International Year of Chemistry: Making a Difference for Years to Come? in Chemical Week Magazine

October 19, 2011 - Philadelphia, PA

By Alex Scott

The United Nations International Year of Chemistry (IYC) was officially launched in February to celebrate the role of chemistry in society and to mark 100 years since Marie Curie became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Industry and academia have made extensive use of 2011’s IYC status as a springboard for launching projects that demonstrate the positive impact of chemistry. Executives emphasize, however, that the challenge will be for industry to continue its efforts in order to ensure IYC’s benefits are lasting.

Industry leaders agree that, while it is difficult to quantify its effect, IYC has galvanized the sector to do more to raise public awareness of the benefits of chemistry. Thousands of people, many of them students, have learned about chemistry at events held by IYC organizers and from films shown during the year. Arkema, BASF, Cefic, Dow Chemical, the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA), Evonik and L’Oreal are IYC sponsors. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has led the organization of the IYC with the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).

Industry leaders say they are acutely aware that the challenge now is to maintain the momentum that IYC has generated in terms of improving industry’s image.

IYC cornerstone events are the opening ceremony, which took place in January; the World Chemistry Leader’s Meeting, in August; the closing ceremony, in December; and the Global Chemistry Experiment, in which pupils from around the world undertake a series of experiments to analyze their water supply and upload their results to a common website. Unesco is confident that the IYC will have succeeded in achieving one of Unesco’s main objectives; to increase public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs. The Global Experiment already has reached out to 60,000 school children from 40 countries, while EPCA’s film depicting the versatile nature of chemistry has been downloaded and watched by 50,000 teenagers around the world. “We are positive that it has been successful,” Unesco says. Unesco has used its media services as well as national commissions in 193 countries and field offices to spread the word of the IYC globally.

“We hope that chemistry is taken beyond 2011 and one of the ways to ensure this is that IUPAC and Unesco will take the recommendations of the World Chemistry Leader’s Meeting to the Rio+20 meeting on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from 4-6 June, 2012,” Unesco says. The key recommendations are to implement systems that accelerate the contributions of chemistry to sustainable development through innovative international collaboration.

Cefic’s director general Hubert Mandery and Bayer Material Science’s CEO Patrick Thomas are among industry leaders confident that initiatives introduced during IYC will provide a legacy long after 2011. IYC “is running reasonably well—there is always room for improvement—but it has been a valuable year,” Mandery says.

Bayer and Cefic say they view IYC as a stepping-stone toward better acceptance of chemistry by society. “This is a starting point on a journey because there is so much work we have to do to combat ‘chemophobia’ . . . and to attract children into the world of chemistry,” says Patrick Thomas, CEO of Bayer Material Science (BMS). “At the end of IYC it is not going to stop.”

Approximately 2,500 students, from teenagers down to elementary school children, each year visit Bayer’s Baylabs, an array of visitor laboratories built for students, which are located around the world. Bayer has “stepped it up this year” to enable more students into its Baylabs. That step up includes the introduction of a new Baylab at Leverkusen, Germany for demonstrating genetics, including plant breeding activities.

“I think the International Year of Chemistry has gone well. We have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. In some countries the programs have gone much better than in others. I don’t think it has been universal,” Thomas says.

Baylab: Bayer this year has increased the number of places available at its Baylabs for school children to gain hands-on experience with chemistry.

IYC events in France and in the U.S. have been particularly successful and “have attracted a lot of interest,” says Bernard Roche, president and CEO of Arkema Inc. Companies everywhere have been involved with many conferences and events around the world that have never been put on before, he says. One of Arkema’s flagship activities has been the operation of its “Amazing Chemistry” laboratory inside the Palais de Découverte (Paris), a public museum. More than 10,000 people have visited the laboratory since its introduction earlier this year. The hope is that the laboratory will continue to run in the museum after IYC has ended. Arkema also has commissioned four short teaching laboratory videos targeted at young people.

Women scientists have played a high profile role in Arkema’s IYC campaign in the U.S. and in Europe, with women featuring in the firm’s science teacher education program for schools in the U.S., Roche says. In this science program, teachers receive special training about chemistry and how to present the subject in a powerful way but in line with school curricula. “Arkema has made community outreach efforts a top priority during IYC. IYC will help us institutionalize some of the efforts relating to practical education,” Roche says.

L’Oreal also has been promoting IYC with the purpose of generating greater public understanding of science. L’Oreal through its ‘For Women in Science’ program has been highlighting the role of women in science for several years. During IYC the organization has been encouraging women to take an interest in chemistry to ensure that they “play a role in moving science forward,” the organization says.

IYC has “certainly raised the visibility of chemistry, and therefore science, and sparked some useful dialogue about the roles and responsibility of science in society,” says the L’Oreal Corporate Foundation. “It was a platform that was leveraged around the world and hopefully these discussions will continue into the future.”

Dow Chemical is an official global partner of IYC. The company has been at the forefront of many of the IYC activities around the world and had a prominent role in the official launch of the IYC in Paris in February.

“Dow has been engaged in a series of events designed to identify and enroll the next generation of scientists—starting locally but sharing globally,” says Catherine Hunt, director/innovation sourcing and sustainable technologies for Dow. In an effort to stimulate creativity and friendly competition, Dow and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (Philadelphia, PA) invited thousands of teachers and students to participate in “It’s Elemental,” a nationwide video contest. “The level of creativity poured into these videos was, and continues to be, truly inspirational.”

Dow has pledged $2.5 million, in collaboration with the American Chemical Society (ACS; Washington, DC), to bring the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) to the U.S. in July, 2012, aimed at ensuring that IYC ends with a strong legacy.

During IChO more than 70 nations will send teams of four students for the ten-day event of exams, laboratory work and scientific and cultural excursions based at the University of Maryland, College Park, outside Washington, DC. It will be the first time that IChO will have been run in the U.S. since 1992. ACS will be the event host.

“Dow sees the International Chemistry Olympiad as a prime opportunity to help inspire the next generation of scientists,” says Andrew Liveris, Dow Chairman and CEO. “With more than 95% of all manufactured products requiring some level of chemistry, highly educated and inspired scientists will help ensure a sustainable future for our company, our planet and our communities.”

As well as aiming to inspire the next generation of scientists, industry has used the IYC to communicate with policy makers. The U.S. Senate belatedly—but unanimously—recently consented to the adoption of a resolution in September to designate 2011 as the IYC in the U.S. “ACS deeply appreciates the U.S. Senate recognizing the importance of chemistry in meeting world needs, in supporting science, technology, engineering and math education, and in promoting economic growth and new jobs for our nation through scientific innovation,” says American Chemistry Society president Nancy Jackson.

A key initiative by Cefic in September was ‘Tomorrow Starts with Chemistry’, a four-day exhibition located within the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels to celebrate the role of chemistry in society. Chemistry students from Belgian universities demonstrated various chemistries at the exhibition. It is the first time that the European Commission has hosted such an event, which featured interactive products, such as alarm clocks fuelled by water.

European Commission vice president Antonio Tajani told CW at a press briefing in Brussels in September that the exhibition is significant and represents “a new deal between the commission and the chemical industry.”

Cefic president Georgio Squinzi publicly welcomed Tajani’s comments. “We want to show the commission what chemistry can do. We’re ready to play a leading role,” such as in the implementation of public-private partnerships in applications including smart cities, and energy efficient ways of purifying water, he says. “There are challenges ahead that require a new paradigm. Cefic is happy to be here.”

Although Cefic’s exhibition at the commission cannot be assumed to have influenced all EU policy makers, a survey of 50 EU regulators from Brussels published by Cefic at its general assembly in Madrid on September 30 indicates that the chemical industry is now widely recognized as a force for good. “It is good to know that certain things have improved,” Mandery says.

Cefic’s survey did, however, also indicate that the European public’s perception about the chemical industry is not a positive one. Of the policy makers surveyed, 84% either agree or somewhat agree “that there is a general perception of mistrust around chemicals.” This identified lack of trust of the chemical industry “is a problem,” said Ben van Beurden, executive v.p./Shell Chemical who debated the issue earlier this month during a panel at Cefic’s annual assembly in Madrid. Members of the European Parliament interviewed for the survey appear to be less trusting of the chemical industry than other policy makers and say that chemicals may be unsafe and are not properly tested. “In this case we don’t just have bad news but ugly news,” van Beurden says.

Nick Andrews, reputation specialist for Fleishman-Hillard (St. Louis, MO), the company that undertook the survey for Cefic, told delegates at the general assembly that industry needs to take a series of actions, including higher profile participation in the mass media by industry representatives on chemical topics; presenting a passionate and emotional case rather than dealing only in facts; and presenting a consistent long term goal to consumers of what the chemical industry is collectively trying to achieve.

There was a certain acceptance among some industry leaders that industry now needs to change the way it tackles the negative image of the chemical industry by going beyond activities such as those promoted during the IYC. “We have to innovate. Doing more of the same is not necessarily going to be enough. We need to communicate pride and passion. We need to shift the discussion to an inspirational message. . . . We have to go on the offensive,” van Beurden says.

The opening address by Tom Crotty, group director/Ineos, and president of the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA), at the EPCA’s annual meeting in Berlin earlier this month, featured an argument similar to that raised by van Beurden days earlier. EPCA’s event this year, ‘The Chemical Industry: Over 95% of the World Around Us,’ was closely linked to the IYC. “Nothing could exist without the ingenuity of chemists and chemical engineers,” Crotty says. “So why don’t we celebrate this? We have only ourselves to blame. Our successes are unnoticed and our failures are shouted from the rooftops. We need to speak out.”

Although industry has never assumed that the IYC would change public opinion within the year, with momentum still building and a potential shift in communication strategy emerging, it could yet prove to be the one when it all started.

A video interview with Dow Chemical’s Catherine Hunt on Dow’s hopes for IYC is available online.

Link to Chemical Week Magazine

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