We are now very excited to present the findings of the first national, in-depth study of how the UK public thinks and feels about chemistry, chemists and chemicals.
The first study of its kind
Much research has been conducted into public attitudes towards science but there is relatively little data about attitudes towards chemistry. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is low public awareness and recognition of what chemists do. Our study provides robust data on the public’s relationship with chemistry in the UK, and an insight on how it could be improved.
The research was conducted on our behalf by the social research company TNS BMRB. It included several stages of qualitative and quantitative research, including a national public survey, with 2,104 face-to-face interviews with UK adults (16+).
In this issue we present the key findings, along with an infographic insert. You can read the full report and see other supporting materials at our project page.
The public perception of chemistry, chemists and chemicals is more positive than we expected. We asked our members to take part in an online survey to find out how they thought the public answer some of the questions. When we compared what we thought people would have said with what they actually said, we saw that members painted a significantly more negative picture than the one that emerged from the public survey.
For example, only 25% of the UK public agreed that “school put them off chemistry” but 96% of the members we polled thought that more people would have agreed with that statement. Also, 60% of the UK public agreed that “everything is made of chemicals” but only 25% of the members we polled thought more than half the public would have said so. So our negative prediction has not been confirmed; far from it. Overall, people in the UK are positive about chemistry’s impact on society.
Despite this general acclaim for chemistry, people lacked specific examples of how chemistry makes a positive impact, instead finding it easier to specify and visualise negatives or stereotypes. People lacked personally-relevant and concrete examples and, for many, the word chemistry activated memories, symbols, and feelings of their school experience. In the absence of other associations, this was the predominant driver of responses. In general most people lack an emotional connection: half (51%) of our survey respondents said they felt ‘neutral’ about chemistry.
The lack of association and emotional neutrality is indicative of a void in people’s engagement with chemistry. Their views are vulnerable to stereotypes and are influenced strongly by the only thing most people can link back to chemistry: their school experiences. Workshop participants described their negative or neutral experience at school leading them to feel indifferent, but for some it elicited feelings of fear and insecurity. This translated into a general lack of confidence about the subject. Over half (52%) of survey respondents agreed that they did not feel confident enough to talk about chemistry.
Views on chemists
Most people associate chemists with pharmacists, as they lack other examples of the kinds of industries chemists work in. While this is probably not a big surprise, as many chemists know about this issue in the UK, the scale of this is certainly not to be underestimated. Initial survey responses to the word ‘chemist’ showed an overwhelming and strong association with pharmacists (26%), medication (22%), and the chemist’s shop (13%). When asked where a chemist might work, three-quarters (76%) of respondents said a pharmacy, with one in four (25%) mentioning only pharmacies.
When we asked about chemists as scientists people views were positive, with 95% saying they thought chemists made a difference in the world, 93% saying they were honest, and 88% that they were approachable.
The double meaning of “chemicals”
The word ‘chemicals’ is used in everyday language as short-hand to refer to harmful or potentially dangerous substances. Though this is the principal meaning, it is not the only meaning, and respondents showed their definitions were multiple and context-dependent. In general people scored quite well in all the questions about chemicals:
75% disagreed that all chemicals are dangerous and harmful
70% agreeing that everything including water and oxygen can be toxic at a certain dose
60% also said that everything is made of chemicals
Just as for chemistry, people were relatively neutral about chemicals (55%) and just under one in five (19%) reported feeling positive. People’s views of chemicals were nuanced and multifaceted, and they were seen to possess positive, neutral and negative attributes.
A clear finding of this research was the associative separation that existed between chemicals and chemistry. People’s views and feelings about chemicals were not attributed to chemistry or chemists.
Challenges and opportunities for public communication of chemistry
Current public attitudes to chemistry are fairly neutral and in general the picture is more positive than we expected. There are few actively negative views to overcome, and there are some inherent challenges involved in engaging people with a subject in which they have limited interest.
This research offers us new insights into people’s view on chemistry, chemists and chemicals. We hope the findings will inspire our community to think about the results.
We look forward discussing the findings and their implications with our members There will be plenty of opportunities in the upcoming months – including our first outreach conference and the General Assembly – and we hope many of you will have interesting discussions with colleagues and friends.
We are keen to hear your thoughts and you can get in touch with questions and comments using the details on the left of this page.
For more information about the research, including the report, toolkit and the infographic visit our project page.