Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Politics: Chemistry in Trouble

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The profession of chemistry is in trouble, and it knows it. A well-known pollster in the United Kingdom, Market & Opinion Research International (now Ipsos MORI) has been tracking public opinion of the chemical industry there since the 1970's. There has been a steady, continuous decline in favorable ratings and a steady, continuous rise in unfavorable ratings, with the ratings crossing and more people viewing the industry unfavorably in the mid-1990's. I have yet to see a contradictory survey from any other country, and while "chemistry" polls somewhat better than "chemicals," the trends for "chemistry" are the same. Amongst other things, this has resulted in a steady decline in students studying chemistry in the United Kingdom (a trend not as pronounced in North America) to the point that several universities have eliminated their chemistry departments. It all led to considerable hang-wringing about the future of chemistry played out in the editorial and letters pages of Chemical and Engineering News off-and-on in recent years.

It doesn't matter if chemistry remains the "central science" (how arrogant is that?) in an increasingly multidisciplinary scientific world. It doesn't matter if trends toward "green" energy and "green" industry in general require the skills of chemists and chemical engineers. People don't trust them, and thus won't trust their solutions, either. Whether because of "mad scientist" depictions in entertainment and literature dating back centuries, because of major plant accidents, or because of poor high school teaching making people fear even the basics of chemistry, the problem has gotten to the point that scientists' opinions are only given the weight of non-scientists in policy debates on industry regulations (never mind things like climate change) that really should be based on the science.

The industry isn't doing itself any favors. In the recent debate in city of Seattle, Washington over whether to charge a $0.20 tax on plastic bags, the American Chemistry Council (ACC)--which was once the industry group called the Chemical Manufacturers' Association--gave $1.1 million to the opposition to the tax by their own admission. There was no other purpose to the donation other than to bolster plastic manufacturers--how exactly a tax on bags in one US city was going to do that much damage to the industry is beyond me. Toronto has a $0.05 fee on plastic bags and I haven't noticed much change in behavior from a public that already tended to reuse and recycle bags, very similar to the current behavior in Seattle.

The industry may have won at the polls with an anti-tax argument during a recession, but the public image of the industry was tarnished in the process. Rather than making a scientific argument, they relied on a "taxing is bad, recycling is good" campaign which alienated environmentalists and made it seem like they only cared about their production numbers, not the environment.

As someone with a chemical background (who didn't much care either way on the bag tax, since as stated above I felt the impact would be minimal), I can't fight against this kind of action with any effectiveness. Even very public chemists like Dr. Joe Schwarcz of the McGill Office for Science and Society in Montreal can't counteract these impacts.

The only way these trends would turn around is if a large group of scientists--perhaps the American Chemical Society (ACS)--stood up and took a stand counter to the ACC when it was tarnishing its image, preferably with respect to federal legislation, perhaps in the coming debate over cap-and-trade climate change legislation. However, I don't see that happening. The ACC can outspend the ACS even if they take opposite positions, and with almost-identical names and acronyms, the public will never be able to tell the difference at worst and will be confused at best.

So, near as I can tell, the public will continue to see the chemical industry as self-serving, the public standing of chemistry will continue to fall, and all this means that the "green" advances which may be developed by chemists may be slowed (by lack of government funding) or ignored by a distrusting public. That isn't good for the future of North American society or the world.

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