A profile of the Royal Society of Chemistry

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The Independent Online

The growth of the Royal Society of Chemistry has mirrored the rise of chemistry itself. Since the Society began life as the Chemical Society of London in 1841, it has expanded, through mergers with other subject bodies, to become the largest chemical society in Europe, with 45,000 members worldwide.

It has the longest continuous tradition of any chemical society in the world, and its objective, as set out in its royal charter, is the general advancement of chemical science and its application. Michael Faraday, famous for his work on the chemical reaction produced when an electric current passes through a liquid (resulting in our knowledge of the laws of electrolysis) was one former Chemical Society council member.

Now, as the chemist's work plays an ever greater role in our lives and is even, according to the Society's president, Professor Sir Harry Kroto, of utmost importance in ensuring our survival, the organisation remains crucial. It acts as the national professional body for chemical scientists, responsible for maintaining standards in both qualifications and professional practice. It also has to sell chemistry to the public.

Professor Kroto, Nobel prize winner and Royal Society Research Professor in Chemistry at Sussex University, has passionate views on the importance of that task. He sees chemistry as the new science of sustainability, with the potential to solve some of the environmental problems that afflict the planet - hence its importance to our survival. "We want young people to recognise that there are many in the scientific community who are concerned about the way things are going. We need to recognise that if we are to develop a sustainable socio-economic structure, the fundamental science is chemistry," he says.

The Royal Society, as the largest non-government supporter of chemistry education in the UK, encourages active networks of chemical societies. More than 5,000 students are members of the society, representing not only the core areas of the subject but other allied areas such as life science and materials and the environment.

Support for all teachers of chemistry, nearly 2,000 of whom are members, is a key function, provided through in-service training courses and materials to support curriculum and careers resources.

The society also publishes journals, databases and books in all major areas of the subject, usually in both print and electronic form. Burlington House, a grand building on Piccadilly in London, is home to the society's library and information centre - the largest collection of chemical science information in Europe.

One of the most important things about a professional society today is its ability to promote discussion about the future, says Professor Julia Higgins, Royal Society of Chemistry fellow and professor of polymer science at Imperial College, London. "In the activities it promotes and the meetings that are made public to chemists, the Society ensures we can support and develop the sort of work we want to do in the future. Then its job is to communicate that vision to the public."

To help towards that end, the Society runs competitions and events including "Chemistry at Work" exhibitions where local organisations demonstrate to school and college students how chemistry relates to their everyday lives and how it is used in the workplace. A national chemistry week is held every two years, with events for children and the public organised nationally and through the society's 35 local sections, grant aided from the centre. The theme this year is Chemistry's Pleasure, with events planned for 7-16 November designed to enhance people's understanding of the way chemistry affects all our lives.

"If you say the word chemical to people, they tend to think about pollution," says David Lindores, the Society's local events executive. "We hope to make people realise that chemistry is in fact in everything we touch and do, so this is about how it helps people and makes life fun. We could be talking about anything - chocolate, DVDs, new sports textiles or training shoes. It's all chemistry."

For further information on the Royal Society of Chemistry, see www.rsc.org and www.chemsoc.org