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Vol. 25 No. 1
January - February 2003
Peter Mahaffy

On the Public Understanding of Chemistry Encouraging the Flow of Ideas

by Peter Mahaffy

An important objective of IUPAC’s revised chemical education efforts was to give increased attention to the critical interfaces between chemistry and society. Chemistry as a science cannot flourish in isolation, but must develop within a context of public understanding and mutual trust. Thus, one of the Union’s longrange goals is to "advance the public understanding of chemistry."

I’m pleased to report that IUPAC’s efforts to focus on the two-way flow of ideas between chemistry and society have had a fruitful beginning with the formation of the CCE Subcommittee on the Public Understanding of Chemistry (PUC). The subcommittee held its first informal meeting at the 17th International Conference on Chemical Education in Beijing in August 2002. The five out of eight members who were able to attend set the directions for the committee’s work.

The contexts for chemistry and for its interactions with society are fundamentally different in the various parts of our global village. It is therefore a daunting task to map what projects in this area are being undertaken by chemical societies, industry, educational institutions, and non-governmental organizations. The subcommittee is aware of the impressive existing initiatives in this area and the limited resources within PUC. The biggest challenge will be to avoid duplicating existing efforts and to explore what activities will best fit with IUPAC’s mission and focus.

The PUC subcommittee agreed to prepare a proposal for an IUPAC project to initiate this mapping and evaluation of existing public understanding of science efforts and to propose a focus for PUC activities. Consistent with IUPAC’s focus, activities will likely be centered on facilitating communication among those responsible for on-going public understanding initiatives, and encouraging others to fill in the gaps that are identified. It is clear that much of our work will be done electronically, and the Internet will be an important tool in communicating what is being done. Bob Bucat <bucat@chem.uwa.edu.au> has agreed to coordinate the preparation of a project proposal. He welcomes your comments.

A public launch of the IUPAC CCE Public Understanding initiative will take place on 14 August 2003 at the 39th IUPAC Congress, held jointly this year with the 86th Conference of the Canadian Society for Chemistry (session CE03 of the Congress). On that date a series of three symposia featuring invited speakers will be held, focusing on various aspects of the public understanding of chemistry. Symposia titles and the committed invited speakers are as follows:

  • The Flow of Ideas Between Chemists and the Public Through the Media, sponsored by DOW Canada, and featuring Madeleine Jacobs, editor in chief of Chemical & Engineering News, as one of the confirmed speakers. Other representatives from the media and chemists dedicated to promoting the public understanding of chemistry will also be featured.
  • The Flow of Ideas from the Research Lab to Industrial or Public Use, sponsored by Imperial Oil, featuring Howard Alper, president of the Royal Society of Canada as one of the confirmed speakers. Other representatives from government and industry will also address this interface.
  • The Flow of Ideas Through Society, sponsored by Shell Canada Chemicals, featuring Tim Faithfull, president of Shell Canada, and Stuart Smith, past chair of the National Round Table on the Economy and Environment, as confirmed speakers. Other speakers will also address the interactions among chemistry and other key disciplines concerned with the health of people and the environment, social justice, economic growth, and general public aspirations.

Finally, an international poster contest for 10–16 year old students on the importance of chemistry in daily life is being launched this spring. Selected entries will be displayed at the Congress and published in Chemistry International. PUC member Lida Schoen <amschoen@xs4all.nl> is the contest coordinator through the Science Across the World network.

Members of PUC include Dr. Anthony D. Ashmore (UK), Dr. D. Balasubramanian (India), Professor Robert B. Bucat (Australia), Professor Choon H. Do (Korea), Dr. Lida Schoen (Netherlands), Professor Joseph Schwarcz (Canada), and Professor Yoshito Takeuchi (Japan), and myself (Canada) as chairman.

The subcommittee welcomes your suggestions for priorities and would like to be made aware of activities and efforts in your country or region. Please contact me with your comments.

Peter Mahaffy <peter.mahaffy@kingsu.ca> is professor at the King’s University College, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


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