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How Effective Is Science Outreach?

School science experiment

The real aim of the IYC is to “increase the public appreciation and understanding of chemistry, increase young people’s interest in science, and generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry”.

By Ian Rae

Will the International Year of Chemistry successfully promote science to the community?

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). It follows the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 and the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, and will be enjoyed concurrently with international years for forests and for people of African descent. It’s also World Veterinary Year.

According to the President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the IYC “will give a global boost to chemical science in which our life and future are grounded”. That’s nice. As the detail unfolds, however, we find that the real aim of the IYC is to “increase the public appreciation and understanding of chemistry, increase young people’s interest in science, and generate enthusiasm for the creative future of chemistry”.

The celebrations in Australia are led by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), which has received generous government funding to bring chemical science to the public, especially the young public. Initiatives are also coming from organisations like CSIRO and the various science and technology centres, as well as some university research groups.

IUPAC launched IYC 2011 in Paris in late January, with RACI following in Canberra in early February. Both events were upstaged, however, by a women’s breakfast that rolled around the world on 18 January, starting in New Zealand with eight Australian venues close behind. Altogether women in 44 countries shared a chemical moment in time.

During 2011 Australian chemists will staff five exhibitions at libraries across the country. They feature chemistry and health; chemistry and natural resources; chemistry and the environment; food and wine chemistry; and nuclear chemistry. An international speaker will present the Marie Curie lectures, schools will be bombarded with information, and the RACI website (www.raci.org.au) will keep us up-to-date with IYC events.

Our chemists have been leaders in bringing science to the Australian public. In addition to the work of teachers and professional chemists, the government-funded research centres are required to have, and are funded for, outreach programs that augment the efforts of the organisations. All this is good fun, but does it do any good? We can ask the same question of a raft of science experience programs, youth lectures and prize competitions that bring warm inner glows to the organisers and the successful participants.

Most such activities are government-funded, but no effort and no funds seem to be devoted to finding out whether they achieve their aims. Overt or covert, the aims can include improving understanding of science in the community, engendering respect or support for scientists, informing potential students and luring them into school and university courses. If these things are working we should be very grateful.

Maybe we could do better with a modicum of national coordination to ensure consistent coverage, but the fact is that they thrive on local initiative. No heavy hand is needed here lest the activists – and they are mostly volunteers – be turned off.

If, on the other hand, the panoply of outreach programs is not working then we have been spending our money and investing our time in “feel good” activities that don’t impact, or don’t impact very much, on either the public or those potential students.

This may not be all bad, however. One of the main benefits of the activities could be the maintenance of morale among educators and scientists who think they are doing something worthwhile. Could they be the right deeds for the wrong reason?

Ian Rae is a thoughtful skeptic and former RACI President.