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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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It’s the Communication, Not the Science

Posted on January 13, 2011

By Steven G. Gilbert, PhD DABT

This essay is in response to: How can we integrate scientific evidence into our climate and energy policy choices?

“Scientists must make both science education and community outreach a much more central part of the scientific culture.”
Bruce Alberts, “Policy-making needs science.” Science Dec 3, 2010.

Flooding in Bangladesh

The challenge of integrating scientific evidence into climate and energy policy choices and then taking action stems from two problems: 1) climate change is not an immediate and tangible crisis and 2) we live in a democracy. Unfortunately, when climate change becomes real with sea level rises and the displacement of millions of people or with increasing numbers and severity of natural disasters, it may well be too late to effectively mitigate climate change. To develop effective policy and take action to address climate changes we must acknowledge the conundrum of being in a democracy, which is good because change is possible and bad because it may take long, possibly too long. 

The scientific evidence documenting climate change and human involvement in the rising carbon dioxide levels is overwhelming. The number one task is communicating the scientific evidence to the public in such a way that they demand that the political leaders take action. We know how to take effective action in the face of directly perceived threats. The Manhattan project developed the atomic bomb in record time and then we went on to develop a vast cold war infrastructure that generated tons of plutonium for a nuclear arsenal that we now struggle to dismantle. We then sent people to the moon, an amazing technological and scientific feat. In addition, we mobilize to spend billions if not trillions of dollars on fighting and preparing for war. These responses were tied to real or perceived threats of an acute nature. Unfortunately climate change is not an acute threat and the business community is not convinced that this is a moneymaker, unlike past grand projects.

We know how to do scientific research and develop the corresponding technology. University researchers excel at learning more and more about less and less. What is not done well is communicating this knowledge to public in such a way that it is relevant to our individual and collective decision-making. Scientific information must be placed in the context of history, society, and culture, not just published in a scientific journal to be read by other researchers. The research enterprise thrives on peer recognition of specialized knowledge, not communicating information to the public. Time spent at public meetings, lecturing or translating findings for the public, are not well rewarded or given adequate credit. I have two recommendations.

Doubt Is Their Product
David Michaels took the time to write a book that looks at industry's tactics in protecting their wealth instead of public health

My first recommendation is to require researchers to spend a certain percentage of time and resources on communicating their findings and the underlying science to the public. Granting agencies and foundations could require that 10-15% of the funds be devoted not to more research but to public outreach and engagement. More importantly the scientist must spend their time engaging the public. Scientists and medical professionals are needed at community forums, community colleges, governmental panels, testifying at government hearings, and writing for the community, which takes time. To support this effort, institutions must give researchers appropriate recognition. Public service needs to be a significant aspect of promotion. Furthermore, students must be shown that there is an ethical responsibility to share their/our knowledge and encouraged to do so at the earliest stages of their training.  We need scientists, doctors, students, and public health professionals speaking and educating people at the grassroots level and explaining the ramifications of the current science and medical knowledge.

Secondly, we need to shift from an exploitative frame of reference to one of precaution and sustainability. The current levels of prosperity were built using the exploitative philosophy of industrial capitalism: increase revenue, get raw materials as cheap as possible, and externalize costs. A precautionary approach based on “do no harm” starts by listening closely to the science and taking action to prevent harm to human or environmental health without the demand for proof of causation. The science was clear that smoking tobacco causes cancer and just as clear that human activity is causing climate change. Lead was added to gasoline and allowed in paint despite the science that said lead was harmful to the developing nervous system. Action on these and other issues was slow because there was too little engagement by the scientific and medical community. Small steps can be taken that require corporations to take into account the full costs of a product and not externalize costs onto the environment or human health.

In summary, the bigger, more fundamental change is that scientists, medical, students, and public health professionals become thoughtful public and environmental health advocates.  There is an ethical obligation to share knowledge to the benefit of the greater good. As they say, democracy is a participatory sport, and those with scientific knowledge have a particular obligation to participate and share their knowledge with the public. It is no longer all about creating new knowledge but about applying what we know so that our children and grandchildren can grew up in an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full potential.

In a democracy, action occurs when people demand it. Scientists and medical professionals must take the time to explain the underlying science to people, making it relevant to their lives. People must integrate the scientific evidence into their understanding of climate and energy policy to make personal decisions as well as demanding that our civic leaders take action. We must all share and seek the knowledge to participate in a sustainable democracy and create a sustainable world. 


Isioma Okwudi said ..

I just relocated to Ibadan, the largest City in Africa, with the sole aim of getting grounded in the study of Toxicology. My immediate environment clearly spells the danger of environmental health hazard and the immense need to bridge the gap. Your article clearly throws light on the shaded areas.

March 3, 2011
Chikelue said ..

Thanks for the detailed piece. The very thinking/assumption that these effects are far away (won't really affect us) are pretty disturbing. Scientific data should be broken down-Every scientist/researcher should invest more in sending out a lay-man-can-read version of all findings published.

March 3, 2011
P.Harris-Swenson, MA, IBCLC, LN said ..

About 32 years ago at 37 I wouldn't have believed that eating certain foods would make me sick. Today I know how to reverse depression & pre-diabetes brought on by hypoglycenia; stop the toxic refined white sugar, flour, & rice diet and take in all the necessary food, vitamins, minerals, water, and exercise. Unless a person is looking at what is happening to the whole world; especially the polar bear's habitat and seeing the ice disappear or from an island in the Paciffic that is being covered with rising water, your average citizen is not going to realize that we are killing our way of life, eventually. The 'If it doesn't affect me, I don't care.' attitude is alive and well. You are right. Connect the problem to What is happening to each and everyone of us. Someone has to make it everyone's responsibility to help with the change. Start with a call to your Congress men & women or your favorite 'save the world' association.

February 26, 2011
Sunny said ..

I live in Bishop CA,a small town with a lot of skeptics..It's almost a joke. They don't seem to get that this is a process not an event.

January 16, 2011
david caccia said ..

I suspect that most congressmen, even republicans, know that climate change is for real, and that people are resonsible for it. The problem is that our whole economy is fueled by cheap fuel. To stop using fossil fuels would be a great drag on the economy, until renewable energy could take the place of fossil fuel. So it is easier to deny climate change caused by global warming.

January 14, 2011
Dave King said ..

Here in Portland some folks are trying to bring the issue of unemployment together with global warming. We believe that only a massive mobilization of resources on the scale of WWll will be effective in dealing with the necessary reduction of carbon emissions. Such an effort would provide work for everyone able to work and then some. Bringing this idea to unemployed people and their supporters has proved to be an effective way to interest people in learning more about climate change.

January 14, 2011
bruce bauer said ..

I live in a right wing nut case area. Everyday I hear how cold it is and Global Warming was invented by Al Gore. This is a beginning!

January 14, 2011

Comments closed.