SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  20 June 2013
Volume 14 Issue 6

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Bridging the Gap between Risk Perception and Ecotoxicology Research―How Can We Communicate to Improve Our Outreach?

Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University, Agnieszka Hunka, Roskilde University, Mattia Meli, Roskilde University, Peter Calow, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

“Bridging the Gap between Risk Perception and Ecotoxicology Research―How Can We Communicate to Improve Our Outreach?” was the second session on science and risk communication at SETAC Europe 23rd Annual Meeting. This well-attended session featured a panel discussion to dive deeper into this important subject. The topic is still very broad and unfocused. We continued to collect views, perspectives and opinions to derive an overview for the SETAC community. Our encouraging conclusion is that communication seems a topic of large interest within SETAC and that many colleagues have distinct opinions about how communication could and should work. Yet most of us do not have the time and resources to do it properly. Now we have at least started communicating!

Did you know that some toilet brushes are sold carrying disinfectants? Based on this example of unusual use of biocides, Stefanie Wieck's presentation showed that both industries and the authorities fail to provide useful information on disinfectants on consumer products through their respective websites. Maybe the responsible persons could learn from the “experience with risk communication in different estuaries and lagoons,” that Ivonne Stresius reported on. She introduced the tool “SIMACLIM,” which is used to facilitate participation of all stakeholders in lagoon management. However, it is not just appropriate tools that we need for successful communication of risk and research. Scientific consensus can be important in driving public trust in research findings. Agnieszka Hunka provided a comprehensive summary of the reactions of the public regarding disagreement among scientists over a study on the long-term toxicity of genetically modified maize on rats. She presented contributions in the commentary section of English-speaking websites that ranged from literally “rats make nice pets but die young” to “so the government’s gonna kill us again.” But we might not be any better within the Ivory Tower. Francoise Lafaye gave a view on interdisciplinarity as a challenge for communication amongst scientists. According to her analysis interaction, with other disciplines requires commitment to the peculiarities of all sides and raises the challenge of trying to think from the other perspectives.

It is this mutual understanding that was identified as a yet-to-have key in the subsequent panel discussion. Peter Calow led a vivid 50 minutes of dialogue among the eight panelists and even more between the panel and the auditorium. Further contributions focused on researchers not being trained as communicators and also on an audience-driven press that tends to simplify and sensationalize issues and so influences public opinion. A good approach to change this situation would be a stronger involvement of the public in the science enterprise to enable real participation. This “public understanding of the scientific process” could in the end provide a basis for the much needed common language and culture.

Panelists were:
Valery Forbes, University Nebraska-Lincoln, USA
Angieszka Hunka, Roskilde University, Denmark
Ursula Klaschka, Hochschule Ulm, Germany
Stewart Owen, AstraZeneca, UK
John Redshaw, SEPA, Scotland
Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University, Germany
Birgit Sokull-Klüttgen, JRC, Italy
Andrew Thompson, BBC, UK

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