Vice President’s Column

Vice President’s Column

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Leiv K. Sydnes

It has been a year since I announced in this column that my Vice President’s Critical Assessment (VPCA) would focus on communication. According to the Union’s bylaws the "Vice President shall submit to the Bureau biennially a critical assessment of the programs and projects of all IUPAC bodies." The Union’s internal communications are an important component of all the programs and projects that were recently reviewed, and yet the way we communicate often seems to be taken for granted, even though our changing world is offering new means of exchanging information.

It’s Time to Improve IUPAC’s Communications

by Leiv K. Sydnes

The importance of interaction and communication with the global chemical community has been recognized by IUPAC. In fact, an extensive communication activity is a requirement, even a prerequisite, if the Union is to realize its ambitious Mission Statement.

Reviewing IUPAC’s current practices, one can identify four main communication channels:

. . . very few people are in fact involved in the decision-making process.

The quality of IUPAC’s services to the global scientific community depends on how well the four communication channels are used to disseminate information and interact with IUPAC stakeholders.

In preparation for my critical assessment, I visited as many NAOs as possible to discuss, among other issues, the fundamental question of how to improve communication. Since my visits started in October 2002, I have had discussions with representatives of 18 NAOs and Associate National Adhering Organizations (ANAOs) in all parts of the world, except Africa. The perspective of these discussions was introduced in a letter that preceded my visit:

" [ . . . ] I believe firmly that the chemical community, including the chemical industry, and the society at large will not benefit properly from all the good work done in and by IUPAC unless the communication is improved. [ . . . ] This challenge has to be taken seriously, and as part of my VPCA I am therefore going to visit a number of NAOs and discuss what IUPAC can do to remove communicative bottlenecks and obstacles, and how IUPAC should go about to facilitate involvement in IUPAC work of more chemists from more of the union’s member countries. In this connection I would be delighted to have a meeting with the National Adhering Organization and discuss the questions raised above in the perspective: What changes have to be done to the way IUPAC operates to satisfy [your] expectations of the union?"

Detailed analysis and assessment of each channel of communication are presented in my VPCA and are the result of an iterative process. The inputs received during the very fruitful consultations with the NAOs have been particularly valuable. Many issues raised in that document will require more attention, but recurrent problems appear to include a lack of responsiveness or poor dissemination.

. . . I found that the scientific work of the Union suffers from the lack of communication.

One example comes from the formal and important correspondence by letter between the IUPAC Secretariat and the NAOs. Most of the letters are minutes, calls for nominations, or other information that require consideration and feedback. In spite of the small volume of this correspondence, there are problems associated with it, the nature of which differs for the sender and the receiver. From the Secretariat’s point of view the main problem is the low reply percentage. Even when the 44 NAOs are contacted by mail regarding a matter of importance to the Union, it is rare to receive more than 5 replies. As a consequence, very few people are in fact involved in the decision-making process.

From the NAOs’ point of view the main problem appears to be related to the contents of some of the correspondence. This is particularly the case for NAOs that represent countries that have barely or not at all been represented in IUPAC activities in recent years, and which therefore have little knowledge about how the organization works and what the challenges are. Under such circumstances, the natural tendency is not to comment when the subject is unfamiliar. This is a circle that must be broken to generate interest in IUPAC and engagement in its scientific activities in countries lacking a tradition of involvement.

Another problem is related to the limited transmission of information to each NAO’s national chemical community about IUPAC and its activities. With the exception of news items about the IUPAC conferences, the general impression is that most NAOs do less than expected to keep their chemical communities well informed about what IUPAC does. Such poor dissemination seems to be most prevalent in countries that have had little or no representation on IUPAC committees and groups in recent years, or where the national academy (or an equivalent body), and not the national chemical society (or the largest chemical society in the country), functions as the IUPAC NAO. When a chemical community knows little about what IUPAC does, it is naturally less probable that members of that community will become engaged in the scientific work carried out in IUPAC.

Nowadays, electronic communications makes the exchange of information timely and cost effective and for the last few years IUPAC has given high priority and spent a lot of money to improve its electronic communication. The efforts have paid off, and IUPAC is now running an efficient office based on e-mail correspondence and Web-based presentations. The Web site is updated regularly and includes information about new and completed projects and other IUPAC activities. Updates are regularly featured in the IUPAC e-news, a complimentary e-mail newsletter. But in spite of these efforts, it seems that very little IUPAC information finds its way into the national chemical magazines published by the chemical societies in IUPAC-member countries. As a matter of fact, other than IUPAC conference announcements, most of these national magazines do not contain any information about IUPAC on a regular basis. That is an awkward situation that ought to be rectified.

To summarize my assessment, I found that the scientific work of the Union suffers from the lack of communication. There is no doubt that chemists are more prone to engage in IUPAC task forces and project groups when they feel included and are well informed about what is going on in the Union. A major goal of my presidency will be to implement measures that give more chemists the opportunity to become involved in IUPAC work. One arrangement that I can envision could include the association of one representative from each member country to each of the eight divisions; these groups of 44 representatives should be informed by mail or e-mail about the work being done in the division to which they belong. The members of these groups should have not only the right, but the obligation to give feedback to the relevant committee. This interaction should improve the quality of the work carried out in the divisions, and help to disseminate the results of IUPAC’s scientific work. In addition, this arrangement could give chemists from less active countries IUPAC experience that may eventually lead to an elected position in the Union.

Other arrangements could be thought of, and I would appreciate any suggestions. Ways to improve, or simply use, the existing channel of communications should not be ignored. This news magazine for instance is YOURS. No writers and full time editors fill up these pages. If you, your NAOs, ANAOs, or Associated Organizations have a short, interesting, and relevant story that will draw the reader’s attention, please contact <>. National magazines of chemical societies are in fact encouraged to reproduce or translate articles printed in CI.

Shortly, you will hear more about the proposed improvements and measures to be implemented that could be beneficial for IUPAC, its members, and the chemical sciences.


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