Chemistry consistently gets a bad rap in the mainstream media. One of the UK's broadsheet newspapers is currently running a series of supplements detailing the evils of chemicals. Apparently, chemicals are all around us, leaching out of everyday household items, lurking in our bodies, doing us harm and poisoning the environment. There is, of course, no doubt that some chemicals are harmful to us and that their use can damage the environment. But this rather one-sided picture of chemistry rather reminds me of that well-known Monty Python sketch in The Life of Brian, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

What chemistry needs, in mass media terminology, is a makeover. Carl Djerassi, Stanford University chemist and ‘father of the birth control pill’ has made an unconventional proposal that might be one way of achieving just such a makeover. Djerassi's manifesto [Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. (2004) 43, 2330] outlines ways in which chemists in industrialized nations could help their neighbors in the developing world understand the problems of handling chemicals better and find appropriate environmental protection measures. “The fear of chemicals largely stems from a lack of chemical knowledge,” says Djerassi. This absence of knowledge about chemistry, and the extent of exposure to chemicals, makes these nations vulnerable, he says. Without diminishing the autonomy of such nations, or detracting from their decision-making processes, Djerassi suggests measures he believes would assist and support these activities. The formation of a steering committee by the major chemical societies of industrialized nations to focus on two main issues: raising the profile of chemical decontamination research in leading universities and creating a ‘Chemical Social Service Corps’. This service corps would be made up of PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, or even more senior chemists from ‘industrial superpowers’, who would work with their local counterparts in host countries on projects associated with chemical remediation and detection. Such schemes are relatively commonplace in the environmental and charity arena, but it is the specifically scientific aspect of Djerassi's manifesto that sets it apart.

As well as helping our less advantaged neighbors in the developing world, the idea of ‘chemistry in action’ (and saving the world to boot) might be just what the image of chemistry needs. It might also be just what chemistry needs to attract a new generation of scientists to the subject. And it may not only be chemistry that could benefit from such a visible conscience. New research indicates [Materials Today (2004) 7 (7/8), 29] that the Earth's oceans and shores are contaminated with microscopic fragments and fibers of synthetic polymers. One the great materials science success stories could turn out to be its biggest problem. The challenge is to make sure that materials science is part of the solution.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00320-7