SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
17 December 2015
Volume 16 Issue 12

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Executive Director's Corner

Charlie Menzie, SETAC Global Executive Director

When it comes to scientific workshops and governance, what makes SETAC so special? SETAC has reflected on its origins on a number of occasions over the past year. SETAC Europe celebrated its 25th anniversary, we implemented a SETAC Fellows program to recognize scientific leaders in our society and SETAC North America established a Senior Resource Group who will share their historical knowledge and scientific insights on research, service and volunteerism. Our roots are strong and it’s gratifying to see how we have grown into a global scientific society with more than 6,000 members. At the same time that we have grown and taken on difficult environmental science and engineering challenges, there have been more frequent discussions concerning the future and trustworthiness of science. In particular, scientists, environmental policy makers, environmental advocacy groups, academic institutions, governments, businesses and the public have expressed concerns regarding scientific integrity, bias, and limitations in both technical and popular publications, discourse and outreach. The reflections of the past resonate with the challenges of the future. Together, they point to the fundamental principles upon which SETAC was founded and what makes our society so special.

I was a graduate student when I first heard the story of the “Blind Men and the Elephant.” The story was relayed at a scientific meeting by Joel Hedgpeth, a marine biologist and early environmentalist. He was making a point about how we all might experience the same thing (i.e., the elephant in the story) differently. Each of us, as individuals and organizations or institutions, is subject to views and perceptions that reflect where we are standing “around the elephant” as we try to make sense of information. The recognition that there is a range of perspectives among scientists, as well as differences in interests and responsibilities concerning environmental matters, forms the background for how SETAC conducts its business and holds scientific workshops. More specifically, this is reflected in SETAC’s reference to itself as a tripartite, multi-sectorial society. But what does that mean and how does it relate to SETAC’s governance and workshops?

The emphasis on bringing together diverse perspectives and a wide range of knowledge is evident in SETAC Pellston Workshops®. These are four or five-day meetings comprised entirely of invited participants (usually 30–50 participants) with costs paid for by fundraising from sponsors (targeting a balance of government, business, academia and foundations). The basics of balance and objectivity that underlie all SETAC activities apply to all SETAC workshops. SETAC is careful not to link funding sources with the expectation that particular scientists will be invited to these workshops. Steering committee and workshop participants typically represent an internationally diverse group of individuals including, when possible, academia, government, business and other non-government organizations. This is exemplified in both of our upcoming workshops for 2016.

SETAC is collaborating with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Life Cycle Initiative (LCI) for the upcoming workshop, Support Development of Global Guidance for Life Cycle Impact Assessment Indicators and Methods." The 18-person steering committee is comprised of five individuals from government, five from business (two consultants, two manufacturers and one association), and seven academics. For the upcoming workshop, “Environmental Hazard and Risk Assessment Approaches for Endocrine-Active Chemicals (EHRA),” the steering committee is comprised of three individuals from government (United States, United Kingdom and Australia), seven individuals from business (three consultants and four manufacturers), six academics and one NGO.  Bruce Vigon, Science Manager for SETAC, is also a member of the steering committee for both workshops and serves to guide the participants toward achieving the workshops goals. The steering committee for both workshops includes representation from three or four of SETAC’s global Geographic Units (GUs) and the approximately 50 participants that will work together for each of the workshops are selected to reflect the goals of achieving tripartite representation, insights from many parts of the world, gender balance and technical expertise. Although a broad variety of institutions and backgrounds are represented at a SETAC Pellston Workshop®, participants are asked to “leave their institutional hats at the door.”

SETAC Pellston Workshops® are intense experiences. The length of the workshop in a setting largely free of external influences and diversions is intended to provide participants an opportunity to listen to one another, to share what they know, to brainstorm the issues, to develop deeper understandings through shared insights, to synthesize information, and eventually, to prepare workshop papers and publications to disseminate findings and recommendations to a wider audience. The efforts we go through to create this environment and bring together broad perspectives yield publications that are recognized globally as reflecting the state-of-the-science. Increasingly, SETAC has looked for ways to communicate the outputs of these workshops not only to other scientists, but also in forms that are intended for environmental managers, policy makers and the public.

As I traveled over the past year to various GU meetings around the world, the recognition that SETAC is a tripartite, multi-sectorial, professional organization came up again and again. The conversations often involved the recognition for a need to bring together government and business with academia in developing countries in an effort to establish and advance environmental policies. As you look across our society, the academic sector serves as an important anchor and indeed most of our members in Africa and Latin America are from academic institutions with a strong student component. The leaders of these GUs are reaching out to the government and business sectors in an effort to achieve the balance of those sectors along with NGOs. They recognize that the tripartite and multi-sector diversity of SETAC is its real strength and is what makes SETAC a unique global scientific organization. At a global level our membership currently is comprised of 57% academia, 27% business, 15% government, and 1% non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We have a strong student and early career scientist component.

SETAC’s governance and approach to scientific meetings, workshops and publications help ensure that multiple perspectives are present within the society. This broad perspective contributes to the scientific integrity and reliability of workshop outputs and outreach that SETAC provides. However, at the same time, SETAC recognizes that more needs to be done to address the issue of scientific integrity and bias in scientific publications and discourse.  This is reflected in the sessions that have been held on this topic at our meetings, the development of an award for the best student paper that exemplifies scientific integrity and discussions with our journal editors, other professional scientific societies and our publisher on how best to address these matters. SETAC’s incoming president, Pat Guiney, has identified the issue of how SETAC’s unique structure and membership can best influence and improve scientific integrity as one of his priorities.  From its foundation, SETAC has recognized the need for credible and reliable science in publications and discourse. That remains true today and the tripartite, multi-sectorial structure of SETAC is directed at that need.  SETAC scientists continue to study and address some of the most complex environmental issues. Through collaborations, participation in SETAC meetings and workshops, and through publications we can together get a better sense for the shape of those elephants.

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