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

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SETAC’s Voices for Science

Charlie Menzie, SETAC Global Executive Director

Commonly, when I am on a plane next to a stranger and he or she learns that I am a scientist working on environmental issues, they ask, “So, do you believe in climate change?” And, that leads to an interesting conversation. Within the time and space afforded by a few hours away from the noise, we can exchange views, concerns and knowledge, and perhaps even reach a shared understanding.  I sense the importance of this conversation and appreciate the opportunity to give voice from a scientist’s perspective. I have something to share. But, our conversation is not all about science.  The question posed has much more within it. There are beliefs, concerns, historical influential voices - media, family and co-workers - as well as implications for personal and collective responsibility. These combine to form a lumpy brew of thought that we stir together. What I offer as a scientist forms part of the mixture; I use a ladle strengthened by trust and credibility to raise bits of knowledge and insight for my new friend. But, for the conversation to resonate for both of us, we need to appreciate the entire dish and strive toward a shared understanding. So, what connection does this have for SETAC’s “voices for science?” I suspect there are many views within SETAC on this. Here are mine.

The voices of science have been increasingly challenged and dismissed when they do not fit a narrative advanced by government leaders and associated sympathetic media. The narratives divorced from and often at odds with scientific understanding arise in various parts of the globe for myriad reasons. Notable examples of the dismissal or undervaluation of scientific information include the fight to keep the Experimental Lakes Area open in Canada under Harper’s administration; the near miss of sweeping climate science funding cuts in Australia; current policy discourse in the U.S. including the anti-vaccine movement, fear of GMOs, and denial of climate change.

The challenge to and dismissal of the available science is often linked to reports of discrepancies, uncertainties, information gaps, anecdotal stories, and it can also stem from deeply held belief systems and views of the world. How do we find our voices amid the cacophony of loud policy statements that do not rely on empirical evidence but rather appeal emotionally? I think we need to build this from fundamental pieces to an overarching story. We need to provide context and cannot presume our audience is familiar with the fundamentals of science.

First, our voices need to be credible, trustworthy and relevant. We accomplish this, in part, by adhering to a rigorous code of ethics and standards for our publications as well as at our SETAC-sponsored meetings and workshops. The emphasis we place on this aspect of our work also needs to be part of what we share with the public and policy makers. Important also are introspection and humility, as well as adherence to basic principles and best practices related to the integrity of written and verbal communications. Developing these lessons and habits as students and young scientists sets a proper lifetime course. To that end, SETAC has several initiatives aimed at highlighting the importance of integrity in the work that we do. These include a number of programs for students. Most importantly, our writings must reflect and be bound by the evidence arising from our work. Here is where solid personal grounding and humility are especially important. Adherence to the principle of integrity is essential for achieving and sustaining long-term credibility and trustworthiness. If those are lost or diminished, it is not only a loss for the individual but also for the field.

In this age of bottom lines and popular opinions, our voices are stronger when we are clearer about how we acquire and develop scientific knowledge. The process of seeking and developing evidence, sharing and challenging that evidence, and melding that evidence with other information to reach conclusions is what secures our message. We do that individually and collaboratively through research. Within professional circles, organizations foster the shaking, baking and integration of scientific information. SETAC contributes to this process through its publications, interest groups, collaborations with other scientific organizations, and through our meetings and workshops. But when we attempt to share scientific knowledge with the public and policy makers, our voices are most commonly heard as pronouncements as, for example, when we report out conclusions from a workshop. Often left unsaid is the rich story about the process by which we arrived at a particular state of knowledge. We cannot presume that the non-scientist is aware of that process. It is a story about “the weight of the evidence” – what it is, how it was found, and how it was put together. It is a story about effort, about resolving, explaining and integrating apparently conflicting information, and it is about dealing with uncertainty. Ultimately, it is the story about people who as scientists are striving to come to deeper understanding regarding issues that matter to our collective existence and well-being. These are personal and relatable stories. People connect to that.

My favorite scientific storytellers include Rachel Carson, after whom we named a SETAC Global Award, and E.O. Wilson, a recipient of that award. Carson described and made accessible the nature of environmental processes in her books about the sea, and she brought attention to environmental issues by portraying a possible future that in the absence of sufficient understanding (i.e., through scientific studies) there could be a Silent Spring resulting from man's attempts to control nature through use of synthetic substances. In his book “The Naturalist,” Wilson gives us insight into the development of a scientist as a person with a curious mind and a thirst for understanding and synthesizing information. We need more storytelling. Our stories do not have to rise to the literary levels of Carson or Wilson but should be sufficient to convey the process, effort and an overview of the evidence. We should view it as our role and obligation to provide continuous public education about the scientific process. Proclamations devoid of this context are difficult to hear and accept when there are competing voices, noise and a desire by some to look toward views not constrained by science.

SETAC’s voices are many. As SETAC members, we engage in sharing information and diverse perspectives drawn from our tripartite composition of government, business and academia. That is a unique foundation for thinking and communicating about SETAC science. While each of us will have his or her own voice, we will have benefitted from the lessons learned about science integrity and communication. Our interest groups, geographic units and regional chapters also serve as voices for science through meetings, workshops and outreach to policy makers. For example, our International Programs Committee has been bringing together regulatory personnel, policy makers and scientists with tripartite representation to discuss chemicals risk management at symposia within each of our five geographic units. Planning for the risk management symposium in Latin America is currently underway. Over the past few years, SETAC North America has engaged in an educational and information sharing program with the U.S. Congress in connection with the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA). And we have recently completed and reported out to the public and policy makers on a workshop concerning the assessment of endocrine disrupting chemicals. We have and will continue to bring together scientists to focus on the pressing environmental toxicological, chemical and risk issues of the day. SETAC will give voice to those deliberations and findings.

SETAC’s voice gives life to our Global Horizon Scanning Project wherein scientists from all of our geographic units have contributed to the important research questions of the future. The next phase of this effort will be to take these questions forward to influence policy and funding decisions. We expect that these questions will form part of the core of SETAC’s ongoing engagements, including workshops and sessions at our meetings. The questions will appear in a series of articles within our journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (IEAM).

Beyond these topical matters, SETAC needs to be a voice for science and the scientific process. To that end, the SETAC leadership has joined and will continue to join in efforts to elevate and support the role of science in policy and decision making at national levels around the globe. This will include efforts to bring attention to what the science has to say. However, we also need to engage in education and increase awareness about the nature of the scientific process, as well as its application to particular issues such as climate change, particular chemicals, or water scarcity and quality. This is the more complete story we need to tell as we continue to develop the content, tone and volume of our voice. Attaining a shared understanding among scientists, policy makers and the public is a challenge. Some years ago, as part of a series on risk perception and communication, I wrote about bridging these divides in an article titled “Risk Communication and Careful Listening – Resolving Alternative World Views.” That paper and others in the series are germane to the challenge that confronts us. Collectively, this series suggests that it is important for scientists to listen to the audience with whom they want to communicate their science.  That takes me back to the experience on the plane and the importance of listening as well as telling. The flight attendant just came on the speaker. I have to close the computer now as I am landing in Denver to visit my grandchildren, where I will be doing a lot of listening. 

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