The International Year of Chemistry (IYC) US kickoff event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania featured an impressive panel - two major chemical company CEOs, the founder of a pharmaceutical firm and several distinguished members of academia and research institutions.
The discussion on the world's major challenges such as population growth and the growing need for food, water and energy, and chemistry's role in solving these problems, was interesting. Partnering with other countries and organizations came out as an imperative to achieve tangible results.
Clearly one of the goals of the IYC is to move the public discussion away from the usual concerns about pollution and toxicity, and towards how chemistry can actively solve some of the world's toughest challenges.
The United Nations has given the global chemical industry a big stage with the IYC, and the sector must "seize the year," as US-based Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris said, to be advocates of change for the good of humanity.
Ultimately, a broader shift in public perception about the industry could lead to less restrictive regulations that hinder chemical manufacturing, as well as more policies that benefit the sector.
While not an expressly stated goal of the IYC, this would be a welcome long-term development, enabling the ultimate enabler industry to better meet the world's challenges.
It's great to have this discussion on how chemistry can solve the world's most pressing problems - among executives, academia and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
But there is one important element missing thus far - and that has been broad media coverage.
To reach a broader audience, coverage must go beyond the trade and local press. Liveris said the industry must "insert itself into the public discourse."
That's going to take courage. The best way to do that is to get involved in controversial debates that will catch the attention of the public.
In the past, the sector has been on the defensive and largely avoided these debates. But if the industry can generate or get involved in some provocative programming that will reach the broader public, it will go much further than if the discussion is kept within business and academic circles.
Would executives be willing to participate in a public forum - for example, a TV program called "Chemicals - Threat or Savior?" At the risk of over-quoting Liveris, let's take a "glass-half-full view."
Photo credit: www.chemistry2011.org