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2016 Spring ConfChem: Science, Disarmament, and Diplomacy in Chemical Education: The Example of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

05/02/16 to 07/01/16

Science plays a critical role in international disarmament policy and diplomacy; informing the negotiations of international agreements, and underpinning their articles and implementation.  Of relevance to the science of chemistry, the disarmament of chemical weapons provides an opportunity to introduce students to the nexus of science and international diplomacy.

An international disarmament treaty banning chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), has been in force since 1997.  The treaty has 192 States Parties (the governments that have agreed to uphold the norms and obligations required by the treaty) and is implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); an international organization located in The Hague in the Netherlands and the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in chemical disarmament.

The OPCW has existed since 1997 and has overseen the destruction of more than 90% of the world’s declared military stockpiles of chemical weapons.  The CWC is the most widely subscribed disarmament treaty in history.  But the organization has not been widely recognized outside disarmament-focused diplomatic circles.  This is in spite of the fact that the science of chemistry is an integral part of the CWC and the work of the OPCW, requiring that the organization interact with the greater chemistry community.  In order to achieve its goals in the future, the OPCW will need to up its game in this area, reaching out to new stakeholders and strengthening its ties with its existing partners.  To this end, the OPCW has been placing an increasing priority on education and engagement to raise awareness of its work and the contributions both from and to science in chemical disarmament.

This ConfChem Online Conference is designed to highlight the work of the OPCW and the important contribution of scientists and educators to achieving its goals, the science that underpins the Chemical Weapons Convention, and how scientific and technological advances will help to better implement the Convention in the future.

Papers and Discussion Schedule

May 2-6:       Education, outreach and the OPCW: growing partnerships for a global ban
May 9-13      Education and Engagement: Key Elements to Achieve a World Free of Chemical Weapons
May 16-20    Mainstreaming Multiple Uses of Chemicals in Chemistry Teacher Education Programs of Africa
May 23-27    The project Irresistible: Introducing Responsible Research and Innovation into the Secondary School Classroom
May 30-June 3:  Citizen Science and International Collaboration through Environmental Monitoring with Simple Chemical Sensors 
June 6-10:    Painful chemistry! From barbeque smoke to riot control
June 13-17:  Sampling and Analysis of Organophosphorus Nerve Agents: Analytical Chemistry in International Chemical Disarmament




Conference Organizers

Jonathan E. Forman, Science Policy Advisor, Office of Strategy and Policy, OPCW,
Robert E. Belford, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, .


Conference Articles

Abstracts of Papers:

Joseph Ballard and Jonathan E. Forman, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague, NL


The Chemical Weapons Convention remains a landmark international treaty.  It was the first multilateral agreement to ban an entire class of weapons of mass destruction and include a strict verification regime to monitor compliance.  Scientists were not only deeply engaged in the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but have been central to the life of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) ever since it came into existence almost 20 years ago.  Over that time, during which the OPCW focused primarily on its mission to oversee the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, the organisation has relied on a very committed core of scientific expertise – from within and outside – to help guide it.  As that core task comes to a close, the Organisation faces a new challenge: ensuring that chemical weapons do not return.  Meeting that challenge will require new approaches to the OPCW’s mission.

Alejandra G. Suárez, Universidad Nacional de Rosario. Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas. Argentina


Education and outreach are long term strategic tools for the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that actively promote the peaceful use of chemistry. Thousands of new chemicals are reported every day; which can render enormous benefits for the common good. However, as with any science, there is always the possibility that chemistry may be misused as it has been done in the past. This work will refer to preliminary initiatives undertaken to address awareness-raising about the multiple uses of chemical substances and the potential dual -use of scientific knowledge which are being implemented in different levels of chemistry education and public outreach programs. The OPCW has placed a priority on education and engagement with the development of tools and materials relevant to the Convention; we will describe these tools and the regional and national meetings that were organized to highlight the incorporation of the CWC´s issues into the chemical curricula in South America. The paper will give special consideration to The Hague Ethical Guidelines, another initiative to support a culture of responsibility in the chemical sciences and to guard against the misuse of chemistry.  These guidelines were recently formulated by an international group of chemistry practitioners and serve as a set of elements to engage scientists in the ethical dimensions of their work. Education and outreach to future generations to promote the peaceful uses of chemistry is an essential part of achieving the goal of a world free of chemical weapons.


Temechegn Engida, Editor in Chief, African Journal of Chemical Education (AJCE)


Many compounds can be used for or manipulated to serve a variety of purposes. Chemistry teachers and the chemistry curricula they use, however, do not directly deal with the idea of the use, misuse, and abuse of multi-use chemicals. This paper therefore attempts to explore strategies in mainstreaming the concepts of multi-use chemicals in Chemistry teacher education programs. It is believed that teacher education programs have multiplier effects since they are intended to cover both pre- and in-service chemistry teachers.

Jan Apotheker, University of Groningen (communicating author), Ron Blonder, Weizmann Institute of Science, Sevil Akaygün, Boğaziçi University, Pedro Reis, University of Lisboa, Lorenz Kampschulte, IPN Kiel, Antti Laherto, University of Helsinki


Responsible research and innovation has become a core concept in some of  the Horizon2020 programs. In this article the concept of RRI is discussed and the interpretation used within the project ‘Irresistible’ is introduced.. In the article several ways in which RRI can be introduced in secondary education are discussed, coupled to contemporary research taking place in universities as well as recent innovations coming from industry.

The discussed modules are designed in groups in which teachers work together with science researchers, educational researchers and people from science centers. Part of the educational material is the development of exhibits in which both the science content as well as the RRI concepts related to the science are demonstrated for the general public. These exhibits have been very successful as a learning tool.

Peter G. Mahaffy, Kristopher J. Ooms, and Andrew F. Tappenden, The King’s University, Edmonton, Alberta Canada; Jonathan E. Forman, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague, NL; Ulrich Mans, Centre for Innovation, Leiden University, NL, John Sabou, Institute for Security and Global Affairs, Leiden University.


Abstract: Building capacity for carrying out and understanding responsible science that is relevant to local challenges is a key ingredient in the OPCW’s strategy for achieving and maintaining a world free of chemical weapons. Two important contexts for building that capacity for responsible science are (1) The global attention being drawn to the rapidly increasing human chemical footprint on our planet and (2) the pervasive use of digital technologies. We describe an effort coordinated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to build capacity among young people around the world to harness the power of small mobile chemical sensors to develop data literacy in complex chemical analysis based on measuring analytes that are relevant to their lives and local contexts. This new type of data literacy is an emergent element in educational programs and is key to developing the capacity for decision making on chemical measurement data. The project brings together student and faculty collaborators from the fields of chemistry, social sciences and informatics, to provide proof of concept in four areas that support the overall goal of building a collective effort for scientific analysis; the development of low cost environmental sensors for air and water samples; the collection of representative test data sets on priority contaminants; the assessment and visualization of data; and education about the effect of priority pollutants on human and environmental health. We report on the project goals and preliminary steps taken to achieve them.

Christopher Green, Farrha B. Hopkins, Christopher D. Lindsay, James R. Riches, Christopher M. Timperley*
Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Porton Down, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP4 0JQ, UK


Pain! All humans feel it throughout their lives. The molecular mechanisms underlying the phenomenon are still poorly understood. This is especially true of pain triggered in response to molecules of a certain shape and reactivity present in the environment. Such molecules can interact with the sensory nerve endings of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs to cause irritation that can range from mild to severe. The ability to alert to the presence of such potentially harmful substances has been termed the ‘common chemical sense’ and is thought to be distinct from the senses of smell or taste, which are presumed to have evolved later.

Barbeque a burger excessively and you self-experiment. Fatty acids present in the meat break off their glycerol anchor under the thermal stress. The glycerol loses two molecules of water and forms acrolein, whose assault on the eyes is partly responsible for the tears elicited by smoke. Yet the smell and taste of the burger are different experiences. It was this eye-watering character of acrolein that prompted its use as a warfare agent during World War I. It was one of several ‘lachrymators’ deployed to harass, and the forerunner of safer chemicals, such as ‘tear gas’ CS, developed for riot control. The mechanism of action of some sensory irritants is discussed here in relation to recent advice from the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on chemicals that conform to the definition of a riot control agent (RCA) under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Elena Fischer, Marc-Michael Blum, Wesam S. Alwan, Jonathan E. Forman*


Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Johan de Wittlaan 32, 2517 JR The Hague, The Netherlands


Chemistry is an extremely important field of science, one that contributes to applications across the broad range of sectors that intersect with our everyday lives.  There are clear examples in law enforcement (forensics) and public health; less clear, but equally important uses of chemicals might include automobile manufacture, electronics, packaging materials, currency printing, or waste management (recycling and value-added products from garbage).  Chemistry can also influence world events and international diplomacy.


Take for example the United Nations led investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria in August of 2013.  Environmental and biomedical samples were collected and analyzed; they undisputedly confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin. The results were published in a report by the United Nations Secretary-General and were one of the many influences leading to the accession of The Syrian Arab Republic to the Chemical Weapons Convention (an international treaty prohibiting chemical weapons) and the declaration and dismantlement of a chemical weapons programme.