Thursday, 11 February 2016

Changing Perceptions of Chemistry

What do the general public and policy-makers think about when they think about chemistry and chemists? Chemistry and chemicals are essential to life and our modern society - everything is chemistry! But we often see consumer products that claim to be 'chemical-free' and it can seems like chemophobia is widespread in society. Public perceptions of Chemistry and Chemicals and how we talk about chemistry have been hot topics for many years. But what is the real picture? What do the public and policy-makers really think? And how can we best convey the excitement, potential and benefits of chemistry better?

To explore these questions further the RSC Belgium 2016 Café Chimique was entitled “Changing Perceptions of Chemistry and Chemicals”. The event took place on Thursday 4 February in the relaxed atmosphere of the Auderghem Cultural Centre main bar.


RSC Belgium Chairman Tim Reynolds (above left) moderated a panel of three speakers:

  • Jon Edwards (above far right) who is Strategic Communications Manager for the Royal Society of Chemistry who outlined the main findings of the recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry in the UK (#chemperceptions)
  • Dr Anna Gergely (above centre left) who is Director EHS Regulatory at law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Anna talked about the regulatory environment in which chemistry has to operate and how policy-makers perceive chemistry and chemicals
  • Nuno Bacherel (above centre right) who is Editor-in-Chief of the Your Formula website and is Communication Manager, Public Affairs at the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). Nuno talked about the philosophy behind the Your Formula initiative and his work to change perceptions of chemistry and chemicals


Great debate
As usual the three panel speakers gave short presentations of around ten minutes each before launching into an audience-led debate. Seating was in a café-style format and the usual free bar and nibbles were available throughout the event and afterwards.

As ever there was a very lively debate that lasted well over an hour.

Jon Edwards outlined the main findings of the recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry in the UK. The results showed that the UK public's perception of chemistry and chemicals is far more positive than professional chemists believe, although there is some confusion in the public mind about what a chemist is and what a chemist does. Overall it appears that there is an appetite for people to know more about chemistry; but this will entail a change of attitude for chemists and experts working in the sector. You can find Jon's presentation here (3.28 MB).

Concrete examples and factual data are the added value that scientists and chemists bring to the table when discussing regulatory issues, and this value needs to be positively and widely communicated, without fear, stated Dr Anna Gergely. You can find Anna's presentation here (454 kB).

Initiatives such as Your Formula, bring together people to discuss key sustainability topics, and look to change the public's perceptions. The Your Formula platform is a Cefic initiative where young scientists and researchers with an interest in sustainability share expertise and experience. The platform allows a different way of communicating chemistry and science, with contributors sharing personal activities and high interaction rates through social media explained Nuno. His main message was to: "Be Passionate, Keep it Simple and Make it Personal." Changing public perceptions of chemistry will be a long road, but progress appears to be happening!

More information
You can find all the results and further commentary on the RSC's public attitudes survey on the #chemperceptions pages of the RSC website.

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