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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 21, 2011

The Public Perception of Chemistry

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to call attention to another blog roundtable, on several subjects related to how nonchemists see us and our business. The first post (at ScienceGeist) is on chemical safety (industrial chemicals = bad?). Day 2, at ChemJobber, is on whether the general public has any good idea of not only what chemists do (we work with chemicals, right?) but why and how we do it. Day 3, at ChemBark, takes things to a practical level, showing how lack of understanding can confuse people about energy policy (does growing corn to make ethanol make any sense?) And Day 4, at The Bunsen Boerner, is on a topic I've been known to go off on myself, the use (and mostly the misuse) of the word "organic".

Comments (24) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Press Coverage


1. PharmaHeretic on July 21, 2011 5:16 PM writes...

Would improving public perception matter if internal perceptions are so negative?

If people inside the field see chemistry, and science in general, as a bad career choice- all the PR in the world won't save it. Public perceptions cannot save an academic system that uses bright people in a manner that slave owners would find appalling. Nor can it save a career outlook that is unstable, bleak and thankless.

A makeup artist cannot reanimate a corpse.

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2. Fishy Fish on July 21, 2011 5:48 PM writes...

"Would improving public perception matter if internal perceptions are so negative?"

Right on, PharmaHeretic.

Or we can ask the question in another way - how many (if any) of us would want our children to follow our footsteps into chemistry, or science in general? I certainly don't want my two kids into chemistry/science.

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3. SteveM on July 21, 2011 7:20 PM writes...

Industrial chemistry can't win. The naive media run stock footage of heat exchangers billowing steam at a chemical plant and denounce "Big Polluters".

But the fact is that almost all productive activity is visually unappealing. Stand next to a thoracic surgeon doing his business, peer into the kitchen of a busy restaurant on Saturday night, or follow the process of making a woman gorgeous in a salon.

But that stuff is OK. Chemistry gets hammered by people using its products to complain. Go figure...

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4. Anonymous on July 21, 2011 8:52 PM writes...

It might have a chance to get better - I was talking to a young co-worker today about this kind of thing, and he had never heard of Love Canal. The current generation of 20-somethings never saw most of the news stories that destroyed the industry's public image.

I agree with PharmaHeretic though - pissed-off layoff victims and burned-out grad students aren't going to speak up when they hear some non-scientist trashing the chemical or pharmaceutical industry!

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5. Anonymous on July 22, 2011 12:27 AM writes...

These tenured profs are killing hens for instant eggs, stupid!

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6. processchemist on July 22, 2011 4:28 AM writes...

Most male teenagers approaching a "Breaking Bad" episode have the same reaction: "Wow! I didn't know that chemistry was so cool".
It's not exactly the promotion of chemistry that associations like acs and rsc are looking for, but this is exactly the point: chemistry is a really powerful science.
The main problem has been exposed by PharmaHeretic. And if the execs in our business think that any monkey can do the bench work (corollary: any monkey doing bench work does a monkey's job) no public perception of this science can improve things.

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7. Jose on July 22, 2011 5:00 AM writes...

"Wow! I didn't know that chemistry was so cool."

'cause, you know, most chemists' daily life is just like that, too....

Seriously, the whole ACS- "chemistry is fun and cool!" shtick with mole day, colored water and nonsense is just that- nonsense. That and "Breaking Bad" are not what the worlds needs to see.

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8. Jose on July 22, 2011 5:03 AM writes...

Sorry- (world)

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9. Geo Guy on July 22, 2011 7:30 AM writes...

We need to ask why public perception is bad. Just who benefits in presenting chemistry as evil, and especially industrial chemistry?

I won't give my own opinion, so as not to start another political argument. But maybe one is needed.

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10. Rick on July 22, 2011 8:53 AM writes...

Jose (#7-8), I'm with you. Actually, I'm getting ready to make the huge career advance out of biotech/pharma and into the high glamour, prestige and salary world of teaching high school chemistry. As a result, this is an issue to which I have devoted a lot of thought.

I've decided that what's needed most, and what I will focus on producing, is NOT more future scientists or kids who think chemistry is cool in some superficial way, but rather scientifically-literate citizens who can properly evaluate the flood of poppycock that Madison Avenue and politicians want us believe is real science. From what I've seen so far, this is a revolutionary idea in science education, as compared with what is promoted by ACS and the education industry, who seem to think making more mini-me's, whether or not they actually understand how science is actually done, is the goal. If some kid is going to catch the science bug in my classroom, I'm not arrogant enough to believe it'll be because I staged some kind of science theatrics in the classroom. I believe it should be because: a, they were struck, as I was at a young age, by the inherent, unadornable beauty of figuring out how nature works and they wanted more of it; and b, that I somehow helped them without getting in the way by using some half-baked, trendy teaching gimmick.

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11. Myma on July 22, 2011 9:09 AM writes...

"... our product uses only natural extracts without all those harsh chemicals ..." as if baking soda and vinegar and tea tree oil aren't chemicals.

On a related note, since I did google it, there is an Indian chemical supplier called "Harsh Chemicals". A super name choice, just like the No-va, does not go.

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12. Rick on July 22, 2011 9:20 AM writes...

You know what Myma? (#11) the very name "Harsh Chemicals" makes me want to shop there first the next time I want large quantities of cyanogen bromide. Perhaps it's perversely brilliant marketing???

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13. Chemjobber on July 22, 2011 10:02 AM writes...

Thanks for the plug, Derek.

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14. Uncle Indole on July 22, 2011 10:18 AM writes...

I often have the urge to ask the employees of the local co-op if the vegetables they are selling are still organic when they are packaged in polyethylene. But I never do.

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15. Hap on July 22, 2011 10:19 AM writes...

I think general logic skills would be more useful - teaching people how science works would help, but I don't know that we are terribly logical about anything, and without that, we can't expect to be able to analyze anything well. I don't have any idea how to do it, though, and I'm not cynical enough to believe that it isn't taught because we're afraid of the consequences of children thinking about what we do logically - I assume it's just really hard to teach well.

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16. Hap on July 22, 2011 10:21 AM writes...

I think general logic skills would be more useful - teaching people how science works would help, but I don't know that we are terribly logical about anything, and without that, we can't expect to be able to analyze anything well. I don't have any idea how to do it, though, and I'm not cynical enough to believe that it isn't taught because we're afraid of the consequences of children thinking about what we do logically - I assume it's just really hard to teach well.

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17. Anonymous on July 22, 2011 11:01 AM writes...

Ever consider that the poor public image is compounded by the fact that "Chemistry & Pharma Managers" and/or professors are the public face of our industry? And let's be honest, most of them are a bunch of arrogant douchebags. As a group, I hate most of them. I don't want to talk to them and I don't want to be around them. Why should the public feel differently?

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18. TX Raven on July 22, 2011 11:51 AM writes...

Several Biologists I work with at a major Pharma company have no clue what a chemist does.... what can we expect about the general public?

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19. gippgig on July 22, 2011 12:57 PM writes...

#10 - That is one of the best posts I've ever seen. Education (in fact, the entire world) seems to put far too much emphasis on careers and far too little on (scientific, logical, etc.) literacy. Knowing how the world works is incredibly useful (even if you don't have a career). Knowledge = power.

I've mentioned this before, but I suggest creating chemistry museums (which could range from a storefront do-it-yourself operation (do try this at home) to a huge megaproject (convert one of those surplus research facilities the drug companies are abandoning). If anyone's interested I've got a bunch of ideas for this.

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20. DannoH on July 22, 2011 2:17 PM writes...

#18 - As a microbiologist at a pharma manufacturing plant, I can tell you exactly what a chemist does. They keep the chairs in the breakroom warm for the balance of the work shift! =)

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21. skatesailor on July 22, 2011 4:42 PM writes...

@ TX Raven: More than 25 years' experience with biologists and the physicians to whom they reported taught me that none of them knew what chemists did. I vividly recall the complaint of our vice president of research, a physician and a moron, "Why do the chemists make inactive compounds?!"

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22. DeTritus on July 23, 2011 12:15 PM writes...

Best two words to sum up the public perception of Chemistry?

"Nineteenth Century".

Well maybe the public has got it spot on.

In 2011, my 20-strong Med Chem department (in Big Pharma) contains only THREE women chemists.
(And given the demographics of our recent redundancies, we may actually be going backwards).

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23. TX Raven on July 25, 2011 5:29 AM writes...

# 21.
To be fair to the Biologists, I also see a lot of younger colleagues in Med Chem Departments who think their jobs are to outsource amides and Suzuki coupling to Chinese CROs, and for whom solving chemistry problems creatively equals a search in Wikipedia...

So many problems, so little time...

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24. MoMo on July 27, 2011 10:37 AM writes...

The public perception is skewed because most chemistry teachers suck at teaching and do not use the world around them to teach the basics. then their big heads and egos get in the way.

And modern chemistry needs updated-get rid of balancing equations and ridiculous exercises that may prove a point-but there are easier ways to hook students into getting into it.

But most scientists do not speak out often enough against the modern day "stealth Love Canals" we are surrounded with: Yellow #5, triclosan, bis-phenol A and many, many others.

I find most people can comprehend the basics of chemistry and my students do really well using a very technical book.

But some of you shouldnt be teaching and should be selling shoes instead.

One bad teacher kills motivation and scientific interests and the corporate gluttons move in on the ignorant.

Energy Drinks Anyone?

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