IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE - The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice
Banner Research
English
 
  European Commission   > Research > Growth
 
 
Homepage Competitive and Sustainable Growth - Making the European Research Area a Reality
Graphic element
Graphic element
Graphic element
Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Measurements & testing projects > Straight answers from qualitative chemical analysis
Graphic element Straight answers from qualitative chemical analysis
    18-01-2002
 

Decision-makers in government and industry increasingly need simple yes or no answers from analytical chemists. Complicated numbers, sets of data, or ranges of values from the laboratory are often difficult to make sense of, offering no obvious and immediate solutions to political and societal problems. On the other hand, questions need to be properly posed in the first place to earn a simple and valid yes or no. A consortium of research centres from seven EU countries is devising a practical way of getting such responses that challenges classical metrology.

Is the water safe to drink? Is the air polluted? These are the sorts of questions to which public authorities constantly have to find answers. But chemical laboratories that conduct the types of analytical tests needed to resolve these issues tend to present us with streams of numbers that seem to bear little relationship to the original question. Politicians are left with mountains of complicated information that may well be impossible for them to interpret. The MEQUALAN project team aims to find out how laboratories can transform those numbers into straightforward yes or no responses, so that the authorities can make their decisions more easily, quickly and reliably.

Changing expectations
 

For the chemical laboratory to begin delivering simpler responses to pressing societal questions, it has to undergo a change of culture based on awareness of customer needs. This will not be easy, because the instruments and methodologies it uses are almost all geared towards producing quantitative data. Qualitative results are generally perceived among the scientific community as somehow inferior, less 'scientific'.

"What is the objective of a laboratory?" asks MEQUALAN Project Coordinator Miguel Valcarcel of the University of Cordoba. "Is it simply to gain prestige by distinguishing itself within the high-level scientific community? I don't think so. I believe we are here to serve society, and the fact is that society rarely wants or needs sets of precise numbers and error estimates. But it is no easy task for the lab to give a yes/no response. This is because the most interesting data are often revealed near the limits of our ability to measure. We are obliged therefore to operate in areas of significant uncertainty. We just don't know for sure if it's yes or no. Scientists generally understand this, but the public does not. That means we have to develop new testing procedures, promoting changes in techniques for producing qualitative data, probably by simplification of the analytical processes performed in the lab."

 
Asking the right questions
 

A yes/no response is not as simple as it may seem, as the information content of the answer can vary depending on the type of question asked. Quality criteria have to be attached to test requests, the most relevant of which is the threshold value - for instance, a concentration limit set by legislation. Two other quantitative criteria need to be considered - the limit of detection inherent to the method used, and the cut-off level, i.e. the minimum concentration needed for detection with a stated probability. Information may also be needed about the different forms in which the element or substance being measured can occur. In addition, some analyses need to be qualified in terms of time or space before a yes/no response can be given.

 
Simpler and faster
 

The Mequalan project was launched in November 2000 and is planned to end in March 2002. Led by the University of Cordoba, the project involves 10 scientists from seven different EU countries. Partners represent a mix of industrial organisations and academic institutions, including several universities, two reference labs and one pharmaceutical company. "We have been looking at the main drawbacks of quantitative analysis and are trying to establish quality control protocols for binary yes/no responses," says Professor Valcarcel. Partners are also investigating potential fields of application, including the testing of foodstuffs and the environment and clinical laboratories. The European Commission requested a summary of the expected results of MEQUALAN to be introduced within the context of the debate over the new Framework Programme, as it is regarded as essential background to forthcoming legislation.

"Important changes have already begun," explains Valcarcel. "Some toxicology tests are now available that give a yes or no response. For example, a global test for milk used on-site at farms to detect microorganisms and other contaminants has been commercially available for several years and is being utilised in many countries. Through MEQUALAN we hope to promote this kind of methodology, which is simpler and faster than conventional ones. The main problem we are faced with is changing the mentality of workers in the labs with regard to traditional ways of producing and communicating results. We are currently promoting this philosophy in candidate countries, so that when they accede to the EU they will already have acquired expertise in this field. I am convinced that within five years these changes will have become widely established."

 
Changing expectations
Asking the right questions
Simpler and faster
   

Key data

Research on new techniques in chemical analysis is supported under the Growth Programme's Measurements and testing generic activity.

Projects

MEQUALAN - Metrology of quantitative analysis (CGMA-CT-2000-01012).

     

Homepage Graphic element Top of the page