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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.



Making sense of chemical stories

Discussions on chemophobia (or whatever you want to call it) is a perennial favourite on chemistry blogs. But the conversation rarely extends out of our echo chamber. But now Sense about Science have joined the discussion with the publication of a guide entitled  Making Sense of Chemical Stories.

Sense about Science is a respected charitable organisation that  ‘equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion’. In short, they facilitate discussions between concerned/interested groups and relevant experts.  The aim of their guide is to bridge the disconnect between the lifestyle view (and popular definition) of chemicals and the realities of how chemistry is used to support the modern world. It does this by tackling common misconceptions about chemistry.

One of the key misconception that they address is that natural chemicals are somehow safer than man-made ones. The wrongheadedness of which is nicely illustrated by a pair of infographics  (designed by Compound Interest) that don’t shy away from admitting synthetic chemicals are often toxic but also make it clear that whether a chemical is naturally occurring or man-made tells us precisely nothing about its toxicity.

SAS - Natural vs. Man-Made Toxicity FINAL (1)


SAS - Dose Makes The Poison FINAL (1)

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is being promoted to the public, journalists, life-style press and policy makers. It, along with the infographics are freely available to download and distribute under a creative commons license. Or if you prefer a hard copy (or box full of them) email enquiries[ at ]senseaboutscience[dot]org  with your contact details.



By May 23, 2014 5 comments science news

Frederick Sanger, 1918-2013

This week Fred Sanger died at the age of 95. His name is probably unfamiliar to most, but he is considered one of the greatest chemists of our age. He is the only person to have won two Nobel prizes for chemistry (only three others have won two Nobel prizes – Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and John Bardeen).

Sanger’s lack of fame is in no small part due to his humble nature and modesty. His sole autobiographical article, written five years after his retirement, starts with the self-deprecating comment: “I was not academically brilliant”. But there is no false modesty here, the article makes no mention of the numerous prizes and honours bestowed on him. These included a knighthood which he turned down, not for any moral objection to the honours system, but because he did not like the idea of being addressed as “Sir”.

Sanger spent his career studying the three fundamental polymers of life – proteins, RNA and DNA. It had long been known that DNA and RNA were made up of strings of just four bases, while proteins are more complicated, consisting of strings of 20 amino acids. However, just knowing this is like understanding that sentences are made of letters but having no idea what order the letters come in. Sanger strove to decipher the order of DNA and RNA’s bases and protein’s amino acids.

Other great (and many familiar) names such as Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Max Perutz worked on the 3D structures of these molecules. But Sanger’s work was more fundamental and arguably more useful – he laid the bedrock on which some of the greatest achievements of 21st century science such as the Human Genome Project and all that has followed were built.

Third from right: Sanger at the British Genius Exhibition at Battersea Park. PA

Sanger started his research career in 1943 on proteins. His Quaker upbringing led him to be a conscientious objector, so he was excused from fighting in World War II. He chose to work on insulin, partly because of its medical importance, but also for the practical reason that he could buy it at the local drugstore. It took him 12 years of work in a laboratory to come up with a solution. This dogged persistence and daily lab work characterised his scientific career:

Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.

After this success Sanger entered a period that he described as “lean years with no major success”. He had some sage advice on how to deal with these periods that affect many careers, not just scientific ones:

I think these periods occur in most people’s research careers and can be depressing and sometimes lead to disillusion. I have found the best antidote is to keep looking ahead. When an experiment is a complete failure it is best not to spend too much time worrying about it but rather get on with planning and becoming involved in the next one. This is always exciting and you soon forget your troubles

This quote speaks volumes about his values as during this “lean” “depressing” period Sanger was awarded, for his work on insulin, one of his Nobel Prizes.

This period came to end when Sanger began work on sequencing RNA and DNA. In 1971, state-of-the-art science had managed to determine the sequence of a stretch of DNA just 12 bases long (not much use considering the human genome consists of 3 billion bases). By 1978 Sanger had extended the record to 5,386 bases and then to 48,502 bases by 1982. These advances demonstrated that it was now possible to sequence vast stretches of DNA. It was for this work that he was awarded his second Nobel Prize, in 1988. But, probably of more value to Sanger was the knowledge that the DNA sequencing he developed made the global Human Genome project (instigated in 1990 and involving thousands of scientists) possible.

As far as Sanger was concerned, his DNA sequencing method was the climax of his career – and so at the age of 65, at the top of his game, he retired and gave up research. Retiring at 65 may not seem odd, but its is rare for a top scientist where a lifetime spent single-mindedly pursuing knowledge is a hard thing to give up.

Sanger was different. He felt the need for a lifestyle change and heeded the call of his rose bushes. He also wanted to make space for younger scientists, many of whom, through his nurturing, went on to win their own Nobel Prizes. So for the next 30 years he focused on his gardens in Cambridge, never once revelling in the glory that was so rightfully his.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By November 21, 2013 0 comments general chemistry, science news