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Chemistry needs to lay claim to the biggest problems in the world to attract the best and brightest

Chemists can be a dour lot sometimes. Down on themselves and occasionally defensive of their field. This attitude pops up each year with the now obligatory chatter over whether the latest chemistry Nobel prize is a ‘chemistry’ prize or if biologists or physicists nabbed it. And a recent survey adds further evidence of this attitude, finding that almost 80% of chemists polled think other fields are more ‘newsworthy’ than their own.

The survey also reveals that 84% think that, while being ‘technologically savvy’ is ‘crucial’ or ‘very important’ for career progression, innovation is being held back in chemistry by a focus on applied work. And three-quarters think that up and coming scientists will shun chemistry for sexier subjects.

Maybe it’s not so hard to see why many chemists think like this. Other disciplines have experiments so massive that they straddle countries and telescopes that gaze at the very birth of the universe. Or they delve into thorny philosophical questions of whether humanity really has free will, and what exactly is life? Other fields sometimes seem to have cornered the market on interesting questions that can draw bright young minds.

Meanwhile, chemistry falls prey to boring stereotypes of syntheses ground out over years and improved formulations for toothpaste. And while chemistry outreach can make use of exciting demonstrations, they are a victim of their own success – the whizz-pops and bangs are really a distraction from a more thoughtful discussion. Rather than thinking about what’s going on, the audience is awaiting the next bit of chemical theatre.

But all disciplines suffer from painful stereotypes – physics as a minefield of impenetrable formulae or biology’s obsession with Latin names and pickling unfortunate creatures. Yet stereotypes needn’t hold for any field. Many disciplines have shaken off stuffy reputations. Why not chemistry?

Chemists need to become better storytellers, and show that chemistry is the answer to many of our big questions. The origins of life? Chemistry. Life on other planets? Another chemistry question. An energy revolution? Chemistry again. It seems to me that these big issues are more likely to spark an interest in budding young scientists looking to make a difference.

In a typically thoughtful piece on the future of chemistry, Harvard’s George Whitesides made a recommendation on what we can do when next asked what we do for a living. Instead of saying ‘I’m a chemist and I make drugs’ why not go with ‘I’m a chemist: I change how you live and die’. If that doesn’t get a conversation started, then I don’t know what will.