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.
President Maryse Arditi welcomes participants
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
||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
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
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."
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
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."
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
The next speaker was Rainer Stephany from the
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.
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
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
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 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
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' .