The public perception of chemistry is due for an overhaul.
In this month’s issue we’re covering the usual sort of stuff: airborne chemistry labs tracking air quality during the African monsoon; the serendipitous discovery of the first ever synthetic dye; news of a previously overlooked taste associated with tomatoes; the latest findings on the structure of tear drops. Apologies to uninitiated readers and non-chemists, who might not recognise that these are just some of the things chemists get up to.
The Chemistry World team has been enjoying a month of congratulation following the award of Monthly business and professional magazine of the year by the Periodical Publishers Association. ’CW communicates the positive impact of chemistry research to an informed, diverse readership,’ announced the PPA. Indeed it does. ’It also looks at how chemistry, sometimes surprisingly, underpins everyday life,’ the PPA continued. Is it surprising? Should it be? And get this: ’CW is interesting even to a non-chemist.’
For some reason, chemistry - despite its monsoon analysers, colour inventors, taste identifiers and so much more - remains poorly appreciated outside the chemistry world.
In the midst of all the post-prize-winning excitement, the chemistry department at the University of Sussex, UK, was facing the threat of closure. ’We don’t find it easy to recruit enough students to keep a viable chemistry operation going,’ Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor at Sussex, told a BBC news programme.
What is going on? We have leading journalists being surprised that chemistry is interesting, and vice-chancellors saying there’s not enough interest in chemistry.
The RSC reacted to the Sussex threat by fuelling a national debate on chemistry provision at UK universities. ’Without a flourishing chemistry community at the country’s universities, Britain will fail to remain competitive economically,’ said RSC chief executive Richard Pike.
Pike flew the chemistry flag across the media, appearing in newspapers, on TV and on the radio. But even on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight, where Pike was interviewed in what came across very much as a ’save UK chemistry’ report, there were signs that chemistry is not fully appreciated.
Imagine a world without chemistry, said a BBC reporter sitting on a kitchen worktop. One by one, bottles of cleaning fluid disappeared - chemicals? The laminate worktop didn’t disappear. Anything that had been glued together didn’t fall apart. The colours all stayed the same. It’s impossible to imagine a world without chemistry.
Fred Sanger, winner of two Nobel chemistry prizes, didn’t win anything for developing a kitchen cleaning fluid. The first he won in 1958 for determining the structure of insulin, the second in 1980 for developing what is now known as Sanger sequencing, with which the human genome was subsequently decoded. How many people think of those triumphs as chemistry?
So who should be letting the wider world know that chemistry underpins so much of our lives? Chemistry World is doing its bit. And the RSC is a great champion for its members and their work. But chemists - across industry and academia - are going to have to make themselves heard. They’ve got a lot of noise to make.
Bea Perks, acting editor