science policy

Spread the word about chemistry & don’t fret the chemophobia

   

At times chemists can feel rather maligned. But according to the RSC’s study of the UK public’s perceptions of chemistry we shouldn’t be quite so worried about what people think of us.  We do however need to get out there and let people know what we do.

The other sciences seem to get pride of place in the medias science pages and TV shows. Whilst chemistry has no celebrity singing it’s praises, not a single chemist made it into Science Magazines  50 science stars on Twitter, and chemistry news just doesn’t get the same coverage as the big physics projects (even when the physics project was all about landing a chemistry lab on a comet).

As a profession we think we do some pretty important work. After all every modern pharmaceutical, synthetic material, cleaning product, fuel, battery, ink and electronic device contains our handy work. Which is why we get upset when an advertising campaign emblazons the dreaded words “Chemical-free’ across some product or another.  Or the likes of The Food Babe, decides to start an uniformed campaign against an additive based on little more than the fact she can’t pronounce it.

Sometimes we (I) throw our toys about the pram and start ranting about how everything is made of chemicals and how chemophobia is rife. God knows bloggers have written enough posts about it, including a comical ‘paper’ in Nature Chemistry. However, we should settle down, because the Royal Society of Chemistry has commissioned a comprehensive study of UK public’s perceptions of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. And it seems many of those (mine included) irate blog posts got it wrong.

I’ve been able cogitate about what it all means as I got an an advanced copy of the findings and have had time to discuss them with the RSC. So here’s my potted summary and a few conclusions.

Perceptions of perceptions of chemistry: First off the RSC asked it’s members about how they thought the public perceived chemistry. And sure enough most expected a negative attitude. The fear of chemophobia amongst chemists was certainly commonplace. But when the RSC turned to the public chemophobia didn’t materialise in anywhere near the expected levels. Instead …

Perceptions of chemicals:Chemophobia is not commonplace. Less than 20% of the public thought that all chemicals are dangerous or harmful. Most people really didn’t have strong feelings about chemicals one way or another. And 60% knew that everything is made of chemicals. This is despite the use of ‘chemical’ to mean something dangerous being very common.

Perceptions of chemistry: Here 59% believe the benefits of chemistry are greater than any harmful effects (as compared to 55% for science). And once again most people were pretty neutral about chemistry as a subject.

Perceptions of chemists: It turns out people just don’t know what we do. This is made all the worse, in the UK, by retail pharmacists being universally known as chemists.

Don’t fret the chemophobia

There’s an important message here about what’s going on when ‘chemical’ is used pejoratively. For most people ‘chemical’ has a double meaning. So we shouldn’t get upset when ‘chemical’ is used as a short hand for toxin or poison. I know I’ve written plenty that’s contrary to this, but the RSC’s study has really changed my thinking. People are quite capable of holding two meanings of ‘chemical’ in their minds and we should just try and ignore the use of the one that soooooo grates. In fact it may even be counter productive to try and combat our perceived misuse of ‘chemicals’. As the RSC study puts it…

“People’s views of chemicals do not impact their view of chemistry or chemists. But if chemists talk about chemicals all the time, especially in trying to combat inaccuracies in the views of others – we risk activating existing fears.”

Chemists aren’t being tarnished with the chemicals = danger association. But by continually banging on about how chemicals are in everything we run the risk of being alienating our audience. Luke Gammon put’s it very well.

Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” – remember to laugh with, not at – lest we lose the battle for the public perception of “chemicals”.

So here’s me hanging up my #chemophobia hash-tag. And conceding that Luke, Renee and Chemtacular probably had the right idea (check our their blogversation)

There’s a void we need to fill

However the overwhelming message is that there is a void in the public’s perceptions of what it is we do. And it’s a gap that we should all do our best to fill. That means that we all need to do our bit, whether on social media, in blogs or even at parties. We can all tell people about what we do. There’s a great appetite for science out there, we shouldn’t assume that people aren’t interested in what chemists get up too and we certainly shouldn’t fear a negative reaction from them.

To go along with the study the RSC have also published a communications toolkit which summaries their main findings and contains some tips for how to get the wonders of chemistry across. Please go and take a look and then spread the word.

And join in the discussion on twitter with the hash-tag #chemperceptions.

 

There’s something interesting brewing…

There’s something interesting brewing over at the Royal Society of Chemistry.

They’ve been beavering away trying to figure out what the (UK) public thinks for chemistry, chemicals and chemists.

Results are out on Monday 1st June via a live-stream. Be sure to tune in and join in the conversation on twitter with the #Chemperceptions hashtag.

And of course we’ll have all the analysis right here.

 

 

Is the Coop bank fishing for an anti-science cause?

The Cooperative bank has had its troubles of late, mismanagement, scandal ridden executives and massive debts have seen an the organisation that prided itself on its ethical policy forced to reevaluate its self image.

At the moment it takes a stance, both through its investments and the customers its accepts, that supports communities, tackles povety, encourages responsible financing and protects the environment. One way that the Coop’s reevaluation has manifested is via a poll (aimed largely at its customers, but open to anyone) asking how the ethics of the bank should be manifested. Most of the questions seemed perfectly reasonable, asking participants to rank various activites, such as customer service, responsible lend etc. But when it came to the questions on environmental protections, they highlight chemistry, nanontechnology, GM foods and fracking as particular worthy of a mention.

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Why these subjects in particular and why present them in such a leading fashion? It strikes me as a list of subjects that have been the most contriversial with respect to the environment in the last few years (or decades).

Personally I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Are they fishing for a particular area that they can easily fight? Afterall campaigning against GM or pandering to chemophobia is fairly easy to do without committing to anything in particular. However, making the bank carbon neutral actually requires some action. Or maybe its just a sloppy poll, but either way the bank needs to try a bit harder to come up with a meaningful and evidence based environmental policy.

By June 27, 2014 0 comments opinion, science policy

Who knows reviewers’ identities?

A couple of posts ago I shared a pretty unpleasant experience I had after peer-reviewing a grant application. In short my anonymity appeared to have been breached and I received ,what I took to be, a thinly veiled threat from the grant’s author.

Some of the comments that followed thanked me for bring the case to light but were critical because I hadn’t gone far enough and named names. Therefore what had the post achieved? I take the point, but I’m still not prepared to name the persons or organisations.

However, I did contact the funding body involved who were willing to investigate the matter. They also suggested that I first file a freedom-of-information request asking for details on how anonymity is protected and with whom reviewer identities are shared.

For the sake of completion I asked the main science research councils in the UK (not just the one that was involved in my incident) for the same information (details below).

In short most committees (that’s typically upwards of two dozen people) are aware of the identify of reviewers. This is probably not news to most, but I figure its good to know who knows who you are.

In most cases identities are revealed in the committee meeting. Which made me consider how the reviewer knew my identify before the committee sat. Until I remembered that I had reviewed the grant twice (it had been rejected the first time, but a resubmission was requested). So a panel member from the first meeting must have made a note (mentally or otherwise) of my name and then shared it.

It strikes me that its rather too easy for reviewer anonymity to be breached. So what’s to be done? In the short term maybe its worth checking who is on a panel. Then if you know of a relationship between a member and the proposal’s author, that might result in a leak,  refuse to review the grant. In the longer term, should the system change so that reviewers are truly anonymous? And as for me, my next step is to take up the offer of that investigation.

And in case you are interested here are the more detailed responses from the research councils.

The BBSRC website provides a document called “Peer review and freedom of information’. Part of which states that the identify of reviewers is

‘…available to the members of the peer review body.’

I asked for clarification on what constitutes a ‘peer review body’. To which they responded

‘.. peer review body refers to Research Committees and any other ad hoc panels that assess grant applications.’

they added that

Their identity [of reviewers] is revealed to the peer review body only as part of normal business meeting

The other research councils have similar freedom of information documents to the BBSRC, however they are less clear on the policies with regards to reviewer identities. So I asked them directly if identities are revealed to panels/committees and how anonymity is assured.

NERC replied :

Panels see the reviewer names but they are required to keep all the business of the meeting confidential including reviewers names and which members of the panel introduce the proposal and we rely on them to do that. That confidentiality is set out in the Reviewer Protocols. These are available on the NERC website and part of signing up to the Peer Review College. Access to proposal information is via Je-S [ grant submission/review system] and panel members are required to sign up to the Reviewer Protocols before they can see the proposal information in order to review it. Details of the Reviewer Protocols can be found at:

http://www.nerc.ac.uk/funding/application/peerreview/members-details/PRC-reviewer-protocols.pdf

The EPSRC‘s statement was:

Each reviewer has an anonymised reference for each proposal they are sent, but their identity is indicated in the meeting schedule provided to the panel members. Each schedule is customised so that if the panel member has a conflict of interest the reviewers remain anonymous for the affected proposal.

All panel members are sent guidance which includes our code of practice based on the Nolan Committee’s seven principles of public life – for further details please refer to the link below.

http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/peerrev/panels/Pages/protocols.aspx

And from the MRC I received:

At the board/panel meeting itself the names of the reviewers are projected onto a screen for each application in turn.  This information is not provided in hard copy to any of the board/panel members.

At Fellowship panels, the information is provided to the chair of the meeting and the information is securely destroyed immediately following the meeting.  Other panel members may request the information at the meeting and may be provided with this information verbally at the meeting to enable better decision making.

The Biomedical catalyst panel meeting is currently the only exception to this as information is revealed to panel members prior to the meeting. This is because the meeting is jointly run with the Technology Strategy Board.

 

By May 15, 2014 0 comments opinion, science policy