We might never be able to get the general public to fully understand and appreciate the chemical sectors and professions — and in my personal opinion we should not waste the energy, time and resources to try. Chemical trade associations like the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada tried to change public opinion through Responsible Care in the 1980s. Today the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is doing the same thing with its multi-million dollar oil sands ads in newspapers, magazines and on TV across Canada. Unfortunately, the public is either unwilling or unable to take the time to understand the messaging.
The reason is simple. The public generally perceives chemistry and chemicals as complex and often dangerous. For all the gains made, all it takes is one local, regional, national or international accident to reinforce this belief. Negative examples in the past several years include the nuclear fallout from Fukushima Daiichi, the West, Texas ammonium nitrate explosion and evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against rebels. Pretty scary stuff.
I recently attended a Partnership Group for Science and Engineering Bacon & Eggheads Breakfast on Parliament Hill. When I introduced myself to MPs and senators at my table, saying that I was the executive director of the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), they responded, “Oh, you are the guys that blow things up.” Perhaps some bad humour but also an indication of the underlying public understanding — or lack thereof — of chemistry and chemicals.
You have to enter the chemical sciences knowing that you will hear public criticism, yet realizing that chemistry will help solve society’s many challenges today and in the future. During the 2011 International Year of Chemistry, the CIC ran a symposium on Women in Chemical Engineering. All of the panellists stated that they went into the profession to make a direct and positive impact upon society. Audience members echoed that sentiment.
These are the women and men working in heavy industries such as chemicals production, oil sands, mining, pulp and paper, food and beverages and related services fields like analytical laboratories and environment reclamation. We will need the best and brightest in the oil sands to continue making the large gains we have seen in water intensification over the past decade, and to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and tailings and airborne pollutants. Similar advances are being made in other sectors where chemical scientists and engineers are employed.
Still, no matter the achievements, the public will never fully understand. What we need to focus on is twofold. First, through our chemical trade and professional scientific associations, continue educating the political and bureaucratic decision makers. This way, future legislation and regulations will be better thought out, balancing a prosperous economy with a healthy environment.
Second, we should re-think all of our outreach programs to connect with teachers and students at the elementary and secondary school levels. For example, Maxxam Analytics is reaching out this year not only to their 2,200 employees but families who met with their children’s teachers to talk about the CIC’s Canadian Water Experiment. As a result, many of these children will associate water, chemistry and the environment with a healthy future. And many will start thinking about going into science. This is where our attention should go, rather than spending millions of dollars on broad-based efforts to defend our respective industries.