More collaboration mooted for measurement scientists. Credit: Corbis

Quality control of foods, medical tests and drinking water could soon be much more consistent across Europe, thanks to a €400-million (US$525 million) scheme to forge links between measurement scientists.

At the moment, measurement standards across Europe are developed and maintained separately by each member state of the European Union (EU). Budgets for measurement science, or metrology, are limited, collaboration between national metrology institutes is informal and work is often duplicated.

Under the proposed European Metrology Research Programme, scientists from across Europe will work together to tackle the most complex and urgent measurement problems. The joint research projects will be coordinated centrally by the European Association of National Metrology Institutes to ensure that priority areas are targeted and that funds are not wasted.

"The new challenges in measurement science and technology are so large that no single institute or single country can address them all," says Erkki Ikonen, head of the Metrology Research Institute at Helsinki University of Technology. "There is a real lack of resources in metrology institutes and this is a great opportunity to get better results."

Pervasive but invisible

Precise, reliable and comparable standards are now an essential part of technological development and global trade, environmental monitoring and health-care services.

"Metrology tends not to be very glamorous but it is the invisible infrastructure that allows modern society not only to operate but also to develop," says Andy Henson, a metrologist at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, UK. "We will have touched your life today more than 100 times without you knowing it."

Without an agreed way to measure chemical residues, for instance, it would be impossible to check whether the levels of pesticides were too high in vegetables, or whether meat products contained traces of veterinary drugs. And companies that make high-performance materials for computing and telecommunications rely on standardized ways to measure optical and electromagnetic behaviour.

It's vital that such measurements are the same wherever they are made.

Bottom up

The European Metrology Research Programme is being driven from below by metrologists who want to pool their expertise — rather than by EU bureaucrats, according to Mike Sargent, chief chemical metrologist at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, Britain's designated national measurement institute for chemical and biochemical analysis.

"The world of measurement science is getting more and more complicated," Sargent says. "For example, when you are you looking for biochemical markers that are indicative of specific diseases, those markers are often present in very small amounts. You have to make the measurements reliably, and be sure you really measured what you thought you were measuring."

Once the programme is up and running, groups of national metrology institutes will be invited to bid for project grants. Insiders predict that this will lead to more specialization within the metrology community because contracts are likely to be won by consortia with niche expertise.

"I don't think it is going to be a bad thing but it is going to change the metrological world in the long run," says Albert Dalhuijsen from the Dutch national standards institute NMi-Van Swinden Laboratorium. "It could be a good thing. For instance, we are very good in gas-flow metrology. There are a couple of other institutes that do this at a high level too and it would be very good for these institutes to cooperate. You don't need every European country to have an institute doing the same thing."

Better together

A pilot programme has been launched of around 20 joint projects, costing an additional €64.6 million, €21 million of which will come from the European Commission. These projects were launched between February and July 2008 and each will run for three years. One, for example, is examining how to reliably measure the rate that radiofrequency energy is absorbed by the human body during diagnostic scans or from other sources of such radiation.

The programme itself will probably be launched in 2010, subject to approval by EU member states and the European Parliament. It is slated to be financed by a €200-million grant from the European Commission with the other €200 million provided by the 22 European countries that currently run their own metrology programmes.

Credit: Corbis