What do people think about chemistry?

By James Piercy

Recently the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) published the results of a large survey of the public’s perception of chemistry. The project was delivered by market research company TNS BRMB and involved interviews with over 2000 people and used quantitative and qualitative questions.

The aim was to get a picture of what people think about chemistry, chemicals and chemists. Interestingly the survey also asked members of the RSC what they thought other people would say about those things. There has long since been a view that the public has rather negative attitudes in these areas. A notion of “chemophobia” has been described where people view ‘chemicals’ as always toxic and chemists are mad scientists bent on destruction. How much truth is there in this notion and how do people’s thoughts about chemistry compare with attitudes to science more generally?

What did the results of the survey say?

beliefs of chemistrThe results were broadly positive with people being aware of chemistry’s contribution to society and they tend not to hold very strong negative views about it.

When asked about chemists most people think of pharmacists, probably because they don’t have a good knowledge of the wide range of applications of chemistry. If you scratch a little deeper, people are positive about the impact of chemistry and recognise its value in issues like food production, renewable energy and clean water technology. The views on ‘chemicals’ were also more nuanced than anticipated. The first reaction tended to be negative but people did hold more complex thoughts and definitions in parallel. 75% disagreed that ‘all chemicals are harmful and dangerous’ 60% said that ‘everything is made of chemicals’.

How do you feelPeople are on the whole neutral about the role and importance of chemistry, and aren’t aware of what chemists do and the impacts this has on their life. However their perceptions are much more positive than chemists thought they would be.

What happens now?

The next step is to try to address the gaps in knowledge and we wait to see what steps the Royal Society of Chemistry will take to educate their own members about what the public really think of them, and what kinds of engagement activity can be undertaken to improve the public’s understanding and attitudes towards chemistry, chemicals and chemists.



The full report can be found at rsc.li/pac and a communication tool box with principles for engagement can be downloaded from the Royal Society of Chemistry here .


Posted in Chemistry, Exploring Science, Science Communication