SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
16 February 2017
Volume 18 Issue 2

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Bill Benson: Perspectives on the Future of Science and SETAC

Matt Moore, SETAC North America Senior Resource Group

Bill BensonOn 19 January 2017, William H. (Bill) Benson, current member of the Senior Resource Group and former SETAC North America President, was selected to serve as the Director for the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (NHEERL) within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development.

Bill was kind enough to take time out of his schedule and share with me some insights for the future of science and how it relates to the membership of SETAC.

Q: What type of research did you focus on during graduate school and your early post-doctoral career?

Prior to graduate school, I worked in a private sector contract toxicology laboratory. It was a great experience, and it was there that I became interested in toxicology, and more specially, why some species were more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than others. It was that experience that led me to graduate school. For my Master’s degree, I focused on the differential toxicity of carbamate insecticides in four mammalian species.  The work I conducted for my Master’s degree influenced me to develop a keen interest in mechanistic toxicology. For my Ph.D., I then turned to use of aquatic species, and in combining an interest in mechanisms of toxicity and evolutionary biology, my work focused on acclimation-induced tolerance of aquatic species to heavy metals. In essence, my Ph.D. research focused on the induction of a metal-binding protein, metallothionein and its role in acclimation-induced tolerance to heavy metals. 

Q: What led you to diversify into other areas?

Both intellectual interest and necessity. Early in my career, I was quite focused on mechanistic toxicology, and as my career developed, I became more interested in broader aspects of the environmental problems we are asked to address and help solve. At this point in my career, I served as Director for the NHEERL, and our research is focused on characterizing and evaluating public health and environmental effects of both chemical and non-chemical factors. In NHEERL, we are about “science for a purpose”, and as a result, our work increasingly focuses on the ecological, public health and economic benefits of healthy ecosystems.

Q: What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in your field?

Among the challenges are data, data and more data. Basically, we must become more progressive in making effective use of all available data. Science has to continue to be the foundation that ensures resource managers and others make sound and reasonable decisions. Back when I served as President of SETAC, I wrote an editorial where I stated it is clear that a better understanding of the linkages among sources, exposure, dose and response is necessary for the development of meaningful environmental assessments that will stand the test of time. In essence, I think it is imperative that we make full use of scientific information in decision-making, as underestimating the effect of chemicals may result in serious environmental contamination and adverse health effects, whereas overestimating potential hazards can result in social disruption and undue economic burden. I think that holds true today.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you see in the next 5–10 years of research?

We, as the scientific community, need to do a much more effective job of translating and then communicating the science we do and demonstrating the value of our research to improving public health outcomes and the environment. We need to focus on innovative approaches to predictive modeling that link environmental condition to the health and well-being of people and society. In addition, we need to translate and communicate why it is in our nation’s best interest to develop useful tools for achieving resilient watersheds and water resources. In the end, I think our biggest challenge is to make a sound, rational and convincing argument for the value of science to the American public. 

Q: What advice would you provide to the students, postdocs and early to mid-career SETAC scientists? 

I think we all need to keep an open mind and be objective in our approach to problem solving. I think this will take a systems-based approach in which we increasingly focus on the ecological, public health and economic benefits of healthy ecosystems. 

Q: When we last talked, you emphasized how SETAC helped mold you into who you are today, scientifically speaking. What areas of research do you think SETAC can be focusing on to make sure science continues moving forward?

A particular strength that SETAC brings to environmental toxicology and chemistry is the fact that we recognize we need the private and government sectors as well as academia and our non-governmental organizations to all work together in an integrated and strategic manner to help solve the challenges that we all face in safeguarding human health and the environment. One area, in particular, that I think SETAC could help advance the science is the need to advance systems-based research to predict the effects of chemicals and other stressors across species and biological levels of organization as a means to impact decisions positively at all levels.

The mission of the Senior Resource Group (SRG) is to identify, cultivate, and mentor future SETAC leaders, as well as document the Society’s history and evolution of environmental science.  If you are interested in becoming a member of the SRG, or if you simply want more information about the group, please contact Laura Swanson.

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