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Could You Tell the Difference Between a Chemist and a Pharmacist?

It is a misunderstanding that can be helped by chemists raising awareness of what they do and talking about what excites and motivates them. Many of them are already doing so and are fine ambassadors for their respective fields.

Seems an odd question, doesn't it? But then think again, how easily could you define the two? I naively assumed it would be fairly obvious to the UK public what the difference between the two is, but findings this week suggest the misidentification of chemists as pharmacists is a peculiarly British phenomenon.

Research by the Royal Society of Chemistry, entitled 'Public attitudes to chemistry' published on Monday, reveals there is some confusion over what a chemist is and what a chemist does. This confusion could stem from a number of things. Two extremely simplistic notions could hark back to the 1700s when chemists and druggists were battling with apothecaries to be able to sell medications and a certain UK high-street store was given the name Boots the Chemist, which although now largely eradicated from the store's signs, is still etched in the memories of many a generation. Then there's popular culture, a landmine of largely overinflated scientific stereotypes and recurring images of white lab coats - something the scientific community is largely moving away from and with some success.

Image courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry

Although we could have anticipated the result, the scale of this void in people's understanding was largely underestimated. While respondents to the survey could pick multiple categories when asked where they thought a chemist worked, 76% chose pharmacies alongside other categories, 31% said they only worked in pharmacies or hospitals, and 25% selected pharmacies and nothing else.

It is a misunderstanding that can be helped by chemists raising awareness of what they do and talking about what excites and motivates them. Many of them are already doing so and are fine ambassadors for their respective fields. The real challenge is to strip back any off-putting jargon that would leave most people running for the exits, and present in a way that is both accessible and engaging to a lay audience.

Image courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry

Chemists work in any number of fascinating jobs. The 175 Faces of Chemistry is just one example that shows the sheer diversity of their backgrounds and the roles which chemists play in solving global challenges, such as feeding the world's population, developing clean water technology, and devising new drugs and facilitating medical breakthroughs.

What is clear from the findings, the first national, in-depth study on public attitudes to chemistry, chemists and chemicals, is that people do recognise the difference chemists are making to the world. Results show the public perception of chemistry and chemicals is arguably much more positive than many within the profession would have believed. More than 60% of the public think jobs in chemistry are interesting and a further 59% think the benefits of chemistry are greater than any harmful effects. This shows there is an appetite from the public to learn more and feel more emotionally connected to - and familiar with - chemistry. Yet, there is arguably still much work to be done. More than 50% of people interviewed didn't feel confident enough to talk about chemistry and many have limited associations with the discipline, mainly thinking back to their experiences with the subject at school or defaulting to stereotypes.

Image courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry

The negative connotation towards chemicals so often found in the mainstream media remains an issue, but has surprisingly not impacted on the public's view. Only 20% of the respondents believe that all chemicals are dangerous and harmful, and 55% feel neutral on that matter. The main sticking point here is that many people freely admit they are not particularly knowledgeable when it comes to how chemicals are used, for example in industry or food production, which can make them uneasy. The strength of these feelings is clear and based on rational assessment of risk and their need to rely on regulators and industry to act in the long-term public interest.

Image courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry

The positive role chemists play in society and the value of chemistry has not been lost in this research. There is an optimistic future ahead for talking about chemistry and it is important we address misguided stereotypes and correct perceptions. As former President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Professor David Phillips puts it: "The first step in an effort to try to influence public attitudes towards chemistry is for us, as chemists, to rethink our attitudes towards the public."