Chemical interactions: a look at the RSC’s public engagement

Credit Photo: German UNESCO Commission and Royal Society of Chemistry

2011 was the International Year of Chemistry and to celebrate the occasion the Royal Society sponsored a variety of public events. Professor David Phillips, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), recounted these events at a talk I attended at the Chemical Physical Society.

It was an opportunity to reflect on the overall success of the events and, in particular, examine the impact they had on the public’s perception of chemistry.

In the press release, Professor Phillips spoke about it being, ‘a tremendous opportunity to inspire young people to take an interest in chemical sciences…to stir passion in the young people of today to meet the challenges of tomorrow.’

Dr Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the RSC, commented further, saying, ‘there is a somewhat narrow perception of the role of the chemical sciences in this country, at a time when the expanding research communities in China, India and Japan are driving both fundamental work and wider innovation into products and services.’

Looking into the agenda of the International Year of Chemistry 2011, it is clear that the public events were numerous and diverse. Scientific demonstrations such as chemical experiments with explosive reactions did much to emphasise the fun of chemistry but gave little attention to the possible risks within the discipline.

This is interesting because, as a research chemist, I am more familiar with classes about lab safety procedures, where information about the hazardous consequences of chemistry such as explosions, fires and corrosions is more likely to be on the agenda.

It seems to me that many of the events were framed predominantly around teaching the public about the benefits of the chemical sciences. The assumption is that to understand the science is to love it; which while not necessarily a bad thing, is a position that attempts to dictate the grounds upon which discussions are held, particularly those that may not be pro-industry or pro-science. This position, however unintentional, continues to promote the idea that genuine scientific knowledge is the exclusive preserve of scientists.

In spite of these concerns, I am aware of tentative changes occurring in the right direction. In fact, many of the activities organised by the RSC do seem to be about listening to the public and embracing a more forward-thinking attitude to science communication: one that attempts to engage in meaningful dialogue with the public rather than focus only on the organiser’s agenda.

For example, the initiative ‘Our Children on Water’ exhibited drawings and paintings about water from pupils of primary schools in Ethiopia and South Africa. The paintings gave the children the opportunity to express their perceptions on global social issues to which science could help find a solution.

Two other events worth mentioning here are, ‘The Nuclear Debate’, a debate about increasing nuclear power in the UK to help reach targets to reduce greenhouse gases, and a talk on chemical weapons by the Ambassador Ahmet Uzumcu. Both events demonstrated the RSC’s awareness of controversies within the chemical sciences industry and represent a willingness to listen to the public’s concern about their application in energy supplies and military purposes.

However, while creditable, the form in which these events were presented poses further questions. Given that the RSC is openly in favour of nuclear power, the choice of representatives for and against nuclear power in the debate about nuclear energy was notable: a senior research fellow from Imperial College and a freelance journalist in the pro-nuclear camp versus the Greenpeace chief scientist and an independent energy consultant in the (anti-nuclear) other.

In my opinion the involvement of an academic research fellow in renewable energies among the representatives of the against-nuclear position would have added better balance to the discussion. Moreover, a reflection on the controversial applications of chemistry should not be confined to just a talk, but would deserve a wider discussion, either including other stakeholders such as the pharmaceutical industries or even just a platform that made it easier for the public to get involved and express their thoughts and concerns.

Overall, it seems to me that the organisation of the International Year of Chemistry shows a real commitment to increasing active involvement of the public in its work with young people and public debates. However the RSC is still, to some extent, looking at the relationship between scientists and society through a one-way communication model. This might be a good idea when the aim is to increase young people’s interest in science, but less useful if the aim is to meaningfully engage with the public about many of the issues in the chemical sciences.

Antonio Torrisi is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.