Issue Date: April 7, 2008
Communicating The Centrality Of Chemistry
CHEMISTRY. THE WORD that defines our vision has so much meaning to us. But what do people outside of chemistry think about our craft? As chemists, what do we do to make sure they understand the positive significance of chemistry in their daily lives? The communication of what we do to stakeholders outside of our profession is an important way of demonstrating the central role of chemistry in our world.
Sometimes we can learn much by looking at nonchemistry textbooks. For example, generations of students in mass communication have used the text "Effective Public Relations," written by Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, and Glen M. Broom. We can learn much from the message in their book.
The first edition was published 60 years ago, and it remains amazingly popular. It uses a pure and simple definition of public relations far removed from the undertones of the smoke and mirrors sometimes associated with the field. Public relations, they declared, is "good performance, publicly appreciated."
That goal—fostering greater public awareness of the good performance of chemists and chemistry—is a major objective of my presidency (C&EN, Jan. 7, page 2). I am, therefore, delighted to discuss Goal 4 of the ACS Strategic Plan, which states, "ACS will be a leader in communicating to the general public the nature and value of chemistry and related sciences."
A PIONEERING TRADITION. ACS pioneered the concept of the mass communication of science to large segments of the public. In 1919, ACS became the first major scientific organization to establish a unit for communicating science to the public: the ACS News Service. The ACS Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public honors the achievements of two outstanding directors of the News Service, James T. Grady and James H. Stack.
The News Service was a revolutionary idea. In those days, scientific societies focused almost exclusively on their members, and communications were, therefore, almost entirely internal. ACS had the vision and foresight to look outward and realize the news media's importance in shaping public attitudes about chemistry.
Today, ACS continues this endeavor in many ways, including the efforts of the ACS Office of Communications (OC). Week after week, OC ensures that newsworthy research published in ACS journals gets public recognition. Stories from the journals regularly appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, USAToday, and other news and broadcast outlets around the world. They get the word out about the positive accomplishments of our members very effectively.
Research presented at ACS national meetings gets a similarly high media profile. Those communications efforts have expanded into the new media, with digital products that include two highly acclaimed podcasts.
CHEMISTRY'S INVISIBILITY CLOAK. Despite these successes, the society's future efforts must focus more sharply on Goal 4's explicit objective of more effectively communicating the nature and value of chemistry to the public. This difficult task will involve removing the cloak of invisibility that often conceals the good performance of chemists and chemistry from public appreciation.
How will we do it? We must make chemistry's contributions to society more visible to the public and to policymakers. Too often, our field is deprived of credit for achievements in the spectrum of sciences that are based on chemistry.
Those fields span modern science's horizons from astronomy to zoology. Advances in those sciences depend on chemists and chemistry. Some fields that chemistry fostered and today sustains are among the hottest of scientific disciplines, including biotechnology, nanotechnology, and proteomics. I cited examples of such lapses in giving chemistry its due credit in my presidential statement in C&EN and will not belabor the point here.
SOLICITING YOUR HELP. That the communications media often overlook our good performance is unfortunate enough. Chemistry is in a worse fix. Although we chemists often don't receive due credit for chemistry's positive performance-groundbreaking drugs, improved consumer products, new materials, and the like-we seldom avoid blame for the bad.
We have all seen the headlines and heard the TV sound bites about the latest problems caused by often unidentified "chemicals"—and that word is usually used with an air of foreboding. "Chemical" has become a media synonym for "something really bad." We have a communications and public relations problem that must be addressed aggressively, and we need your help.
In striving to achieve Goal 4, we must find ways of removing chemistry's cloak of positive invisibility and negative culpability. We must communicate the centrality of what chemists and chemistry do to improve our world. Quite honestly, it is time for chemists to get the credit they deserve.
I ask that you visit the ACS Strategic Plan (www.acs.org/strageticplan) and offer suggestions on how we can gain more public appreciation for chemistry's good performance. We can and must do better.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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