Combatting Chemophobia

February 1st, 2013

Chemical Ed with GogglesThe annual ScienceOnline 2013 conference is taking place in North Carolina, and chembloggers Carmen Drahl and Dr. Rubidium are running a session tomorrow on chemophobia. You can follow updates on Twitter labeled with the hashtag #chemophobia.

Personally, I think the greatest failure of our field over the past three decades has been the steady decline of the public image of chemistry. Our “brand” has steadily deteriorated from an apex of “better living through chemistry” in the 1970s to the ever-worsening current climate where “chemicals are bad” and products are nonsensically advertized as “chemical-free”.

There certainly are cases where specific chemists and chemicals have had horrific consequences for the public (e.g., thalidomide or the Bhopal disaster), but surely these cases are balanced by the numerous ways that chemistry has improved modern life: from countless new pharmaceuticals that improve health to a wide array of new materials that make modern technology possible. That’s all “chemistry” and “chemicals”, but the average person-on-the-street would probably not associate these advances with our science.

Of course, this is a blog for chemists, so there’s no sense wasting time here celebrating all of the benefits of chemicals and chemistry. Rather, why don’t we focus on how utterly stupid our field is with regard to communicating these benefits? Despite the manifestly dire state of the public image of chemistry, chemists continue to do nothing to correct the problem.

But, Paul…is it really a problem? Who cares if the public dislikes chemicals? So long as chemists know better, we will continue doing good science. Why should we be distracted by general ignorance?

The problem with that argument is that we live in a democracy. For a democracy—where the People govern by voting—to function efficiently, the electorate must be educated and informed. The steady decline of chemistry’s public image is a massive problem, because it erodes support for our field. Taxpayers fund our research, and if they are convinced that not only is chemistry not helping the world, it is hurting it, then what is going to stop politicians from cutting funding? This is already occurring. Look at how many Americans vilify scientists who support the highly (un)controversial theory of evolution. We also spend many, many times more money on the DoD than scientific research because the public is generally much more concerned about the threat of foreign dictators than the combined threats of insidious disease and the global energy crisis. Seem stupid? Well, turn on the news tonight. What are people talking about, the Middle East or cancer? And what’s worse than people not knowing anything about chemistry is when they “know” incorrect negative information about chemistry. That’s basically where we are.

Hey Paul, isn’t this something the ACS should handle?

Yes! Actually, it is something all of us should take responsibility for handling to some degree, but the ACS should be at the forefront. This brings me to the point: WHAT THE HELL HAS THE ACS BEEN DOING FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS? As far as I can tell, very little in the public-image battle, and the miserable status quo is all the evidence you need that our professional society has failed its mission in this regard.

OK, wise guy, what should the ACS be doing?

I can think of a number of things, but let me give you two: one from the executive level and one from the grass-roots level. First, the ACS needs to get a handle on misinformation in the media. When someone blurts “chemical-free” into a microphone or opines about the hazards of a compound with zero supporting evidence, the ACS should have someone step up and provide a rebuttal. We need a “war room” at ACS headquarters that monitors all major media outlets and contacts editors and producers when something is wrong. The war room should have experts trained in public communication who are camera-ready 24 hours a day and a TV studio on-site for satellite interviews. Reporters are getting lazier; we must adapt. At the grass-roots level, the ACS needs to do a better job organizing outreach efforts and coordinating volunteer chemists to run these programs. More on that below.

Whoa. Volunteer chemists and outreach programs? What are you talking about?

I think it is important that every chemist spend some time engaging the general public for the purposes of education and promoting the benefits of our field. Let me toss out a ball-park figure: 5% of your time allotted to chemistry.

You want me doing what, exactly?

Pretty much anything where you are bringing science/chemistry to a population not already intimately involved in the field. I am not talking about writing essays for Angewandte or leaving comments on In the Pipeline. I am talking about: (1) judging kids’ science fairs, (2) writing letters to the editors of newspapers to correct misinformation, (3) running or volunteering at a local science club, (4) explaining your research at a science cafe, (5) volunteering to talk to a middle-school science class, (6) developing a lab exercise for high schoolers based on your research, (7) making a science Web site for a general audience, (8) making YouTube videos pretending you are “Phil Nye the Chemistry Guy”, (9) editing Wikipedia, (10)…   need I go on? Anything. Anything! There are thousands of possibilities. If you don’t think you have a good idea, other people should have plenty of ideas in need of volunteers.

You think this will work?

Yes. I believe it will help. I think that education and outreach, or “E & O” in NASA parlance, is exactly what kept a largely overpriced set of shuttle missions in operation for so long. Spacemen realize that they need the public on their side, so they appeal to the public. I assume astronauts on space stations have more important scientific activities they could be doing than giving interviews to the yentas on The View, but NASA has the big picture in mind. If NASA could keep the space shuttles up so long, think about all of the additional funding we could bring to a field of science that is much more successful at improving people’s lives.

What’s in it for me?

Lots of things: (1) you’ll become better at communicating and teaching technical material, (2) you’ll feel good having taught someone something, (3) you’ll be giving back to society – was there a role-model or teacher when you were young that made you want to pursue a career in science?, (4) you are making the world less dumb, one person at a time, (5) in thinking about fundamental concepts and how to explain/teach them, you will invariably come up with new ideas. Sometimes it’s nice to think about areas of chemistry outside your focus of research, (6) you will help to improve the funding climate by persuading voters chemistry is valuable.

Bah. Those are worthless. I can’t list those on my CV!

Actually, you can list outreach activities on your CV. They may even make you seem human, you robotic hardass.

Seriously, my boss/advisor won’t care. Actually, I’ll get in trouble because he views them as a waste of time.

Public engagement should be a shared responsibility. Perhaps the reason almost nobody pitches in is because “why should I do it if the guy over there doesn’t?”  We need to find ways to incentivize desired behavior. Maybe a small outreach component for Ph.D. theses? Maybe make it part of tenure packages?

But Paul, I went through 11 years of university training to become a high-powered research machine. I am God’s gift to chemical research. I can think of nothing more inefficient than removing me from the bench to muck around with third-graders. Can’t we just hire professional outreach people so I can be left alone?

First, you are going to be able to bring things to the table that an education professional would not. Second, if you are truly “God’s gift to chemical research”, then you are a rock star. People love rock stars of any field. That is why we are willing to watch events like curling in the Olympics. You will be a great help! Also, get over yourself! Astronauts frequently give interviews while working in space. I assume there are probably some experiments they could be doing, but NASA recognizes the importance of education and interacting with the public.

Paul, I am too busy, go away.

What if everyone were too busy? Everyone is too busy! You can make a little time for this. C’mon.

Paul, I am still unconvinced this is actually worth my time.

Fine. You are a selfish jackass. I hope there are enough good chemists out there who can make up for your dereliction.

 

Folks, if we don’t start getting serious about addressing chemophobia, we are going to find ourselves in a bad, bad place as a profession, and the consequences for mankind won’t be pretty either.


47 Responses to “Combatting Chemophobia”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    I love the War Room idea; you can imagine a 2-month stint in it for grad students interested in sci-comm as an internship, etc. You could run it with 3-4 staffers, pretty much.

    Also, profs love to talk. Skype, Google Hangouts would all be tools for getting our experts (i.e. ACS members who know their sh*t) in front of cameras.

  2. Vittorio Saggiomo Says:

    Apparently all this chemophobia started recently. When I was going to start the university, the “I’m going to do chemistry” was almost always followed by “hoooo you must be a genius then”. In the following years the same sentence was then followed by “you are going to make drugs, bombs and kill the environment”…

    Unfortunately it’s partially true, great part of environmental disaster are by chemicals (BP, asbestos and so on), but why people cares more about the disasters than the scientific innovation that chemistry brings to the world?
    My idea is that we are mostly paid by taxes, our work is to innovate and discover. There should be nothing special about it. That’s simply our job. Most of the people complains when things go wrong, and also this is understandable.
    Just as an example, no one is celebrating when the public transport works flawless, that’s a service that they are paying for, nothing special. They will complain when it will not work. I guess it’s the same things with chemistry.

    I agree on your points of push good information from different channel. And all of us should do it. But on the other hand we should also push for a responsible use of chemistry.

    Moreover I really cannot understand why people are “chemophobic” but not “biophobic”. People are scared of certain chemicals, but they are not properly washing their hands. Is a drop of benzene worst that a virus or a bacterium?
    And still, the bacteriophobia is classified as psychological disease. What’s about the chemophobia?

  3. Frank L Says:

    I LOVE the idea about making outreach a required part of your PhD thesis. This would demonstrate the value of outreach to young chemists…an idea that will hopefully stick throughout their career. Also, this takes away the stigma from the adviser because it is required. Great idea Paul, we need to get this instituted as a pilot program in some institutions.

  4. Paul Says:

    @Frank: I think the idea will face majority-resistance from just about every chemistry faculty in existence. So, for those of you who are grad students: don’t wait. Just put a chapter on outreach in your thesis and throw up a couple of slides in your defense seminar. Don’t go overboard, but make it clear the outreach activity is something you value. If someone on the faculty goes on the attack, you should be ready to defend the work in a thoughtful and well-reasoned manner.

    This will take some stones. Consider it an act of civil resistance against what is an oppressive and misguided mindset in “hardcore” academic research.

  5. Matt Says:

    “But I am Gods gift to research.” Priceless! Well done, Paul!
    I still think a non-scientist should serve on every grant panel. That would get people working on their communication REAL quick.

  6. Paul Says:

    I understand the reasoning, but have to disagree with this:

    Let’s not wall off research chemists. Interact, people.

  7. See Arr Oh Says:

    I would like to enlist for the ACS War Room.

    Consider this my “draft.”

  8. Bob Sacamano Says:

    “You can’t fight in here. It’s the war room.”

    To counter the jib of Chemjobber’s jab, it should be mentioned that gaining the public’s trust in something like this would be an extremely steep uphill battle.

    A group calling itself the American Chemical Society would at first glance be equated with one-sided industry-defending lobbying firms, such as The American Plastics Council or the Corn Refiners Association. Getting out of this hole would be job #1.

    I’m not sure a war room is the answer. Having Harry Gray regularly appear on Colbert and Stewart, well, that would be a step in the right direction.

  9. Jessica Says:

    I completely agree. While I may be a lowly high school chemistry teacher, you can be sure I am “making the world less dumb one person at a time.” Every single time one of my students asks the classic why do we need to know this question, I list countless examples of why chemistry is important and what it has done for us. Hopefully at least one will stick. And you can bet anything that my students know that “chemical free” is a bunch of bs. :O)

  10. Brendan Says:

    I really like your suggestions and agree with much of your assessment. I would just like to point out that while much more money goes to the dod than NIH or NSF, that the dod itself is a massive and important source of funding for science.

  11. Chemjobber Says:

    Bob:

    I think that’s a completely reasonable concern. A 24 hour rapid response center would be costly and, depending on how poorly it was used, could just be a huge sinkhole for resources.

    But I think that Paul is right, in that no other organization might have the funds and the membership and the media reach to even try to make this happen.

  12. David B Says:

    As a 4th year graduate student in an organic/materials group (i.e. lots of hours making molecules), it has been extremely motivating to work within our group to develop materials-related demos, volunteer in on-campus trainings for teachers/students, and reach out to local high schools with our old conference posters (see below) to talk about chemistry. Our group has managed to continue to produce high-quality research while having most members participate in these sorts of events.

    To give credit: Better Posters Blog mentioned the idea of giving old conference posters to local high schools. Teachers in our area loved the idea. http://betterposters.blogspot.com/2012/12/giving-posters-to-schools.html

  13. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I am not sure most professors and graduate students for that matter would take kindly to making outreach a part of your PhD thesis. Sadly most would regard it as a waste of time that could be spent on actual research. I personally don’t think we need a lot of chemists to drive home the importance of chemistry (although the more the better), just like we didn’t need too many astronomers to drive home the importance of astronomy. Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson are enough. Similarly Dawkins and Wilson are good enough for biology. The endlessly frustrating fact is that chemistry just doesn’t have such a bigger-than-life figure. So one of the questions we need to ask is; what would it take to create such a figure?

  14. mevans Says:

    Curious, I’m with you that chemistry needs a “Bill Nye”-esque figure to improve our image. That said, the throat-cutting and competition one sees in academic chemistry don’t bode well for this person to emerge from academia. Finding the right person will be very tricky.

    I feel like chemophobia has been brewing for a LONG time—it’s a fascinating sociological phenomenon to think about, really. Shitty chemistry teachers or poor curricula from the 1980s have led to adults ignorant of chemistry now. At least that’s my sense of the situation, but what do I know? Where is the “market research” showing the origins of chemophobia? Incidents of chemical slander? Perhaps an important component of the aforementioned “war room” would be regular publications of the “State of Chemistry” in the media.

  15. Vene Says:

    I actually think one of the biggest blows to the field of chemistry has been the chemical industry. Monsanto immediately comes to mind. So does BP. I think that in addition to outreach there also needs to be a bit of self policing where we need to be careful of what products we develop and do our best to show that we’re the good guys. We don’t want to create something which gets people sick or kills wildlife. We just want to create something neat.

  16. Marie Says:

    I agree that it would be great if chemistry had its own Carl Sagan, but I don’t think that is the only reason people connect more with astronomy. I know many people in astronomy graduate programs and they simply take outreach more seriously. People line up outside observatory doors to hear public talks from professors and get a chance to look through telescopes. Students and faculty give a large portion of their time to communicating with the public.

    When I told a friend in the Harvard astronomy program that you suggested devoting 5% of your chemistry time to outreach, he said, “That’s all?” The Harvard astro program just instituted a new requirement for PhDs to include an outreach portion in their thesis and most of the faculty actually care about it and consider it important. That culture just doesn’t exist in chemistry.

    As for myself, I love doing outreach. I find it highly rewarding, but whenever I need more volunteers to do something like judge a science fair I inevitably ask my astronomer friends, because the chemists I know “don’t have time.”

  17. Paul Says:

    @Marie: Way back in 2007, I wrote about some of the other cultural differences I’d noticed between Harvard chemistry and Harvard astronomy:

    http://blog.chembark.com/2007/01/15/fun-at-the-center-for-astrophysics/

    I really enjoyed going to one of the CfA’s open telescope nights. After a public lecture, we went up to the roof and took looks through a number of telescopes that were set up. It was the first time I had viewed Saturn, and seeing the shadow the rings cast on the planet blew my mind. I probably crowed about it to 20 people the next day.

  18. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Marie and Paul: That’s a good point. Astronomy also has become much more open compared to chemistry and there are many great success stories of amateur astronomers pooling their resources together to accomplish great things. The Galaxy Zoo for instance is a great example of a community-wide, collaborative effort to map galaxies. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey also solicited contributions from hundreds of contributions from amateur and professional astronomers. When was the last time chemists all over the world came together and tackled an important problem?

    A related question: what kind of events can chemists organize which would be equivalent to the sky parties and telescope nights regularly organized by astronomy buffs? Also, we know that one of the reasons people connect more easily with astronomy is because it deals with big, important questions. The one grand question in chemistry is the origin of life. Can we organize some kind of “origins parties” in which people ask questions about chemical origins and also perform known experiments with RNA and simple prebiotic molecules?

  19. VSaggiomo Says:

    how can you compare astronomy or biology to chemistry. Those two fields have great outreach simply because most of the people can see and understand it (in general lines of course). They are way better communicator than us (chemists). Showing pictures of galaxies or virus/bacteria/cells is way beyond anything we can show. Do you think people will be impressed by some x-ray structures? Sometimes, during conferences I get bored by some speakers, and I’m working in the same field…..

    @curious wavefunction in “origins parties” and in chemistry in general you have to hook up people, and for sure you are not going to do it with a Q&A session.
    So far the best we did are explosions, just check any chemical video on youtube, and the most viewed ones are either explosion or other kind of fire-related-stuff.

    We need to outreach, and we need to do in a clever way, with all the media that we can use.
    We need to improve our communication.
    We engage discussion with non-chemists.

  20. wolfie Says:

    You claim things that never will happen.

    You say that you’re more intelligent than the rest of the world – yes, me too.

    But : have you, yourself, ever put anything on a table that was better than a piece of paper in Anjewandte ??

    please…

  21. Marie Says:

    I agree that astronomers and biologists have amazing pictures, but so do chemists! The amazing pictures of galaxies that we see aren’t what many astronomers use on a daily basis. My friends working in astronomy usually deal with spectra that look really similar to mine – very boring. Chemists can break out SEM or TEM pictures. There is some awesome resources on the NISE Network (http://nisenet.org/image-collection). We just have to be a little more creative.

    Also, there is so much chemistry around us, but people just don’t realize it. We need to help people make the connections by grabbing onto things they are interested in. Tons of people are enthralled by the science of cooking, so why don’t we start having conversations about it? It may not be your area of expertise, but other scientists are willing to step out of their comfort zone to engage the public – my friend gave a talk on black holes. It is completed unrelated to his thesis work, but was it engaging? Yes!

    In terms of what we could do instead of showing people telescopes – the public is actually really interested in what laboratories look like. Harvard’s Science in the News does lab tours after all of their public lectures (always in a variety of fields) and gets a great response. If a full tour isn’t possible why not show some neat equipment or a demonstration (not necessarily and explosion)?

    I agree that we have failed miserably in communicating with the public, but I think it is more chemists’ fault rather than chemistry’s.

  22. wolfie Says:

    In the end, only synthetic chemistry will change something, to the bad or to the good. But, you need to put your material on the table.

  23. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    If we are talking about pictures, there’s a few options. For instance check out these awesome pictures of crystals of various drugs. For instance here’s an antihistamine:

    http://kentwood.photoshelter.com/image/I00005m4ZBQZEiB4

    What about protein pictures from the PDB?

    http://laguna-design.jalbum.net/Laguna_Design_Showcase1/Space_filling_proteins_on_white/slides/Alpha_hemolysin_7ahl.html

    Then there’s the book by Whitesides and Frankel with some spectacular images of all kinds of materials used in nanotechnology:

    http://www.amazon.com/No-Small-Matter-Science-Nanoscale/dp/0674035666

    And as Marie indicates, there’s also stuff from the chemistry of cooking, not to mention fabric, perfume and detergent design.

    I agree that if we want to, there’s lots of visual chemistry that we can demonstrate.

  24. VSaggiomo Says:

    have you ever attended one of these cooking lectures? either I was always unlucky or the settings (university) was wrong but I was most of the time bored.

    @wolfie, we are talking about two different things: one is a paper, and the other is reach a broad audience. Even if we are good enough in chemistry, this doesn’t necessary means that we are good communicators..

    @Marie and @CuriousW, agree we do have nice pictures (if only we would spend some time in coloring them), but this is far away from organic chemistry.
    Also all this chemistry blogging stuff, do not misunderstand me, it’s great, but too specific (CW Virtual shock is hilarious) and probably it’s meant to be in this way. This is not going to attract people from outside chemistry.

    My plan is simple, I’m already doing some of the followings, and I’m planning to do the others:

    1) Entertaining presentations, I did a couple of general audience presentations, and these are scary. But entertaining it’s the key. Funny and interesting, low amount of chemistry

    2) Using metaphors. When I have to describe a carrier I’m usually using the house as cell (compartmentalized) doors as channel and people bring stuff in and out as carriers. When I have to describe combinatorial chemistry and dynamic combinatorial chemistry I’m usually going for words as molecules and the grammar as rule for combining them.

    3) Update our graphics, my last poster was entirely done with infographics, instead of putting 12 different graphs I used a full circle (sooner or later I’ll put it online because I’m really proud of it)

    4) “Dumbing down” your own papers. I’ll do it on my blog when I’ll have some time. Explain your work without using
    chemistry. Just the basic “why, how, and what”.

    5) hooking people with “new” media, if this means picking your lab and dance gangam style…well, so be it. Tried in my last video (not gangam :)

    6) open your lab and organize open days

    what do you thing about it?

  25. wolfie Says:

    QVassagiomo :

    In chemistry, I think, there is little love. But, all the rest is entertainment or symbol. (at least when gli altri anderstand it).

    Maybe i should reopen my lab to show once again it’s all nonsense I’m doing (except the s2n2c4h4, of course).

  26. Marie Says:

    @VSaggiomo, it sounds like you are already doing some wonderful outreach. Now you have to convince others to join you!

    In terms of chemistry lectures for the general public – yes, I’m sure some of the chemistry of cooking lectures are boring. A bad speaker can make any topic dull. I’ve seen some really awesome things in similar lectures though.

    The pictures that astronomers actually show are really far away from their work too, but it helps them to engage the public, so they use them. I don’t see any reason for us not to do the same.

  27. @SuperScienceGrl Says:

    In the UK, the RSC *does* put a lot of time into outreach and improving public perceptions. What did we get out of it? The toast sandwich… (google if you didn’t hear of that particular ‘gem’ of science communication…)

    That said, I did used to do a lot of outreach – before I started my Master’s. I have put it on my CV, but supposedly when I’m older and more experienced I shouldn’t put that on any more, and it’s essentially just reduced to space-filling to “prove” that I really do give a shit about chemistry, which will later be superseded by “real science”. Which is a shame, because it is SO MUCH FUN and such a brilliant thing to do. Now I feel like when I meet professors who I’ve applied for PhDs with, I’ll have to play up the fact that I won’t be doing it any more… because y’know, I’ll be in the lab…

  28. What is education’s place in dealing with chemophobia? | Atoms and Numbers Says:

    [...] in a more fleshed-out blog post, has suggested that chemists should spend 5% of their time allotted to chemistry on battling [...]

  29. StarryNight Says:

    Good read. I agree on pushing the visual elements for outreach in chemistry. They can be a powerful form of communication for such topics. Perhaps some research studies could be proposed (here is an astro one for example: http://astroart.cfa.harvard.edu. Would also love to see more cross discipline outreach all around, on both sides ( astro and chem go together very well for example http://chandra.harvard.edu/xray_astro/chemistry.html ). The International year of chemistry 2011 seemed a bit of a bummer, would have liked to see some bigger pushes for public science events. The international year of light is coming up in 2015. Perhaps joint events could be tried out.

  30. Nick K Says:

    “Folks, if we don’t start getting serious about addressing chemophobia, we are going to find ourselves in a bad, bad place as a profession”.

    What, worse than it is already?

  31. anon Says:

    We should be engendering chemophilia.

  32. Totò Says:

    Ideally, we should follow our noble intentions. But my advice is to be very cautious about embarking upon a high profile education & outreach program. For assistant professors, I strongly recommend you speak to your department chairman about this first. You may find that there is casual encouragement initially. But when it comes to promotion and tenure decisions, your involvement is likely to be used against you. Dedicating your effort to these sorts of activities can denote to them: 1) A lack of focus with regard to scientific productivity; and 2) An indication that you are excessively eager to spend time on projects that do not provide revenue to your institution.
    These can be held up as character flaws and you can be punished mercilessly.

    I wish it were different. I speak from experience. The NSF pushed me to do this type of work through its insistence on “broader impacts” in its grant merit criteria. My Chemistry Department let me know that they don’t appreciate my having taken this commitment seriously.

  33. Paul Says:

    @Toto: I agree that the current culture of academic chemistry does not value outreach efforts—and that is the problem. My point is that we are our chemistry departments, so we must work to correct deficiencies in the reward system. It definitely will not be easy, but I think this is a battle worth picking.

  34. Paul Says:

    Also @Toto: If you are willing, I’d love to briefly discuss this further (privately) by e-mail.

  35. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I am afraid Toto makes an excellent point. In modern day academia, almost anything that makes it look like it’s diverting you from “real” research (and this can include blogging) can jeopardize your chances of getting tenure and being promoted. I don’t know how we can transform this culture except by waiting until the old guard withers away. I think Sean Carroll had a great take on this in one of his posts. http://tinyurl.com/a8ryevx

  36. Paul Says:

    While I think waiting them out (the passive approach) might work, I fear that new generations of hardasses are being trained and promoted to partially refill the upper ranks.

    I favor a more active approach.

  37. VSaggiomo Says:

    Totò (Is that for Antonio de Curtis?) made some good point, but I guess that’s the American situation, and I don’t have experience with that.
    Here (or at least in some European countries) outreach is highly pushed.
    On one hand the grant holders push for information about their grants and improvements of quality of life trough chemistry. For example the Marie Curie program have a grant called “the nights of researcher”, in which one night we can engage the broad audience in a different setting rather than the university itself. Mostly pubs.
    On the other hand, the university and the department are suffering of a lack of students (see lack of incoming money) and are pushing professors to outreach and involve people in doing chemistry (this point is meaningless if they are not going to provide work after the university (but this is a point for “chemjobber”)). But still, they are definitely not discouraging outreach.
    and this is the situation in Europe.

    about me, I’ve just got this comment on my chemistry video on reddit:
    -”You have made one of the few videos that keep on inspiring and driving me to keep studying chemistry. Even if it gets to the point where I almost quit, I watch a video like this and it makes me work ten times harder. So with all of me, I say thank you.”-
    ad this is more than what I was hoping for…

  38. Tigerseye Says:

    But ACS is doing a lot of this. I’ve been involved with two local sections in my career, and both did lots of outreach activities. ACS National, through the Committee on Community Activities, sends all kinds of stuff out to K-12 educators, most of it for free, for National Chemistry Week and Chemists Celebrate Earth Day.

    The “grassroots” of ACS is the local sections. Do you know what is going on in your local section? If not, google them and find out. Hate the old “seminar and dinner” format? I bet that your local section chair will even try to find some money for you to do the activity. Contact the chair and offer to do something else.

    Look at what committees are active at the local section and contact the committee chair to offer to help. My local section has THREE PhD granting universities in it-do you know how many people from those places participate in our stuff-TWO. No one else has/takes the time to participate. The faculty fear that it won’t count towards tenure. The grad students think that taking the time for it will piss off their adviser. Then the same 35 people in the local section try to get new activities going. Some get burned out, then fade away.

    Go to the Chem Luminaries at the New Orleans meetings and see what some of the local sections are doing.

    We can bitch all we want about the actions/decisions of the ACS higher ups and the paid employees of the ACS. But when it comes to getting into the trenches with the public and doing outreach, that’s what we’ve got to do. Believe it or not, you can reach a lot of people with a table of slime fixin’s at your local mall during the “kids exposition” or whatever it is called.

  39. Paul Says:

    @Tigerseye: I am aware of what my local section does, and in the past, I have volunteered with them to judge a science fair. Almost all of what I do for outreach is not ACS-related. Every Friday, I go to a local high school to mentor a research project on solar-energy chemistry, and every other Saturday, I drive across town to help run a science club for 8-14 year-olds in section 8 housing. With all of that, I’m not looking to get involved in any more outreach (whether with my ACS local section or otherwise).

    I do feel entitled to “bitch” about the ACS (both national and local) because, as you point out, much of its programs are ineffective. They are not getting the job done, and participation among chemists is low. We can do better. I think so many chemists are disappointed with the ACS, that I cannot blame them for their reluctance to donate time to the organization. I am sure that plenty of good work goes on in various pockets of the country, but overall, the situation is not great. I’m also sure the ACS and its local sections can improve, but plenty of chemists could make substantial contributions on their own, independent of ACS involvement.

  40. Paul Says:

    I am also aware of situations where the ACS couldn’t/wouldn’t cough up a couple hundred dollars for an outreach effort pitched to them. I don’t know what the budget is for outreach and if there are ever any calls for proposals, but you’re right, it’s something to look into.

  41. wolfie Says:

    you mean nerdophobia, in reality

  42. APOD Says:

    This might be in the low-hanging fruit category, but what about starting up a simple Chemistry picture of the day site, like the Astronomy one (APOD) http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html Even if it’s just internal to the chem community at first, a place to gather striking images (perhaps across fields to show it’s relation to everything) with easy-to-understand captions for outreach purposes.

  43. Paul Says:

    I think that’s a great example of an outreach project to get started. Shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes a day, once you get the site started. I’m sure people would suggest images, too.

  44. APOD Says:

    I’d be happy to set up a demo site on wordpress or something to get the idea started, if someone wants to send a few image/text ideas?

  45. Blogroll: Fighting fear : The Sceptical Chymist Says:

    [...] purposes of education and promoting the benefits of our field” wrote ChemBark in his post ‘Combatting Chemophobia‘. Writing as if he’s talking to an outreach naysayer, ChemBark answers typical [...]

  46. Sandra Says:

    LOL I love the line “..you are making the world less dumb, one person at a time.” It’s appalling how ‘dumb’ some people can be, I once had a 19 year old ask me how they’ll know when the water is boiling, what would it look like.

    I’m a PhD student (guess that’s grad student in American speak) in Australia, and we have Outreach program in our Faculty- some of us are volunteers and some of us gets paid just a few hours worth of work. We do open days welcoming school students to our labs, or going out to pay schools a visit. We’ve done outreach demonstrations to students ranging from primary to high school level and it’s a very rewarding experience each time.

    It’s not difficult to organise one, We just really needed 1 academic to play captain and 3 volunteer students. I’m sure a research faculty/insitutition can scrounge up 4 people who would willingly donate max 10 hours of their time. It’s not even the same 4 people each time we have an event. The experiments themselves aren’t expensive, most of the ‘ingredients’ are available at the supermarket.

    Honestly I don’t get paid to do it, if anything I use it as an excuse to take a break from my research and interact with the real world. It’s a few hours of fun, and sharing with others, most times it’s MORE rewarding to teach a 12 y.o kid than having a reaction succeed in the lab.

    It’s a shame if it’s true that academics frown upon their own students ‘wasting’ their time with Outreach activities. (Thankfully mine is the complete opposite and encourages us to spread the love of science to as many young people as possible ). Do these academics ever think about where their future students will come from? It just seems counter-intuitive to me.

    ‘Chemophobia’ isn’t a v. great description, most school students i come across are more overwhelmed by the IDEA of science than actually afraid of it. If we don’t catch their attention while they’re young, by the time they get to university, these academics aren’t gonna have ANY science grad students to teach at all.

    Plus who wants to employ a candidate who ONLY knows how to be a scientist? There are a zillion of us out there, gaining all this other experience can only count for bonuses in a job interview/CV.

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