The public's attitude towards chemistry is improving but what future do art students see?

The public’s attitude towards chemistry is improving but what future do art students see?

The chemical sciences community accepts that communication with all stakeholders is key to improving the sector’s image. Now could be the ideal time to boost that communication.

The chemical industry is well aware of what needs to be done. On taking over the presidency of Cefic (the European Chemical Industry Council), Peter Elverding, managing board chairman at DSM, said: ’The chemical sector could do with more proactivity and transparency. Especially where chemistry touches upon the daily lives of millions of people, the industry should be open, to the point and absolutely clear’.

In line with his theme of trust, this openness with the public is particularly important. Elverding advocates that the industry should not shy away from viewpoints that the public may not want to hear, such as that risks are an unavoidable part of work and life.

A similar message - that if industry acknowledges the bad, as well as promoting the good, a representative reputation could be earned - came out of the Public images of chemistry in the 20th century conference held in Paris, France, in September (see p36).

Communication with the public seems to be paying off. Cefic’s 2004 pan-European survey on the industry’s image found that the public’s attitude towards the chemical industry is becoming more positive.

This is supported by the Chemical Industries Association’s (CIA) most recent MORI poll of attitudes in the UK. Published earlier this year, this showed that while the trend in ’favourability’ has been broadly stable over the last decade, the trend in ’unfavourability’ has been broadly downward. The level of public ’unfavourability’ has halved from its peak in 1990.

With this ray of hope for the image and public acceptance of the chemical sciences, it would seem to be the ideal time to get out there and further boost the industry’s image.

There are all manner of initiatives under way, from companies working with their local communities, the RSC’s Campaign for Chemical Sciences, and initiatives by the UK’s Chemistry Leadership Council, to the work of the European Commission.

One of the more unusual must be the CIA’s ’Holding up the mirror’ art competition. The CIA is inviting art students from around the UK to create a work of art that explores the chemical industry’s contribution to sustainable development. The organisers say the competition is about ’getting people to visualise possible futures and inspire informed debate and action’.

But not all the results from the recent image surveys were positive. Cefic’s survey also found a decline in both the public’s belief in corporate social responsibility and their support for companies’ focus on competitiveness. The MORI poll, meanwhile, found a sharp fall in favourability towards the chemical industry among 15-18 year olds.

So, just what sort of future will the art students depict for the chemical industry’s contribution to sustainable development? Will we be pleasantly surprised by the entries, or will they confirm our worst fears: that our image is still poor.


Karen Harries-Rees, editor