The 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.