- The last two months
- Restrictions possible under REACH since 1 June 2009
- ECHA and EFSA enhance their cooperation
- Excellent job within tight deadlines
- Commissioner Dimas congratulated ECHA on a job well done
- ECHA launches the SIEF campaign
- ECHA's anniversary
- Interview: Derek Knight, Scientific Advisor
- 570 people from around the world took part in ECHA's Second Stakeholders' Day
- Helsinki Chemicals Forum: Looking for new paths
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Article related to: people_and_perspectives
Interview: Derek Knight, Scientific Advisor
It is probably clear to anyone bumping into Derek Knight in an ECHA corridor that he is a happy man! When asked where his happiness stems from his response is a simple one. "At ECHA I have found my dream job," he says.
Derek's official title is ‘Senior Scientific Advisor to the Executive Director (ED)', a post he has held since September of last year. In practice his job involves giving independent advice on scientific and technical matters to both the ED and other colleagues within ECHA. He is also expected to build relationships on scientifi c matters with actors outside the Agency and in addition to assist in the flow of communication between ECHA and interested parties in a way which is understandable to the audience in question.
Derek has the talent of being able to explain highly technical or complex subjects in a language that any non-scientist can understand. "It should be possible to be able to explain complex REACH related matters to any audience," he underlines, "the trick is to fi nd the right language and to get the pitch right." Derek certainly manages to do both with ease, a service that has already proved invaluable on many occasions. Prior to taking up his position at ECHA, Derek had only had one previous encounter with Finland which was in May 2008 when he visited the HICCS Conference held in Helsinki. "I hadn't visited Finland before that but I had always been aware of the excellent reputation that the Finns had in terms of the quality of the science here, the resources available and the general enthusiasm and interest of the public. They really seem to be well-informed on chemical safety. I was watching TV on one of my very fi rst evenings here in Helsinki and I came across a programme on endocrine disrupters and REACH. What a contrast to usual television programming! Derek describes his role as both ‘challenging' and ‘rewarding'.
Nine months in, he has been impressed by how ECHA is genuinely open to receiving input both from industry and interested parties. "I find it encouraging that ECHA is helping registrants as much as possible. One of our biggest challenges is in assisting industry to get together to form SIEFs, even though it is not ECHA's legal responsibility. There are tight deadlines to be met and I know from personal experience how diffi cult it can be for companies to work together, and in this respect ECHA is doing everything it can to assist in the process." Derek fully supports the goal of REACH to reduce the need for animal testing. "The philosophy of REACH is that new studies should only be used as a last resort, and that non-animal tests should be used wherever possible. Industry has to have confidence in making their decisions based on surrogate data and is not allowed to just automatically commission new studies.
One of our most important tasks is to better explain how this can be done and what the consequences are. The reality is that some new studies will have to be done simply because there were over 30,000 substances on the market which had not been fully tested under the old scheme, but we are pushing for the use of surrogate data wherever this is possible." This was one of Derek's areas of interests in his last job before coming to Helsinki. Derek started his career by successfully completing a doctorate in organic chemistry at Oxford University.
After working for a period as a process support chemist Derek started to work as a regulatory affairs professional with a focus on industrial chemicals. He set up his department within a private company and then developed it over the next 19 years, eventually leading a team of 35 staff. "I have been strongly involved in chemical safety, of different regimes and different approaches. It was hugely intellectually stimulating and it was here that we concentrated on the application of surrogate data to predict the properties of chemicals without having to do testing. The benefi ts are not only that it results in reductions in animal testing but also that it saves a huge amount in terms of the cost to industry."
So given that Derek found his previous career to be so fulfi lling, why the move to ECHA?
"I guess I had simply outgrown my position in my old job. I was ready to move on and fi nd a new challenge. I had always fancied working in a regulatory capacity within the public sector. This job has given me the chance to go back to my core interest of regulatory science." Derek certainly radiates satisfaction when talking about his job. "I suppose I am one of those unusual scientists in that I fi nd the legal side interesting too", he smiles. "It is always a challenge to work out how scientists and lawyers can best work together in partnership. But despite the challenges it can be done. We are proving that every day in working together in order to achieve the aims of REACH." On the personal front Derek has been happily married to his wife Ruth for over 20 years.
Ruth is a nurse and a keen ballet dancer and visits Derek in Finland regularly finding it a relaxing change from her life in the UK. "We both love Finland and the lifestyle here." Derek explains. "In our view it is calm and non-threatening. The people are courteous, respectful and civilised - even the adolescents!"
Derek struggles to come up with any negatives about the country but then fi nally adds "I had heard that the language was incomprehensible before I came and this turned out to be pretty much the case. It can make life awkward in terms of practical things like fi nding the right street or identifying the right food in a supermarket. In some ways it is a little like being in Japan!" When asked about his pastimes Derek says that he enjoys spending time with good friends. "I also love the fact that at ECHA I am surrounded by intelligent and interesting colleagues from throughout Europe who very much share my own fi elds of scientifi c interest. It has been hugely stimulating." Derek admits though that his move to Finland constituted an enormous change to his life. But he has no regrets.
"I am proud to be involved in something which I feel is so worthwhile. REACH is an elegant system which will genuinely improve human health and safety for the environment. I never expected to experience such a dramatic change to my life at my age but I feel very privileged to have been given a chance to be a part of it!"
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