How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


August 26, 2002
Volume 80, Number 34
CENEAR 80 34 p. 51
ISSN 0009-2347




In my presidential message (C&EN, Jan.1, 2001, page 2), I pointed out the problems we face regarding the public image of chemistry. Later, in an ACS Comment (C&EN, Aug. 6, 2001, page 44), "Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry," I further elaborated on the actions that should be taken. It is encouraging to see that since then the topic has been discussed increasingly within the society. Other organizations, including some outside of the U.S., have also become more concerned about the image problem and are seeking solutions. The public's perception of us will not be changed overnight. It will take a concerted effort over time to restore chemistry to its deserved place and to remove the shadow that was cast over chemistry by undeserved exaggeration of unfortunate incidents.

Nothing is perfect in life, and chemistry is no exception. Our activity through the Green Chemistry Institute is an important and necessary step to help address current misimpressions and prevent future ones. But it is not enough to be reactive. We must be proactive--continuously educating the general public about the benefits chemistry has already brought and will continue to provide for our everyday life. Our efforts in this area are increasing, but we are still at the beginning of the road. National Chemistry Week (NCW) brings the wonders of chemistry into the community spotlight once a year. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), acting on a recommendation made by a joint ACS/ACC task force that I appointed last year, urged its member companies to cooperate with ACS local sections in NCW activities. I hope this is just the first step on the road to our two organizations working together toward a goal mutually beneficial for everyone. I want our society to proceed toward a better public understanding of chemistry. What we have to do is more than showing colorful demonstrations.

The Chemical Technology Milestones Exhibits, which I unveiled at the Chicago meeting, was a major step forward on this road. It was a great success. I am working on the next step: moving the exhibit with the cooperation of various organizations to major national population centers for two to four weeks of showing. President-Elect Elsa Reichmanis is also interested in continuing the display of the exhibit. The German Chemical Society wants to borrow it for its annual meeting and eventually would like to translate it for permanent display. Two other European chemistry societies want to translate it. In October, I will meet with the Federation of European Chemical Societies to spread the idea further. Additional ways to make its content available--for example, a book, CD, and website--are being explored.

While educating the adult population, we also must make sure that our schools provide the necessary information about chemistry to young people. In the past, we concentrated our efforts on instilling the love of chemistry in our youngsters, hoping that they would choose it as their profession. Unfortunately, in the process we frequently alienated a large number of others, who developed a dislike for chemistry. We should teach our youngsters the appreciation of chemistry. If we do this well, they will grow up to be adults who are not swayed by misleading headlines. It will not make any difference whether they become bookkeepers, lawyers, mechanics, politicians, or stay-at-home parents. In the process, there will be enough who will become chemists. Last year, a task force I appointed to investigate K–12 science education made a number of recommendations, which have to be followed up. The report can be found at

Naturally, it will take some time to carry out their recommendations, and even then, it will be additional years until these enlightened students enter into the adult population. We cannot wait that long. I am working toward the creation of a coalition to operate a Center for the Public Image of Chemistry. Such a center would have the following responsibilities:

  1. Be a watchdog for misrepresentation of chemistry in the media and provide clarification. This would be fortified through a nationwide network where members would report local news stories, good or bad, which need to be either further disseminated or rebutted.
  2. Follow those new discoveries in chemistry that can have direct beneficial effects on our everyday life and explain in layman's terms how the public will benefit.
  3. Create similar descriptions of existing inventions for distribution to the media, including radio and television.
  4. Be a reliable source for responsible reporters on emerging news stories that want to report facts, not sensations.

Will this solve all the problems? Will it eliminate the sensationalist, incorrect reporting? No! But we cannot wait for the perfect solution. Such a philosophy created many of the problems of our profession. Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago that "our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt" and suggested the necessary action: "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven." We have the future in our hands now. Let me quote from the musical I wrote, titled "It's Time for a Change," the closing lines of a pseudo-Shakespearean monologue:

"We can make a difference in this world,
By daring to enter new worlds never dreamed afore,
The unknown should not make cowards of us all, and
Lose the opportunity for a better future."

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ACS Board.


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