I’ve been a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) for many years now; I think I’m coming up on my 15th year. The RSC does a lot of good things — and I know many people who work there and enjoy catching up with them at conferences. But there is one thing in particular that the RSC does that makes me roll my eyes (and many of the chemists I know have a similar reaction). Occasionally the RSC puts out a light-hearted press release that has only a very tenuous link to chemistry, or no discernible link to chemistry whatsoever.
Yesterday’s effort (which foreshadowed an event today) was titled: Mrs Beeton’s all-bread sandwich recreated for tough-times Britain. The release tells us that, “The RSC decided to promote Mrs Beeton’s toast sandwich because it might just be what we need to get us through the harsh economic times that are forecast.” Well isn’t that nice of them? Nothing much to do with chemistry though.
As noted in an article in 2010 by Brian Emsley on the Association of British Science Writers website, “The generating of historically-based or eccentric stunts has been part of the RSC mainstream PR now for eight years and each year we think that we have exhausted the seam but then another concept springs up happily.” The basic idea seems to be that if you can generate media interest through these stunts and raise the profile of the RSC, then when important issues in chemical policy, research or education crop up, the press are more likely to remember the RSC and go to them for comment. And through a fairly extensive exchange I had on Twitter today, it seems that once the RSC has got their foot in the door with the national media with one of these stunts, they can use the opportunity to raise other chemistry-related issues.
But does it work? I’m not convinced. Of course, I could be wrong. But I can’t help but imagine that the vast majority of people reading the stories or listening to the interviews go away and remember the gimmick, but not much more. Maybe I wouldn’t object so much if there was some fundamental chemistry underpinning these stunts that was more of an integral part of the press release — and that people went away with just a tiny bit more understanding about science or chemistry. But then again, I guess the stories might not be picked up so much if that was the case. Trying to increase the engagement of chemists and chemistry with the public is something I think is very important, I’m just not sure this is the right way to go about it.
There has also been some criticism on Twitter that there are more important things going on in chemistry that should be more of a priority for the RSC — most notably the current funding policies of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (this blog will give you one side of the story). I also think there are other great ‘public interest’ stories that powerfully demonstrate the importance of chemistry — one that caught the eye today is Dave Smith’s very personal story about the chemistry that makes organ transplantation possible. Find 15 minutes and go and watch it.
I think my comments on the latest RSC PR stunt touched a few nerves, with @RSC_Comms branding me a ‘hypocrite’ for daring to criticize the toast-sandwich offensive after I have previously written about the chemistry of cookies here on this blog. As I pointed out, I’m not a professional society that charges members dues to fund my activities. My blog is a personal one with a chemistry slant that I post to in my spare time. There’s a difference!
Anyway, I’m probably being somewhat precious about this, but what do you think? Are the RSC PR stunts helping raise the profile of chemistry in the UK? Lemme know!
*My lovely — and sensible — wife made me change the title of this post from what I originally planned. One day I’ll let you all know what it was.