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Creating Chemical Bonds Between Practitioners And The Public

by Diane Grob Schmidt, ACS President
August 17, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 32

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Photo of Diane Grob Schmidt, ACS President.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Our colleagues at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) recently released an important report—“Public Attitudes to Chemistry”—that was based on interviews and opinion polls of the general public as well as practitioners of chemistry.

One of the most interesting findings of the study is that the public perception of chemistry and chemicals is far more positive than professional chemists believe. Chemists are also surprised by other findings: 84% of the U.K. public agrees that chemists make a valuable contribution to society, but only 12% of the chemists interviewed think the public would have said so; 62% of the U.K. public agrees that jobs in chemistry are interesting, but only 27% of the chemists interviewed think the public would have said so.

Looking through the study, I came to two conclusions. First, people perceive us—chemists—more positively than we perhaps perceive ourselves. The second is that we need to make the bonds between chemists and the public stronger. Chemists have difficulty communicating their science to the public for many reasons, not the least of which is the complicated nature of chemistry. Chemists often feel ill-equipped to explain technical issues to a nontechnically inclined public. And frankly, sometimes we hide behind tech-speak.

The study recommends several ways to help chemists bond better with the public. Talk about the “why” and not the “how.” Speak in nontechnical terms, and connect your work to everyday life. Link chemistry to solving the world’s grand challenges. Talk about “heroes” of chemistry who have pioneered important breakthroughs and the chemistry “heroes” who influenced you. Use multiple communication channels, specifically those most commonly used by the public. And perhaps most important, project yourself as an everyday person—just like those with whom you are speaking.

Although the American Chemical Society has not conducted a comprehensive national study like RSC, I am very thankful for the many ways that we are equipping and supporting our members to put into practice the RSC report’s recommendations.

The Chemistry Ambassadors initiative offers many tools to help you communicate chemistry in your community, whether you have a lot of time or just a little. These tools include tips on how to speak simply and resources to help you organize a community presentation. See more and sign up at

ACS also produces “Reactions,” a weekly online video series intended to help the public understand and appreciate the chemistry of everyday life. Episodes in this series include “Why are Tattoos Permanent?” and “The Chemistry of Pizza,” just to mention a few. Others feature chemistry-based tips for daily life, including do-it-yourself cleaners and creative uses for baking soda. E-mail one of these excellent and informative videos to friends, teachers, students, relatives, or others and help spread the wonders of chemistry.

Another ACS program, the National Historic Chemical Landmarks (, is also helping communicate chemistry to the public by recognizing seminal breakthroughs. Links to the program and its resources can readily be shared with students, teachers, family, friends, and colleagues. Take a look, and consider how you might leverage this outstanding resource in your community outreach.

But perhaps the most important thing each of us can do is simply talk to the people we see every day about the wonders of chemistry. This will demystify the subject and help the public connect the science in a meaningful way to their lives. This message was eloquently delivered by this year’s Priestley Medalist, Jacqueline K. Barton, in her award address at the 249th ACS National Meeting in Denver (C&EN, March 23, page 15).

To quote her: “The next time you are at a social occasion and someone asks what you do, and you say ‘chemistry,’ and they say, ‘ugh,’ please stop and tell them what you do, in English: What you work on, what you are excited about, whether it’s making the colors on the monitor of their computer, the insulation for their house, the statins they take at night, or teaching the next generation of physicians organic chemistry. It’s all chemistry, and the larger community needs to understand the important role chemistry plays not just in my life but in all of our lives.”

For those readers who have already been engaged in some aspect of outreach, you have my gratitude and thanks. You are truly Chemistry Ambassadors. For those who have yet to venture forth, please consider doing so. Speak up to help the public understand how chemists improve people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry. It’s our collective responsibility to help everyone understand what chemists do and why chemicals are not all bad.

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


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