SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
12 April 2018
Volume 19 Issue 4

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Towards a Shared Understanding of Science: Join Our Special Session in Rome

Annegaaike Leopold, Thomas-Benjamin Seiler and Charmaine Ajao, SETAC Europe Special Session Chairs

Polar bearAttaining a shared understanding of findings from environmental research among scientists, policy makers and the public is often a challenge. However, it is crucial that we clearly communicate risks based on scientific facts rather than unsupported opinions to make informed decisions for the protection of human health and the planet.

This is the major theme that will be addressed in the Special Session: 8.07 – ‘’Towards a shared understanding of science and risk communication in the context of the inevitability of chemicals and the hazard they may represent.’’ This special session will be held from 10:50 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 16 May, in Session Room Q as part of the SETAC Europe 28th Annual Meeting in Rome. Case examples will be provided to facilitate discussion between researchers and citizens to promote public debate. Topics that are based on societal concerns, such as endocrine disruptors, nanotechnology and micro-plastics, will be addressed from different perspectives, focusing on the importance of accurate communication of the risk posed by chemicals and other contaminants in the environment as compared with those concerns developed through emotions, cultural beliefs or even fears.

The particpants of the Global Horizon Scanning Research Project Stakeholder Event, which took place at the SETAC Europe annual meeting last year in Brussels, Belgium, prioritized improving science and risk commnication to and among stakeholders. The Special Session was developed to address this need. Furthermore, the support of science-based risk communication is part of one of SETAC Europe’s strategic goals, namely to “support safeguarding and improvement of the quality and credibility of science.”

Sofie Vanthournout, Director of Sense About Science-EU, an independent campaigning charity that monitors the use and abuse of scientific evidence in public life, will start the session by explaining how researchers can work in alliance with citizens to fight misinformation and improve public debates. Vanthournout will describe approaches to break through polarized and difficult debates, allowing researchers to identify gaps and misunderstandings in the public debate and respond to them.

Charmaine Ajao of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) will offer insights into the decision-making and opinion-forming process practiced by ECHA and how the agency uses the scientific information provided by academia and industry and applies them within the regulatory framework from which it operates. Transparency is one of the values that is driving ECHA in its interactions with various stakeholders, including the public.

Juliette Legler of the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences and Markus Hecker of the University of Saskatchewan will address how to communicate the risks posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). While there is agreement on the need for the regulation of EDCs, the frameworks to assess and regulate candidate EDCs differ significantly among countries and regions. Using a panel style discussion, the speakers aim to explore a roadmap on how to address the risks posed by EDCs from the human and environmental health perspective, respectively, and where the priorities for future research should lie. 

The long-term toxicity of nanomaterials is not well understood, and these materials are of emerging public concern. Fabienne Schwab, Adolphe Merkle Institute, is the author of an article assessing indirect effects of carbon nanotubes on green algae through shading and agglomeration rather than direct effects on viability, and she published a press release on these scientific findings. Schwab will explain how the press picked up information from this release. For example, some media outlets identified nanoparticles as potential environmental killers while others underestimated the potential environmental risk. Schwab will share the short- and long-term lessons learned from her recent experience. Gunilla Öberg of the University of British Columbia will continue the discussion of this particular case by highlighting the diverging roles and realities of science and media, particularly the considerations that scientists and editors need to take into account when they decide to write and publish their findings.

While the scientific facts about environmental and human health risks of microplastics are still scarce, the public has concluded that there are unacceptable risks and that something must be done about these concerns. Michiel Kottermanill, Wageningen University & Research, argues that, while the disastrous effects of macroplastics on wildlife exists, the quality of research that has been done to date on microplastics is of questionable quality and often far reaching in their conclusions. Martin Wagner of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology will also address and discuss with fellow panel members and audience the complex topic that the societal change resulting from needing to reduce plastic pollution is positive, but at the same time we need to stay true to scientific principles. Ángel Borja of AZTI, Marine Science Division, will share his experiences with the Ocean Literacy Project, with the aim of changing attitudes and behaviors of different actors, including the public.

There will be ample time allowed during the session for discussion, and we look forward to everyone’s participation to help us develop further insight into how we can improve the communication of findings from our environmental research among scientists, policy makers and the public.

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