Analytical Science has an image problem, and analytical scientists are the first to admit it. But a new initiative launched in London last week intends to change all that. The U.K. Analytical Partnership (UKAP) has set itself the lofty aim of making the U.K. world class in analytical science, and it has the backing of government, industry, and the research councils to do so.

Measurement is fundamental to the scientific process, and all scientists carry out analyses--so what marks analytical scientists as a breed apart? Well, they're the people who are constantly refining the instrumentation and methods to make everyday analyses more reliable and are researching to discover completely new principles of measurement. For example, work currently underway in the United Kingdom aims to develop a single probe that will measure the vitamin content of any food--no easy task given the entirely different chemical properties of the various fat- and water-soluble vitamins.

The UKAP Skills Set for analytical scientists. Do you measure up?

Edited highlights--the full listing will be available on the UKAP Web site.

  • Key skills/competencies

    Numeracy, communication, IT, and interpersonal skills

  • Practical skills

    Observation, manipulation, and instrumentation

  • Technical approach skills

    Think analytically, choose appropriate methods, use principles of experimental design, be aware of safety

  • Interpretative skills

    Handle data and apply statistical analysis, interpret graphical and instrumental data, use principles of chemometrics, and make realistic decisions

  • Knowledge skills

    In-depth chemical knowledge, general knowledge of related disciplines (biology, biochemistry, mathematics, statistics, physics, engineering, environmental science, and computing), and detailed knowledge of analytical science

  • Business awareness

    Strategic, financial, and customer awareness

Analytical science is a huge industry employing around 200,000 people and with an estimated turnover of more than £7 billion. According to Alan Johnson, Minister for Competitiveness, "its growth is expected to exceed that of the economy as a whole over the next 3 years." Doesn't sound like a sector in crisis. But the 1996 Foresight exercise found that analytical science in the U.K. is "lagging behind." As well as its unexciting image, which means that it's difficult to attract the best graduates and scientists into analytical labs, the sector suffers from being fragmented--most large companies now contract out their analytical work to smaller, specialist laboratories that don't have the clout of the multinationals. It is precisely this fragmentation that UKAP seeks to overcome by bringing together the key players.

So why should you consider making a career in analytical science? "It's the challenge of the unknown," says Martin Day of Reading Scientific Services Limited, a contract research organisation that carries out analyses for the food and pharmaceutical industries. It's all about problem solving, bringing "a vast array of skills to identify what the problem is." For example, a manufacturer might complain that his bottled mineral water has developed a smell of rotten peaches. The challenge is threefold: Identify what is causing the smell, how it got there and, finally, how to get rid of it.

Traditionally, analytical science has been dominated by chemists, a situation reflected in the fact that the Royal Society of Chemistry is one of the major stakeholders in UKAP. But these days the ability to take an interdisciplinary approach is regarded as crucial. As one biologist at the launch pointed out, the human genome project is a triumph of analysis. When DNA sequencing, developed by Frederick Sanger, was first used to sequence a viral genome, the process took a year and a half. Today, sequencing the same length of genetic code at the Sanger Centre takes just 4 minutes.

The Analytical Science Network

If you're over 35, you're too old to join the Analytical Science Network. Established under the auspices of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the network currently has 142 members and is open to analytical scientists working in all disciplines--not just chemists. Alexis Holden, Secretary of the ASN and an analytical scientist in the Department of Environmental Management at the University of Central Lancashire, says membership in the network is extremely advantageous for younger analytical scientists. She came to her current job direct from her Ph.D., "so I didn't have my network set up," she explains. Through involvement with the ASN she's "been invited to join lots of other committees and contribute to other discussion forums."

One of the first initiatives arising from the ASN has been the establishment of a biannual Analytical Grand Prix in which scientists under the age of 35 compete for £90,000 in prize money for the best new idea in the field of analytical research. The first prize winner, in May 2000, was Joanne Elliott from the University of Southampton who will use her award money to develop new forms of molecular sieves.

But what are the challenges facing analytical scientists today? Miniaturisation and the idea of putting a "lab on a chip" are causing great excitement. Richard Brook, Chief Executive of Sira Limited, says "taking analysis out of the lab and into the plant or onto the open road," is key to future development. Being able to carry out reproducible analyses away from the controlled conditions of the lab, and swiftly, would bring enormous benefits to industry. The ultimate though, according to Brook, is a real-life Star Trek tricorder (a universal analyser that detects the components of any object it is pointed at, for all you non-Trekkies). That could be a long way off, however!

The UKAP Web site will be available from mid-August at www.chemsoc.org/networks/ukap