A Call to Communicate
Public understanding of chemistry is lacking – what does this mean for scientists?
Matthew Hallam | | Opinion
Chemists exist in bubbles, so to speak. We are educated among science enthusiasts, move into workplaces filled with graduates, and attend conferences that keep us connected with analytical minds around the world.
Outside the walls of our organizations, however, such discussion is scarce. Even the term “chemical” still incites fear among the public – a phenomenon branded “chemophobia” in a recent paper from Nature Chemistry. This phrase seems rather apt; 39 percent of 5,631 respondents surveyed in the same paper stated they “would like to live in a world where chemical substances don’t exist” (1). I don’t know about you, but the empty vacuum of space isn’t the utopia I pine for.
A staggering 82 percent of the same sample was also unaware that synthetic sodium chloride and sea salt share the same chemical structure. Caught between the limited understanding of many citizens and the exponentially growing complexity of the field (see our big data feature), it would be easy to give up entirely on communicating our research to the public. Why should we go the extra mile?
For one thing, public perception shapes political discourse and impacts the funding allocated to research. What’s more, advances in research are bringing analytical power closer to public hands (as described by Michel Nielen in our October issue); as “citizen scientists” begin acquiring data from everyday settings, a rudimentary scientific knowledge could go a long way in preventing the spread of misinformation.
Communication and education are our greatest assets on this front. Many medical journals now request “lay summaries” alongside submitted manuscripts, which dispense key clinical data in an accessible fashion. While such summaries might not be so suited to our field, I believe the movement could provide some much-needed inspiration. Efforts to communicate our research in a layman-friendly format would – at minimum – increase public awareness as to the existence and importance of analytical chemistry.
Education is a recurring theme in our December issue, with In My View articles from Victoria Samanidou and Michelle Misselwitz on the benefits of basic etymological and methodological insight, respectively. As usual, however, these articles detail efforts aimed at the practicing chemist.
Bringing analytical chemistry to the masses is a responsibility we should all bear. In time, these altered views could inspire the next pioneer in our field, or help drive political will to support scientific endeavors. So, what are we waiting for? The call to communicate is clear, and those heeding it could change the course of science (and history!) for the better.
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- M Siegrist & A Bearth, “Chemophobia in Europe and reasons for biased risk perceptions”, Nat Chem [Epub ahead of print] (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41557-019-0377-8