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.
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
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."
Research on new techniques in chemical analysis
is supported under the Growth Programme's Measurements
and testing generic activity.
MEQUALAN - Metrology of quantitative analysis