central place for final adjudication.

IYC 2011 will be a wonderful opportunity to help provide an educational message to the general public, and we must take full advantage of it as best we can.

Publicity in itself is one thing, but an essential and dominant part of publicity for us, as a serious professional organization and promoter of genuine substance, is education. IYC 2011 will be a wonderful opportunity to help provide an educational message to the general public, and we must take full advantage of it as best we can. We need to educate adults, and particularly parents, so they are no longer terrified of chemicals and are not misled to believe that, for example, they should not eat food that contains chemicals! We also need to educate children in primary schools about the fact that everything in the world around them—including themselves—is made up of chemical molecules, and, furthermore, everything they do is controlled by chemical reactions and processes. Although these are very sophisticated concepts even for chemical professionals, I think young children can grasp the main ideas. Children learn to read, to write, and to do arithmetic. Why not also teach them the language of molecular structure, so they become familiar and comfortable with molecules? So many challenges can be taken up at any time, but we shall have a special advantage in the context of IYC 2011.

So, we need your creative ideas and suggestions for how to celebrate IYC 2011, which can be shared all around the world and used to highlight the wonders and fascination of chemistry. These ideas can be communicated at any time, and opportunities for more formal planning discussions will be available at the IUPAC General Assembly in Glasgow in August 2009. We look forward to your input.

IUPAC Secretary General David StC. Black <d.black@unsw.edu.au> has been involved in IUPAC since 1994 as a committee member of the Division of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry. He served as division vice president during 2002–2003. He has served as secretary general since 2004.


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