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The business of chemistry

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
May 8, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 19

Let’s start this week’s editorial with a quiz.

Which of the following statements about the U.S. chemical industry is true?

1. The business of chemistry is an $800 billion enterprise.

2. Chemical companies invested $93 billion in R&D in 2015.

3. More than 96% of all manufactured goods are directly touched by the business of chemistry.

4. All of the above

If you guessed 4, you’re right, according to American Chemistry Council data. The data are remarkable and are telling of the crucial role that chemistry and the chemical enterprise play in terms of economic welfare in the U.S. (To learn more, see page 20.)

So the chemical industry should get some respect for that, right? Right, it should. But it doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t feel like it does.

The business of chemistry not getting enough respect for what it does is one of the points that Mark Jones, executive external strategy and communications fellow at Dow Chemical, made in the recent ACS webinar, “The Good, the Bad & the Uncertain: Public Perception of the Chemical Enterprise.”

And of course the $64,000 question is: Why this lack of respect? Beyond being an economic engine, the chemical industry is a significant employer: In the U.S., it supports 810,000 skilled, good-paying jobs. For every chemistry job, 6.3 other jobs are created, Jones told William F. Carroll, a former ACS president and moderator of the webinar.

The chemical industry creates products that make our lives safer, healthier, and more sustainable. The examples are innumerable, and Jones quoted just a few: Thanks to lightweight materials such as carbon fiber, the energy required to move travelers around by air has dropped by 60% since 1970. Thanks to the development of high-performance, durable materials, the average age of cars in the U.S. has gone from 8.4 to 11.4 years over a period of 20 years. And there are loads more. The chemical industry’s products have provided greater energy efficiency, multiplied agricultural yield, and much more.

But chemists also get stuff wrong, and the business of chemistry does things like produce refrigerants that create a hole in the ozone layer. A problem is solved, but another one is often created. Good and bad frequently go together. Here, Jones cited an excellent example that C&EN covered a couple of years ago: Fritz Haber, one of the most controversial chemists of the 20th century, who, following the theme of the webinar, embodies the good and the bad simultaneously. Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a way to make ammonia at industrial scale. But he also supervised the development and first large-scale deployment of chemical agents in warfare.

The industry pays a high price for the mistakes it makes, and so it should. The data mentioned in the quiz are impressive, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that getting it wrong has the potential to harm people and the environment. The chemical industry has a huge responsibility, and the level of accountability placed on it is probably greater than many other equally financially contributing industries. We must also accept that science is an iterative process, and we don’t know what we don’t know. In the case of Haber, he was helping feed the world with one hand and helping kill it with the other and doing so knowingly. In the case of chlorofluorocarbons, we were unknowingly creating a hole in the ozone layer. It took the industry two tries, but now it is selling substitutes that are both ozone-layer and climate-change friendly.

I’d say the industry gets respect, but that is often overshadowed by any mistakes that it makes, which greatly affect public trust, sometimes irreparably. Chemistry is a very powerful science, not only because it explains why things are the way they are, but also because it offers the ability to make things, solve problems, and save lives. The chemical industry is at the core of these efforts.

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


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