IHS Chemical Week


International Year of Chemistry; Great Launch, Shame about the Communication

1:43 PM MST | February 4, 2011 | By ALEX SCOTT

A host of leading lights from the world of chemistry gathered in Paris, France this week to celebrate the launch of the United Nations international year of chemistry (IYC). If there was one word to sum up the approach of the eminent list of speakers it is ‘passion’. The speakers consistently expressed their passion that chemistry must be promoted as the key to a better world – for boosting food production, availability of potable water, and provision of sustainable energy in the face of finite resources and a human population that is set to increase to 9 billion by 2050. It might not have had the fervor of Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ presidential election campaign, but in Paris there was a palpable sense that chemistry is on the cusp of a new era in which it will be recognized as the platform for solving the world’s major resource-related problems.

The likes of Helene Langevin-Joliot, Marie Curie’s grand daughter and a chemistry professor and head of CNRS told an audience of about 500 academics and industrialists how far chemistry had come and the possibilities it holds.

Other speakers included Jean-Marie Lehn, a Nobel-prize winning chemist; Rajendra k. Pachauri, chairman of the UN climate panel and a Nobel Peace laureate; Hans-Ulrich Engel, board member for BASF; Jerome A. Peribere, CEO/Dow Chemical Advanced Materials; and Thierry Le Henaff, chairman and CEO of Arkema. This really was a group of exceptional individuals each with an expert understanding of their subject.

The uplifting message from the speakers was that it can be done; chemistry can underpin the solutions to the major world issues – including that of climate change. The message from industry’s leaders was that yes chemistry can provide the solutions, but that in order to thrive chemistry’s contribution must be recognized by governments and by the public. More investment in research and focus on development are required if the world is to avoid the impacts of climate change and resource shortfalls in the face of a growing human population. BASF’s Hans-Ulrich Engel argued in his presentation that if the full effects of chemistry are to be realised then a step-change in thinking is required by governments, the public and innovators.

Strangely, for an event designed to communicate the rich heritage and potential of chemistry to a wider audience, the handful of journalists that managed to make it in to the event in Paris (to my knowledge no press invitations were sent out) were marginalised from the proceedings once they got there.

This concerns me, as the chemical industry only has this year with the UN at its side to convey the positive message about the potential of chemistry to the wider public. Industry's communications experts were operating at full throttle - so why weren't those from the UN? 

Results for IYC on Google news (a rough barometer of news output) show that predominantly it was industry journals that have been running news of the launch of IYC.
If the UN doesn’t step up its communications on the issue, then communication will be left to the chemical industry. The risk in this is that a public relations push from industry that is considered by much of the public to be a threat – and not a foundation - for their quality of life, could be interpreted as profiteering on the back of global issues.

The year of chemistry has got off to a great start. The UN's communications experts must now seize the day.

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