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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research themes > Measurements & testing > Metrology in the spotlight at the INERIS conference
Graphic element Metrology in the spotlight at the INERIS conference
     
 

Participants at the metrology conference in Paris on June 14 and 15, 2001, were treated to an impressive display of posters and two days of animated and sometimes heated discussion, ranging from environmental protection to food safety and public health.

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INERIS President Maryse Arditi welcomes participants
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The five-star event, organised by INERIS and sponsored in part by the Growth Programme, was entitled 'Environment, Health, Safety - A challenge for Measurements' and was held at the UNESCO building. According to INERIS President Maryse Arditi, the choice of the UNESCO facility was meant to highlight the sense of unity and co-operation which are the cornerstones of that organisation's ethic and which the conference organisers hoped to instil in the metrology event.

Arditi welcomed over 200 participants, including researchers, businessmen and women, members of governmental organisations and the press, at an opening session which featured a rousing discussion focused on the European environment.

Session 1: focus on the environment
 

"The available resources for work on environmental research are very limited in comparison with other technological areas," said Arditi. "Efficient co-operation is therefore very important, if not indispensable, and this has to be recognised by all concerned. We are all looking forward to the upcoming Sixth Framework Programme and would like to see how far it goes in fostering this kind of co-operation."

Indeed, with its recent Communication on the European Research Area, the Commission has, in no uncertain terms, laid down the gauntlet, challenging European research to rationalise and optimise through the highly tuned co-ordination of its efforts. All of the targeted areas, including nanotechnologies, genome research, food safety and environmental protection, will depend heavily on advances in measurements and testing technologies.

Following Arditi's introduction, Alain Costes, Director of Technology at the French Research Ministry, spoke about metrology and the environment from a larger perspective. "Throughout history," he said, "men and women have faced the prospect of natural disasters with fear and superstition. Today, many of our disasters are man-made. Technology has allowed man to become a major environmental player, often with terrible consequences. The role of the metrology researcher is to try to understand these consequences and to help us act accordingly." Costes then took the audience by surprise by announcing the setting up of a new multidisciplinary board on climate change by the French Research Ministry.

Next to speak was Philippe Quevauviller from the Commission's Research Directorate-General. "This conference comes at a very opportune moment," he said. "With the Gothenburg summit set for this weekend, the recent emphasis on sustainability means measurement and testing will continue to grow in importance. European support for activities in this area began as long ago as the 1960's, being rooted in environmental research, but with strong links to health and agriculture. Looking ahead to the Sixth Framework Programme, metrology will undoubtedly remain at the heart of the new European Research Area."

With the intervention of European Member of Parliament Yves Piétrasanta, the discussion turned to society's expectations for a better-preserved and safer environment. "We face a difficult situation in metrology," he said. "It seems that the better we get at measuring and testing, the worse things look. The public listens and feels reassured when we say things are okay. But then we develop a more powerful tool, capable of revealing a problem, and we come back and say, 'Well, it's not really okay'. Then the public says, 'Oh, so you were lying when you said everything was okay'. Clearly, we need to do more research, to know what the truth is, but we also have to understand societal expectations and we have to be able to explain ourselves."

 
Establishing trust
 

One of 'buzz terms' heard repeatedly during the course of the conference was 'the precautionary principle', according to which we assume the worst until we are sure. "We need more general standards," said Piétrasanta, "simplified monitoring systems and management procedures, and when we don't know for sure we shouldn't say there is no impact. In the absence of evidence we must assume that there is an impact. We are not just talking here about measurements and such in the European Research Area. We are talking about people and about humanity. We need to establish trust and to allow people to learn to appreciate science and scientific advancement."

Next up was Peringe Grennfelt, Scientific Director of the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, who outlined the Swedish Presidency's achievements in the area of environmental protection. "We need more and better data and we need to reach consensus amongst ourselves," he said, and, referring to the recent visit of the American president, he added: "We don't want to be like some countries where leaders use the lack of scientific data as an excuse for not doing anything."

Rounding off the first session was Guy Paillotin, President of the French National Agronomic Institute, who evoked the mad cow crisis as an illustration of the complexity of risk management and public information. "The risk of spreading mad cow disease by feeding cattle infected bonemeal was known as far back as 1986," he said, "but this knowledge was largely confined to the scientific community. Politicians were, perhaps understandably, slow to react. When cases of a similar disease appeared in humans, scientists told politicians that a direct link was 'highly unlikely', which politicians translated as 'no risk'. Now we believe there may indeed be a link and so we say it is 'highly likely'. The politicians translate this as 'there is a link' and again the public says 'we were lied to'."

With the lunch hour approaching, Paillotin closed his presentation by referring to the title of his own book on diet-related health risks, called Shut up and eat.

 
   Session 2: towards reliable environmental monitoring
 

The second session, chaired by Jean-Marie Martin, director of the Joint Research Centre's Environmental Institute, featured a number of presentations addressing the question of environmental monitoring. Topics included:

Biomonitoring - the use of biological responses to assess environmental changes, frequently due to man-made pollution;

Clean air - the need to promote Europe-wide monitoring is considered a number one priority in support of the future implementation of the Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) Programme;

Marine environmental monitoring - establishing routine assessment of the quality of chemical and biological measurements in European waters;

Reference materials - the use of reference materials (RMs) and certified reference materials (CRMs) is essential for the production of accurate, precise and reliable measurement results;

Complementary chemical and biological analysis - developing bioassays to investigate the effects of gaseous, liquid and solid industrial emissions.

 
Session 3: putting scientific results to work
 

Day 2 began with a series of presentations on the practical application of metrology results, chaired by Pierre Hecq of the Commission's Environment Directorate-General.

First to speak was Miguel Valcárcel of the University of Cordoba, who considered the question of binary yes/no responses to metrological questions. "Today, there is a black hole in our classical metrology," he said, "a discipline which is concerned almost exclusively with quantitative measurements. The fact is that society doesn't always want or need precise numbers and error estimates. It wants to know, simply, 'Is it safe to eat this apple,' or 'Can we swim in this river?'. In other words, it wants a yes or no answer." Appropriately, Valcárcel is currently involved in an EU-funded Growth project called MEQUALAN , developing tools and techniques for qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, metrological analysis.

Erwin Rosenberg of the Technical University of Vienna followed with a presentation on reducing costs. "Modern metrology has at its disposal a wide range of very powerful but very expensive analytical tools and techniques. Before we start our analysis, we must be sure that we're measuring the right thing, what the public and authorities are really concerned about."

 
Chemical species-specific analysis
 

Here, Rosenberg hit on another of the key topics returned to throughout the conference - the concept of speciation. "It is widely accepted among chemists today," he said, "that it is not the total concentration of a particular element, let's say tin, for example, that determines its toxicity, but rather the chemical form in which it occurs in the environment. Therefore, we should focus our efforts and resources on measuring those specific forms of tin which are of concern to society, and not just the overall level of tin, which costs a lot of money and is ultimately of little use."

The next speaker was Rainer Stephany from the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Netherlands, with an interesting presentation from the point of view of inspection and surveillance programmes. "In the EU, inspection programmes for veterinary drugs primarily focus on banned substances, especially hormonally active growth promoters, because such substances are considered to be potential health hazards. These are the same kinds of substances used by athletes when we talk about doping in sport," he explained.

 
   Confronting the misuse of scientific data
 

"The important thing here is that we don't misrepresent the hazards," said Stephany. "Politicians sometimes prefer to use scientific information as a political and economic weapon, to keep foreign products out of their markets while their own products are, in reality, no better" - a controversial remark which caused more than a little stir among the audience. Making no apology, he persisted, "Oh yes, the public has to know this. It is also our responsibility to serve the people and not just the politicians."

Remaining on the topic of public awareness, the next speaker, INERIS' Eric Vindimian evoked one of the fundamental principles of science, which is to doubt. "We as scientists are trained to doubt. When our colleagues discover some new principle, we immediately say, 'Are you sure?'. We immediately want to test and to ascribe some measure of potential error to all that we do and say. But journalists and the media, those who take our information and communicate it to the public, are seen more as purveyors of certainty. They provide absolute answers so there is a mismatch here. What we have to do is find a way to convey this way of thinking to the public at large, this way of constantly doubting, rethinking and updating. There is no real certainty in science."

Finally, Urban Wass from the Volvo Technological Development Corporation expressed the need for co-operation amongst all of the players. "We have a shared need for information," he said. "Scientists, government authorities, industry and the public all have to speak together and understand what we need and want and what we can do about it. This is the only way forward."

 
Session 4: summing up
 

The conference ended with an extended round-table session, chaired by Maryse Arditi and featuring an impressive array of metrology 'heavy hitters', including Manfred Grasserbauer of the JRC's Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM), Karel Aim of the Institute of Chemical Process Fundamentals in the Czech Republic and Kalin Borissov of the Danube Commission. The exchange was lively and, at times, even heated, as not all of the participants and audience members were in agreement as to the priorities for funding and future research. "The environment is an area to which politicians must address themselves," urged Jean-Louis Weber of the French Environment Institute. They have to understand the difficulties of scientists who must constantly revise and modify their opinions. The 'Bridging the Gap' conference played up the importance of uncertainty in science and we have to remember this. Above all, politicians have to act responsibly, and we as metrologists have to hold them to that."

All in all, the closing session was a rousing finale to a stimulating two days of discussion. While disputes did arise during the conference as to the exact distribution of resources among the various concerns within the field, none disputed the fact that research in metrology has long been of particular interest to the EU and has received its support and encouragement. All will now be anticipating the upcoming Sixth Framework Programme which, if predictions prove reliable, will go farther than ever in promoting the interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral and co-ordinated approach endorsed by so many at the INERIS conference.

For more on metrology, see the Growth website feature article entitled 'Metrology: measurements and testing tools for the future Europe' .

 
Session 1: focus on the environment
Establishing trust
Session 2: towards reliable environmental monitoring
Session 3: putting scientific results to work
Chemical species-specific analysis
Confronting the misuse of scientific data
Session 4: summing up
   

Key data

Research in metrology is covered under the Measurements and testing generic activity.

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