The public face of chemistry has undergone many changes in recent times. Vikki Allen looks into some past and present perceptions

The public face of chemistry has undergone many changes in recent times. Vikki Allen looks into some past and present perceptions

Chances are if you are reading this article then you are boring, eccentric and socially awkward.

This is apparently what school children think, according to recent studies. Children, as young as eight years old, already have strong preconceptions about what it means to be a chemist.

A poor start, so it seems, for chemistry as a discipline, but Cefic (the European Chemical Industry Council) says the future is looking up for the chemical industry.

For most people, the results of the studies into children’s opinions of chemists will be unsurprising. We are all too familiar with the stereotype of a chemist based around a ’nerd’ in white coat. But children also said they were afraid that by becoming a chemist they risked injuring themselves or others.

They also said they did not want to work in what they saw as an isolated environment. Their parents agreed, saying, that although they thought chemistry may be a good career, it would not suit their child as he/she prefers to work as part of a group. As chemists we are able to treat these stereotypes for what they are, but still such generalisations endure.

This negative image may finally be improving. The results of Cefic’s 2004 pan-European survey of the industry’s image show 48 per cent of the population has a positive attitude towards the chemical industry while 44 per cent has a negative one. This outcome marks a gradual positive shift in the public’s attitude towards the chemical industry; an attitude that has not been favourable for well over a decade.

Delegates at the Public images of chemistry in the 20th century conference, held in Paris, France, in September, learned also that European opinions of the industry vary widely from country to country, according to the Cefic survey. The industry in Germany has mostly maintained a positive reputation with more than 60 per cent support. Conversely, at the bottom of the table the Swedes show little support for the industry.

There appears to be some logic for the variations. Germany is one of the largest employers within the chemical sector and Sweden one of the smallest. It appears that the more people who work in an industry, the greater the public understanding of the work and the surrounding issues, and the more likely the local public is to support your work. In short, better public relations. Also, the numbers of German undergraduate students opting to study chemistry is increasing.

But how did the negative image come about? The term alchemy originally referred to an ancient art of spiritual purification and transformation; a way for people to connect with the divine spirits. Although the origins of alchemy vary across the world, in the middle-ages the term became associated with man’s desire to harness nature. Alchemists would strive to turn lead into gold and to produce the elusive ’elixir of youth’.

The alchemist’s profession was a mystery and the public viewed it with a mixture of fear and wonder. The alchemical symbols used at the time were unrecognisable to outsiders and the church discredited the work. But the force of human nature meant the public still wanted what the alchemists were working towards; endless riches and eternal life.

The middle-ages also saw the rise of one of the most recognisable symbols of chemistry - the ’gazed-at’ flask. This image is now common in chemical company brochures. It is used relentlessly in advertisements and today the gazed-at flask presents an immediately recognisable picture of ’the chemist’.

The roots of this image do not lie in chemistry. As early as the 13th century, the ’gazed-at’ flask was an emblem of medicine, and often depicted the technique of uroscopy, explained Joachim Schummer of the philosophy department, University of South Carolina, US and the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, and Tami Spector of the chemistry department at the University of California, US. However, with increased understanding of the molecular science behind medicine, this ubiquitous motif slowly transferred to alchemy and on to chemistry.

Moreover, it has been shown that laboratory glassware images have become so entwined with chemistry’s visual culture, that when we see flasks and beakers they are used to illustrate chemistry, rather than any other scientific discipline, in almost 80 per cent of cases.

In the modern era the changes in the public image of chemistry have been considerable. Back in the 1930s, chemistry was a noble profession; you could stand tall as a scientist. Broad spectrum antibiotics - sulphonamides and penicillin - became freely available and were heralded as the new wonder drugs that would cure all ills. The future looked bright and other areas of chemistry were making some significant advances; although brittle bakelite switches and kitchen utensils that melted to the bottom of pans were not quite so welcome.

Following the second world war, steady progress was made within the industry until the positive image suddenly collapsed. Drugs that were supposed to solve problems began to be the cause of them. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria started to emerge and thousands of children were affected when their mothers were prescribed thalidomide in pregnancy. Repurcusions from these problems are a permanent reminder there is still a lot to learn.

During the 1970s global pollution rose up the agenda. The chemical industry was forced, quite literally, to clean up its act and research began in earnest to find workable alternative energy sources.

In spite of the chemical industry’s failings, there were also significant technological and medical achievements, but the public had lost faith in the industry. In the 1980s significant progress continued to be made, for example in nanotechnology, but somehow the reputation of chemists and the industry did not recover.

Robert Hicks, acting director of the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, US, believes that the negativity surrounding chemistry emerged during the first world war. He believes the terrifying images of people suffering from the effects of mustard and chlorine gas attacks left an indelible picture on people’s minds.

Hicks feels that it will take a lot of time and effort to overcome some of the most negative images, saying that ’if chemists can turn air into a lethal gas, that is, changing an invisible substance necessary for life into an invisible substance antithetical to life, then, in the public mind, chemists can inflict disaster at will’.

The tainted image of the chemical industry persists, so how can the industry and chemists move forward? Many people believe the answer lies in good communication and education. Now is time for chemists to capitalise on Cefic’s survey results stating that chemistry has a positive image.

Perhaps part of the solution to problem of image lies in the history of chemistry and the underlying idea that if people better understand the successes and failures of the past, then they will embrace new ideas but not necessarily expect a perfect outcome or miracle cures. Many people now feel that the answer lies in how chemists present themselves in public, particularly when dealing with the media.

Through the eyes of the media, the public image of the chemical industry has been overhauled during the past 30-50 years. Few other industries have undergone such a dramatic public image change. But are these changes real or do they simply reflect improved marketing?

People who work, or have worked, as part of the chemical industry may attribute the main changes to advances in technology and increased health and safety awareness and legislation.

The public has also seen an equally dramatic change. Those born into Generation X, or before, will remember the old image of the chemical industry; a time before global warming and widespread pollution became both a public and political priority. A time when business in the developed world was booming and provided well paid employment.

During the 1960s and early 1970s images of the industry as a very powerful machine were promoted. High productivity, accompanying the tall chimneys belching smoke and miles of shiny pipes were publicised. This image changed starkly with the increased awareness of environmental concerns.

Today, a chemical company’s website will promote images of new, clean office blocks nestled discreetly between trees. So, where did all the chimneys go? The public fears they have been hidden from us, and that they are still there. The assumption being, that if companies are so good at hiding the pipes, then what else might they be hiding?

Currently, the disparity between public perception and reality is too large. So, should the industry as a whole be more transparent as sometimes suggested? There is a risk in this type of approach that it will incite further criticism or confuse the public with complex, specialised areas of chemistry.

But much can be done to promote chemistry. Many organisations hold open days or work to improve links with schools and provide educational materials. For instance events in the UK, such as the Christmas lectures hosted by the Royal Institution, are used to capture children’s imaginations and stimulate an interest in science. These lectures help to put complex scientific issues across in an entertaining manner so that they may become more interested in scientific concepts early on.

Although it has been suggested that the image of chemistry would do better if it could be detached from that of the industry, maybe it is time to stand up for ourselves. Perhaps if industry representatives were to promote the good and acknowledge the bad then a more representative reputation could be earned.

The cause has its believers, those prepared to stand up and be proud of chemistry and its heritage. Arnold Thackeray, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, is one such person. ’We have a story to tell. A story rich in progress and we have the privilege to tell and show this story.’ he enthuses.

Further Reading

  • C Clerc, Chimie Hebdo, 2002, 179
  • D Stoltzenberg, Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel laureate, German Jew, Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2004, ISBN 0941901246