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Chemistry Ambassadors: Minding The Gap And Filling It

by Russell W. Johnson, Chair, Committee on Public Relations & Communications
November 23, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 47

Credit: Courtesy of Russell Johnson
Credit: Courtesy of Russell Johnson

For nearly 40 years, London subway passengers have heard a ubiquitous warning reminding them to be careful as they step between trains and platforms: “Mind the Gap.”

As chemists, it’s time for us to heed this warning as well. Only in our case, we’re talking about a communications gap—a vast one that exists between scientists and the general public. The bottom line is that most people admire us, but neither understand what we do nor realize how science—particularly chemistry—transforms their lives.

But that could change with just a little bit of help from you. ACS Chemistry Ambassadors, a new, exciting initiative, seeks to engage and inspire ACS members to speak comfortably and confidently to the public about the positive contributions of chemistry. In essence, we hope this effort will put, as ACS President Thomas H. Lane likes to say, “a human face on our science” and help everyone from elementary school students to taxi drivers to your next door neighbors connect with the chemistry in their daily lives.

Since its debut at the 238th ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., ACS Chemistry Ambassadors has attracted the interest of more than 1,300 ACS members. And we’re hoping you’ll make the time to become one, too. All it takes is a willingness to share and teach, and it doesn’t have to be formal. In fact, if you’ve ever helped answer a child’s science question or explained what you do to a fellow airline passenger, then you’re well on your way to be becoming an ambassador for our science. All the tools and tips you need to take the next step are available at

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the Ambassadors program, here’s a look at why it’s needed and why it is so critical to the future of chemistry.

For years, survey after survey has indicated that the connection between the public and the sciences is tenuous at best. One recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 84% of those surveyed like science and that a majority believe that its effect on society is mostly positive. Another survey, this one commissioned by Research!America, found that 87% of the respondents believe scientific occupations are prestigious, 86% said science plays an important role in our health, and 83% believe chemistry is important to medical progress.

But although the public says it likes science and respects those of us who practice it, it doesn’t necessarily comprehend it. As part of their survey, Pew researchers asked participants to take a 12-question, multiple-choice science quiz. On average, the respondents correctly answered about 65% of the questions, suggesting that some high school science knowledge is elusive for many Americans. Barely half of the respondents knew that antibiotics do not kill viruses. Fewer than half knew that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves, and only 46% knew that electrons are smaller than atoms.

So what’s going on? As Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post aptly put it, the public has come to regard science as “a single unspeakable and incomprehensible thing called biotechnonanogenomicology.” Mystifying, intimidating, and absolutely impenetrable—except to those who have I.Q.s comparable with Glenn T. Seaborg’s. (And just in case you were wondering, most people haven’t heard of Seaborg or any other famous chemist. In fact, 74% of the participants in the Research!America survey couldn’t name one living scientist.)

We have a lot of work to do. And that’s where ACS Chemistry Ambassadors come in. By becoming a Chemistry Ambassador, you can demystify our science and help people understand the importance of chemists and chemistry in our everyday lives. You can do it while taking part in community activities that are engaging and fulfilling for you on your own schedule. Talk to children about science, write an editorial about chemistry, organize a science café for your community, or simply share with friends and neighbors how your profession improves the world.

And you won’t be alone in this effort. The program website offers plenty of tools you can use to get your message across, including tips for speaking simply about your job, sample scripts you can use to talk with people in everyday situations, and activities you can use to inspire future chemists. There’s even a Chemistry Ambassadors discussion group on the ACS Network.

Now is the time to become a Chemistry Ambassador and make a difference. All you need to do is take advantage of the moment. So the next time you get into a taxi and the driver asks, “What do you do?” remember one thing: Mind the Gap. Then begin to eradicate it with your words … and a smile.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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