As a passionate public advocate of chemistry I am happy to have been involved with this project and found its approach very interesting. For the first time, this study provides that evidence, and informs us how to better understand our audiences.
For me the most interesting and surprising finding is that the public perception of chemistry and chemicals is far more positive than professional chemists believed. Having said that, this view is coloured by some confusion over what a chemist is and what a chemist does. For example, the misidentification of chemists as pharmacists, which is a peculiarly British phenomenon. While we could have anticipated this result, I think we probably underestimated its scale. We will have to work hard to try to ensure that the noun ‘chemist’ is in future used for what we understand it to mean.
As professional chemists, we thought that we knew how the public feels about chemistry, but we had no hard evidence to back this up.
We can’t easily change the common meaning of a word but what we can do is be consistent with the way we use it so when we talk about ourselves and our job and say “I’m a chemist” (and I am always proud to say it!) we could change it to ‘ I am a scientist working in chemistry”. And if we think that framing ourselves as scientists sounds obvious, we should look to this research because it is not at all. It could be a first important step in contributing to a more understandable use of a word that defines who we are.
My historical perspective
I went to primary school in 1945, just at the end of WWII. Science then was in general viewed as hugely beneficial to UK society, not least because of the widespread introduction of life-saving antibiotics. The chemicals industry was viewed positively right up until the late 1960s, early 70s. Certainly when I went to University in 1958, science was seen as a good thing - hard subjects were only attainable by the brightest students and an assurance of employment in industry was again viewed positively.
The growing awareness of issues like pollution, (after Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' ), or mercury poisoning which caused Minimata disease in Japan led, fairly rapidly, in the 70s through 1980s to a general perception of chemicals and industry being seen as 'dirty'. The truth of course was that the chemical industries still provided immense benefits to society, but all the good things were obscured by the focus in the press and environmentalists on ‘bad’ chemicals.
I believe things have changed for the better in the last ten years or so. Of course there is still a general issue with the word ‘chemicals’; it has a double meaning but the research tells us people understand both meanings and that their views are nuanced. This is confirmed by my experiences because when ask young schoolchildren these days how they feel about 'chemicals', they will usually say they can be good or bad depending on what and how they are used. Twenty years ago, if a straw poll had been taken during one of my lectures the overall response would have been that chemicals are ‘bad'.
Changing our attitudes
The research shows that our views of public opinion can be too negative. Chemistry is our profession, our passion, and we care about it so much that we possibly a little biased. Perhaps we have become defensive due to poor press over decades. But we should challenge this view and instead start thinking about public opinion in a more evidence-based way.
This research shows us a better picture than anticipated but also a picture of neutrality towards chemistry. Instead of focusing on the minority of negative views we should try to address this neutrality, I believe that it is with these people that we can make a difference.
Our motivation, style and tone shouldn’t fall just in the content-focused traditional approach in order to educate others. We need to embrace a more strategic and contextual approach of public communication where as much planning goes into understanding our audience and crafting an effective narrative as it does in building the content. The first step in an effort to try to influence public attitudes towards chemistry is for us, as chemists, to rethink our attitudes towards the public.