The public does not fear chemists, it simply doesn’t know about them.
Whenever an ill-informed pundit burbles on about the dangers of ‘chemicals’ in their food, I can almost hear chemists’ groans of frustration. It often seems as if the lay public has a knee-jerk suspicion of all things chemical, and many chemists understandably regard that as a personal attack on their profession.
Such incidents, however wounding, are nevertheless anecdotal. If we want to know what the public really thinks, we need hard data. And now, refreshingly, we have some.
The Royal Society of Chemistry has been working on the Public attitudes to chemistry study with leading social research company TNS BMRB (I was a member of the advisory panel for the work). The results, published this month, may surprise many chemists. It turns out that the public doesn’t hate you after all – they simply have no idea who you are, or what you do.
Pushing an open door
The study included over 2000 face-to-face interviews and eight group workshops across the UK, producing a mixture of quantitative and qualitative information about public attitudes to chemistry, chemicals and chemists.
Crucially, the study also pre-emptively gathered RSC members’ perceptions of public attitudes to chemistry, which revealed that many believe chemists are underappreciated, mistrusted and unfairly maligned, and that an ignorant public is gripped by ‘chemophobia’.
But they are wrong. The survey shows that most people have a neutral view of chemistry, largely because they know almost nothing about it (hint · this is not the public’s fault). Fully 25% of people said they were ‘not at all’ interested in chemistry, more than half did not feel informed about the field, and about half said they did not feel confident even talking about chemistry. Comparing this with results of similar surveys , these percentages are poorer than in almost any other area of science.
It is obviously difficult for people to make any kind of connection with chemistry when they are completely oblivious to it. Yet once informed about the range of technologies that spring from the chemical sciences, most people take a very positive view of chemistry – more so than physics, for example.
And, contrary to most members’ expectations, only 19% of the public held the view that ‘all chemicals are dangerous and harmful’, of which half still acknowledged that, on balance, chemistry offered greater benefits than harm.
Chemists think that the public is gripped by chemophobia. They are wrong
The public also has very distinct views of chemists, chemistry and chemicals. They can (and do) have concerns about toxic substances in their food, while simultaneously believing that chemists are highly trustworthy. And they are more knowledgeable than the chemists expected. The survey found that 60% of people are well aware that everything around us is made of chemicals, while 70% agreed that pretty much anything · even water · can be toxic, depending on the dose.
The workshops clearly illustrated that when people worry about ‘chemicals’, they are using the word as shorthand for ‘toxic molecules that might harm me’. It is understandable that chemists would want to correct this misuse of the generic word ‘chemicals’, but people find it pedantic and patronising when they do. This is especially true when they have legitimate concerns to discuss · for example, whether pesticide residues in food pose any health risks.
This all shows that chemists have often been fighting the wrong battle. Rather than putting their energies into battling negative perceptions of chemistry, they should instead tackle an overwhelming lack of awareness by acting as ambassadors for their subject.
Better communication requires a different approach. Assuming a didactic tone or dismissing people’s concerns as ignorant only reinforces stereotypes, and makes people switch off. In the workshops, people were most enthused by chemistry’s role in so many aspects of everyday life, including food, medicines and energy.
It’s also worth reminding people what chemists actually do. Most survey participants initially regarded ‘chemists’ as retail pharmacists, who unsurprisingly garner very high trust ratings. But once they learned more about chemists, the trust rating did not dip · in fact, many people were interested in finding out more about the profession. This should all reassure chemists that people are likely to be interested in what they have to say, and will not automatically write you off as boring or fear you as dangerous. Chemists who have withdrawn into a bunker mentality should emerge and engage.
And who should you engage with? Those reflexively lambasting any modern technology are unlikely to experience a Damascene conversion, no matter how persuasive your rhetoric, while science fair attendees are already onside. Instead, aim for the neutrals · the vast majority of people who know almost nothing about your world, beyond the little they gleaned in the classroom. To reach them, the most effective channels are one-to-one conversations, online engagement and · above all – local and national media.
The goal is not necessarily to encourage more people to pursue chemistry professionally, but to slowly, incrementally raise the quality of public debate about chemical technologies. Perhaps chemists are not universally loved – who is? – but they are certainly not loathed, either. So let the conversation begin.