Jim Ottelé (33) flies around the world to check that countries are complying with the ban on chemical weapons. ‘Even though we need plastic bottles, I don’t want to get involved in that kind of work.’

It is rare to speak to someone who is as enthusiastic about his work as Jim Ottelé. He has been an inspector with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) since September 2022, monitoring compliance with international agreements. Inspectors oversee the destruction of chemical weapons and check around the world that chemical production facilities are not producing new weapons.

Ottelé wants to work where he can do something good for the world, and he can think of no better place than the OPCW. He and his colleagues enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This treaty, which came into force in 1997, states that member states must not develop, produce, stockpile or use chemical weapons. They must destroy their existing weapons and production facilities themselves.

The treaty has been signed and ratified by 193 states. Only Israel, Egypt, South Sudan and North Korea have not signed, making the CWC the most successful international disarmament treaty. ’The world almost unanimously agrees that the effects of chemical weapons are worse than people should ever have to experience,’ says Ottelé. When the treaty entered into force, there were more than 70,000 tonnes of chemical weapons in the world, and the destruction of these stockpiles is almost complete.

’The elimination of chemical weapons is the best thing you can do with your time.’

Not enough support

Before becoming an inspector, Ottelé was an analytical chemist at the University of Groningen. As a PhD student and postdoc, he investigated how to make life in the laboratory. He analysed complex mixtures containing many different molecules. The culmination of his work was a system in which molecules showed both self-replication and protometabolism, which was published in Nature Catalysis. But basic research in the Netherlands is not supported enough for people to choose it as a career, he believes. ’I see how hard people work at university, how many hours they put in and how little they see their families. And I find the uncertainty of whether you will get money to fund your research demotivating.’

Public interest

Ottelé set out to redefine his career. He wanted to contribute to the public interest and felt that as a chemist he didn’t have much choice. ’In industry, you often develop substances that are not environmentally friendly. And although we need plastic bottles, I don’t want to be involved in that. I think making sure there are no chemical weapons is the best thing you can do with your time.’

His work as an inspector is in stark contrast to his academic life. Instead of solitary research, Ottelé is now involved in diplomatic relations. Despite his enthusiasm, the OPCW’s seven-year policy means that in six years he will have to find a new vocation. It should again be a function which serves the public interest. ’That publication was a great success and I am very proud of it, but it does not compare to the importance of my current work.’

OPCW-Jim Ottelé_EDV9854_web

Jim Ottelé

Beeld: Eric de Vries

Who is Jim?

What did you study and where?

’Physics at the University of Groningen, Bachelor with all science subjects in the first year. I also had a period of chemistry, but working in the lab was much more fun, so I switched. Master Advanced Materials, between physics and chemistry, PhD in analytical chemistry and postdoc.’

What motivates you in your work?

’Doing good for the world. It feels like a calling, like something I have to do. I don’t think I would feel that way anywhere else.’

What are your short-term goals?

’To develop myself here. Get more experience with different types of training and missions. See what I can contribute to other than inspections, for example in the Associate Programme.’

What are your long-term ambitions?

’I haven’t really given it much thought. I want to continue to do something that I feel is useful. I want what I’m doing not to harm the world, to be morally right, so I hope to find something along the same lines as what I’m doing now.’