SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
21 January 2016
Volume 17 Issue 1

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SETAC Europe Advisory Group on Science and Risk Communication

Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University, Henner Hollert, RWTH Aachen University, Agnieszka Hunka, Halmstad University, Sarah Bowman, The Ohio State University, Pernille Thorbek, Syngenta, Gerd Maack, Umweltbundesamt

SETAC Europe has formed an advisory group on science and risk communication (SCIRIC). The group’s goal is to advise on successful communication about environmental research. SCIRIC plans on offering training opportunities for environmental scientists, starting within the SETAC Europe community by reaching out to various target groups such as journalists, policy makers as well as the interested public. SCIRIC is dedicated to putting science and risk communication in the forefront of programming within SETAC Europe and beyond.

Currently, the group is led by a steering committee and chaired by Thomas-Benjamin Seiler. SCIRIC consists of individuals with strong interest and expertise in science and risk communication. The steering committee and developing advisory group are eager to advance this topic as an integral part of environmental research within SETAC Europe and our greater scientific community. SCIRIC members believe that proper training of environmental scientists in science communication can aid in increased awareness, interest, comprehension and appreciation for environmental research. The training will have a strong theoretical foundation that recognizes the specific aspects and requirements of environmental research. Our overall vision is a true participatory role of the public in environmental sciences, thus strengthening the impact of our professional society, stakeholders, and ensuring well-informed political processes and decision-making.

Mission and Vision
Our mission is to collate and build upon communication expertise and experience from within our professional society to enhance the dissemination of scientific findings. This is an essential aspect in environmental and ecotoxicological science and research, and we aim to provide SETAC scientists with state-of-the-art communication practices, tools and strategies that will empower researchers’ ability to effectively convey their work to scientists, stakeholders, agencies, media, decision-makers and the general public. A key priority of the advisory group is to ensure that science-based information is accurately represented and broadcasted. In a nutshell, we seek to become one of the major platforms for discussion as well as sources of advice on science and risk communication within SETAC Europe and beyond.

Researchers often avoid formal communication to people outside the scientific community because it is difficult to express accurate science in simple terms. Nevertheless, environmental research is typically driven by a concern about the environment as a whole. Messages from environmental scientists must be easily understood by the public, whose endorsement or acceptance can help support research that strives to mitigate environmental concerns. Clear communication is crucial to achieving this goal. Consequently, SCIRIC is working on a strategy that will effectively and sustainably compile and distribute scientific findings. The strategy will be based on state-of-art tools and methods, and it will be regularly reviewed, optimized and adapted to the ongoing technological progress and to the development in science communication.

Working Program

SCIRIC hopes to tackle the fundamental questions regarding science and risk communication of environmental research:

  • How can we make science and risk communication more trustworthy?
  • How can we improve science and risk communication with the general public?
  • What stories find their way into the media?
  • Is it necessary to express our work in terms of disasters?
  • Are there possibilities to tell “good stories” while still showing the relevance of our topics?
  • How can environmental scientists work together with social and political scientists and communicators? What can we learn from each other?
  • What are the specific information needs of and communication formats for the single target groups (e.g., public, media, stakeholders, agencies, politicians)?

We are working to sustainably improve the dissemination of scientific findings within the research community of SETAC Europe and beyond. We are:

  • Collating expertise and experience on science and risk communication to identify colleagues capable of advising others and giving input to SCIRIC
  • Identifying the special requirements of communication of environmental sciences
  • Reviewing current science and risk communication practices and developing methods, tools and strategies tailored to the special requirements of environmental sciences
  • Reviewing the state-of-art in communicating science and adapting as well as developing novel concepts for a successful outreach of scientific findings from environmental research
  • Emphasizing the importance of communicating research to all levels of the society as an integrated part of environmental science
  • Establishing trainings for SETAC members
  • Providing tools and strategies to succeed to those interested in science communication

In order to advance the goals articulated above, we have based our strategies on two pillars: the people and the topic (see image below). SCIRIC will work collectively on both pillars in unison.

SCIRIC Structure

For the “people pillar,” our goal is to form an interdisciplinary and multi-national network of SETAC members from different stakeholder groups with specific experience and expertise in effectively communicating science. This activity formally began in SETAC Europe in 2012 with the first session “Escape from the Ivory Tower – Environmental Sciences Should Impact Public and Policy” at the 6th SETAC World Congress in Berlin, and it continued with sessions at geographic unit annual meetings in Glasgow, Basel, Barcelona and Salt Lake City. In parallel, we are increasing the number of submissions to the focused article series in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe. As a first outcome, we seek to provide to the SETAC members a list of experts to consult in terms of questions regarding any kind of science and risk communication.

For the “topic pillar,” the goal is to successfully present research findings. This will be accomplished by strictly analyzing the properties, characteristics and particularities of a given topic with respect to communicating research findings. This analysis will include a list of target groups and assess:

  1. The connection between these target groups and environmental sciences, be it professional views, rational considerations or emotional expectations, fears and desires
  2. Summarize possible findings, results and opinions to effectively communicate
  3. Develop communication goals and desired outcomes

Upon better understanding the two pillars, people and topics, we will be able to develop tailor-made strategies and tools for effective science and risk communication. Furthermore, this will allow us to provide meaningful suggestions for training, workshops and conferences. The advancement of a communications knowledge-base will lead to high-level and effective communication skills for the scientific professionals within SETAC.

Ultimately, our combined efforts should help support a new generation of scientists, a more scientifically literate public, and better informed decision-makers and stakeholders.

2015 Achievements

The development of a session track titled “Communication on and public perception of environmental risks” to be held at the SETAC Europe 26th Annual Meeting in Nantes in 2016. With strong support by SCIRIC, the scientific committee of the Nantes meeting introduced a session track exclusively aimed at communication. SCIRIC members submitted 4 session proposals to this track with the hope that these efforts will launch sessions in other geographic units as well as our global programming.

Invited to an Advisory Group Discussion Summit on “Finding New Ways to Collaborate” at the SETAC North America 36th Annual Meeting, which was held in 2015 in Salt Lake City. A meeting of advisory group chairs and steering committee members was organized to provide a first-hand working relationship opportunity and encourage information exchange and collaboration. We are following up with the other advisory group chairs to further connect with these groups. This will allow us to achieve one of our primary goals, which is to start building a SETAC-wide network and to better understand what is required for the in-depth analysis of the characteristics and specialities for science and risk communication.

Providing assistance and preparation for the SETAC Europe long range planning committee meeting. SCIRIC chair Seiler was invited to participate as a member-at-large in the long range planning process and asked to assist in the preparation of the September meeting. Jose Julio Ortega-Calvo, SETAC Europe Vice President, focused the meeting on communication issues. The long range planning yielded a document consisting of four questions to be tackled by the committee concerning communication both inside and outside of SETAC. The exercise resulted in specific pathways for effective communication and potential actions. This document will act as guidance for the first defined actions towards developing an effective science communication strategy within SETAC Europe with a specific goal to increase public awareness of SETAC. A detailed report on long range planning in SETAC Europe will follow in a subsequent issue of the SETAC Globe.

Find out more about SCIRIC.

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