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Vol. 32 No. 5
September-October 2010


Reassessing the Role of Analytical Chemistry

by Nelson Torto and Zeni Tshentu

Over a century ago, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald wrote about the “supreme importance” of analytical chemistry, noting that it “takes a prominent position among the applications of science, since the questions which it enables us to answer arise wherever chemical processes are employed for scientific or technical purposes.”*

Improving Analytical Chemistry in South Africa: Report from a Workshop
“Driving the Triple Helix: Linking Academia, Industry, and Government” was the theme of a workshop held 6 November 2009 at the Birchwood Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. (read more)

This description is just as apt today, and perhaps more so. In a November 2009 keynote address, renowned analytical chemist Roger M. Smith of Loughborough University, UK, reiterated that analytical chemistry is a core discipline essential for research, industry, government, and society. He added that “all innovative research requires measurements, and that for such measurements to be of any value, they require analytical skills.”

Smith, who was speaking at a workshop facilitated by the Analytical Division of the South African Chemical Institute, stressed the need to impart transferrable skills onto graduates as well as a need for continued professional development in order to improve the technical competence of analysts through short courses, either in-house or those that might be offered by specialist groups such as the chemical society.

Definition and Role of Analytical Chemistry
Smith defined analytical chemistry as the science, implementation, and interpretation of measurements and emphasized that it is not simply making measurements without an understanding of what is being done, as such numbers need to be analytically valid to generate useful information. He added that analytical chemistry overlaps with physical, organic, and inorganic chemistry, as is integral to electronics, sensors, and biochemistry.

A memorial to Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald in the center of Riga, Latvia.

Smith argued that analytical chemistry has an important role in society because consumers need information on the quality of pharmaceuticals, medical care, food, water, drink, and the environment. In addition, the quality of export products needs to be monitored in order to meet trade requirements. For example, in pharmaceuticals, there is a need to not only understand the production of drugs and meet the requirements of various regulatory bodies, but there is also a need to further understand and enforce these protocols to confront counterfeiting and to monitor the quality of imported drugs or herbal products. He stressed the importance of analytical chemistry in point of care, diagnostics, and in sports. For instance, there is a need to know the quantities of pesticides in water, fruits, or vegetables as these impact directly on the health of individuals. Because wine is such an important export for South Africa, he also reminded delegates of the glycol scandal that impacted negatively on wines from Austria and hence illustrated that without the requisite capacity and resources that enable point-of-sale or production monitoring, a disaster looms.

Smith concluded this component by articulating the fact that analytical chemistry can also be crucial in government as it impacts on customs and excise, forensic activities, police and regulatory activities, agriculture and environmental surveys, defence procurement, and regulation and control in general.

Capacity Development in Analytical Chemistry
Innovative research is dependent upon measurements, Smith insisted. However, for such measurements to be of any value, they must be conducted by personnel with analytical skills and technical competence. New techniques need to be developed, evaluated, and their relevance to particular applications assessed. Hence, this continuously creates a demand for technical operators, qualified chemists with analytical skills, and research analysts whose skills can all be developed and established at schools, colleges, universities, and industry.

Smith suggested that there are challenges facing universities and colleges as they attempt to meet the task of producing the requisite skills. This is because students usually cannot be trained for the precise needs of one company as it takes time to change and develop curricula. It also it takes three to four years of education after the development of the course before the students enter the job market, by which time the industry focus might have changed. Another challenge is that graduates may choose to use their skills in other areas.

Continued Professional Development
Because the training of graduates can’t be specific, their background knowledge should enable them to be trained for new roles in various sectors. Hence, Smith stressed the need for continued professional development through short courses, either in-house or offered by specialist groups such as chemical societies. He emphasized the need for graduates to take specialized courses at the Master’s level, as these will ensure that they acquire the requisite skills. He noted that in the UK there are 71 B.Sc./MChem courses listed for analytical chemistry at 21 universities, many of which include a sandwich year of practical experience in industry providing the student with firsthand knowledge of the expectations and opportunities of an industrial career. He also pointed out that there are M.Sc. courses offered that combine analytical chemistry with related fields such as pharmaceutical or environmental science, and information technology.

The common core of these courses includes projects, transferable skills, and coverage of an area of specialization. Competence can be developed further through a Ph.D. program where individuals work on research topics for at least three years, and are trained in organization and planning, research methodology, report writing, and presentation skills.

Driving the Interaction between Academia,
Industry, and Government

Smith pointed out that just because the roles of academia, industry, and government overlap, this may not be sufficient to drive the constructive dialogues that characterise a successful Triple Helix and other parties such as chemical societies or networks have an important place in facilitating contacts and creating interactions.

He said the role of academia is to train (through higher education and continuing professional development), support with skills and consultancy, promote innovation and discovery (through research and publishing), and to interact with government. Some of the roles of industry are to keep in touch with academia (taking up new ideas and employing fresh graduates), employing best practices in production, and keeping up to date with new trends and legislation. Government has the responsibility to use science for the common good and benefit of the people, develop strategic plans (define systems of innovation, conduct foresight analysis, shape long-term visions and missions), provide a regulatory framework, and support research institutes by providing infrastructure that can meet the needs of the country. In addition, professional bodies such as SACI can provide linkages, continuing professional development, and networking opportunities.

Promotion of Analytical Chemistry
For the purposes of promoting and increasing the visibility of analytical chemistry, Smith suggested involving graduate students in conferences where they are expected to give presentations. The Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) already holds annual research conferences for graduate students in order to promote the discipline. The meetings are primarily for early-stage analytical science researchers (industrial scientists, Ph.D. students, and postdoctoral fellows) to present their latest results in the context of the wider analytical science community. At these meeting, they have the opportunity to interact, network, and learn professional skills. He also encouraged outreach programs that involve members of the National Assembly as well as press releases and presentations to Parliament or the parliamentary committee on science.

Analytical Chemistry and Society
Roger Smith concluded by saying there is strong mutual interest in advancing the field and in developing skills and training. In particular, he encouraged the design of courses at all levels that demonstrate the value of analytical chemistry and provide the skills and background students need to lead to fruitful and fulfilling careers in industry, government, and academia.

*Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853–1932) was a Baltic German chemist. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1909 for his work on catalysis, chemical equilibria and reaction velocities. (Wikipedia).

Zeni Tshentu was program director and Nelson Torto <N.Torto@ru.ac.za> is the chairman of the Analytical Division of SACI, the South African Chemical Institute. This report also benefited from input from Heidi Assumption and Zenixole Tshentu.


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