Communicating environmental science to the general public

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Given the recent events in the US and their potential implications for actions on issues such as climate change or the non-toxic environment, this editorial seems important enough to warrant a full reprint here. It was originally published by Thomas-Benjamin Seiler and myself in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, in June 2016,

We live in an era of unprecedented scientific progress and dissemination. Biological knowledge is estimated to double every 5 years (Malhan and Rao 2008), and knowledge accrual in environmental science might progress at an equal pace. Almost every day, new findings about anthropogenic impacts on the environment and humanity’s dependence on healthy ecosystems (food, water, and other ecosystem services) are described in scientific articles or the popular press. However, such knowledge is not considered often enough in the choices made, in everyday life as well as in societal decision making. In fact, as scientists, we are baffled that even well-educated decision makers often ignore relevant science when making crucial management or policy decisions. Why is that? To understand the cause, perhaps we need to take a closer look at how we, as scientists, communicate with others. Distribution and access to information is not an issue in the internet age. However, the sheer amount of highly specialized scientific literature continues to expand at an exponential rate. Decision makers are therefore increasingly faced with unmanageable volumes of rapidly evolving evidence, mainly processed for exchange between experts. As an unfortunate result, they seem to have largely given up reading the primary scientific literature (Cvitanovic et al. 2015). Consideration of scientific findings in societal decision making, therefore, depends more than ever on better science communication — condensed and widely disseminated briefs, press releases, and reviews that summarize scientific findings and make them more accessible to non-experts.

The complexity of environmental science, which stems from an intense collaboration between a broad range of disciplines, is a key challenge for science communication, especially as results need to be communicated from a highly dynamic research front to a far more conservative societal and political network of stakeholders. Therefore, scientists must be more than clear, accurate, and concise when explaining research to a non-expert audience. They must also be able to hold the attention of nontechnical audiences and demonstrate clearly the value of their work. Unfortunately, scientists often assume a “deficit model” when communicating with the general public — any nonacceptance of scientific findings is assumed to be a deficit in the audience’s factual knowledge and can, therefore, be overcome by providing more facts.However,merely explaining additional scientific details, even when done well, rarely leads to a meaningful translation of science into societal actions.

People are inclined to accept scientific findings if they are in line with their cultural beliefs and those shared by their peer groups. For example, cultural worldviews were shown to have a distinct impact on the perception of nanotechnology risks (Kahan et al. 2009), with conservatives perceiving the benefits to be greater than the risks, and liberals doing the opposite. Scientific evidence that threatens cultural values will simply lead to an increased support of alternative arguments, no matter how unsupported by science those alternatives are.

Environmental scientists, therefore, need to become better at engaging in the public discourse by better considering social and cultural contexts, for example, by using metaphors and examples that connect to the audience’s experience of the world (and hence frame the issue to be communicated) — not only with the aim to facilitate the understanding of scientific findings but also to create an open-minded environment that enables an unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information. This might be the only option to incorporate incomplete, imperfect research results into policy debates, risk governance, and societal discussions. Such an approach will be critically important, because risk governance depends on the interplay between a wide range of stakeholders, such as nations, industrial stakeholders, regulatory authorities, academia, civil society organizations, and members of the general public.

A discourse on the challenges of science communication would be incomplete without acknowledging the underlying technological challenge we face today—channels used for communicating science are becoming increasingly diverse and new forms of media often encourage oversimplification. Gone is the almost exclusive focus on scholarly communication via peer-reviewed journals. Taking its place is a complex melange of rapid social media forums (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, etc.) and new open platforms, pre-print servers, post-publication review platforms, retraction watchdogs, and fundamentally novel journals, such as the newly minted Journal of Brief Ideas, which supports the communication of new ideas in 200 words or less. If environmental scientists want to meet the challenge of engaging the public and cut through the political rhetoric and misinformation often tangled in the public press and social media, we need to better understand and effectively navigate the rapidly evolving information technologies and communication outlets.

Otherwise, we will continue to struggle when trying to explain the implications of our research and its potential value to society. As the world’s largest professional society in the field, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) has a duty to advance the conversation in environmental science. SETAC Europe has initiated a program to systematically strengthen and improve science communication strategies: the new advisory group on science and risk communication (SCIRIC), and we encourage all SETAC members to participate. Details of the activities of SCIRIC can be found at http://


Cvitanovic C, Hobday AJ, van Kerkhoff L, Wilson SK, Dobbs K, Marshall NA. 2015. Improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to facilitate the adaptive governance of marine resources: A review of knowledge and research needs. Ocean Coast Manage 11:25–35.

Kahan DM, Braman D, Slovic P, Gastil J, Cohen G. 2009. Cultural cognition of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Nat Nanotechnol 4:87–90.

Malhan IV, Rao S. 2008. Perspectives on knowledge management. Plymouth (UK): Scarecrow Press. 476 p.

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Review of “Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology” by Michael C. Newman

The following review will be published in one of the coming issues of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (Remember that you can print the post as a PDF or send it around as an email by clicking on the corresponding button at the end of the post):


Book Review „Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology“, 4th edition

by Michael Newman

The book “Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology” is a modern classic of the ecotoxicological literature, published in 2015 in its 4th edition (the first one was published in 1999). The book as a whole is undoubtedly the brainchild of Michael Newman, although it is peppered with quotations and longer contributions from a range of renowned experts, each providing his/her own specific expertise. This provides the book with a personal perspective and a very distinct flavor, which sets it positively apart from the legion of multi-author volumes on the market that often lack personal engagement and internal coherency. Simply put, the volume is a textbook in the best sense of the word: entertaining, educating and thought-provoking.

The book is largely written from a US perspective – which is not surprising, given that the author is working at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Every now and then I felt that the book would have benefited from taking a step back in order to explore issues and concepts that are not that commonly applied in the US. For example, a discussion of the precautionary principle and its implications for the practice of ecotoxicology and the accrual of scientific knowledge would have been interesting, given its major importance in other parts of the world.

The book often goes beyond its promise to provide just the fundamentals of ecotoxicology. I found chapter 1 especially valuable, which provides a historical perspective, a brief treatise of the underlying philosophy of science and an overview of recent developments. This is also partly because of J. Cairns’ contribution to this section, which provides my new favorite definition of what ecotoxicology actually entails: “…an attempt to provide some rules for the planetary game that human society is playing”. The concluding remarks in chapter 14 neatly round off the book by linking back to the introductory chapter.

Every now and then the volume also goes beyond being a textbook for academic education and approaches the realm of a reference book. This certainly makes it valuable beyond its use as an introductory text. However, the book therefore tries to be complete, which, given the available space, is not always successful. For example, I have mixed feelings regarding the attempt to introduce “the major classes of contaminants” in chapter 2. Not only because it is largely a judgement call to decide what actually constitutes a “major” contaminant, but especially because, given that contaminants comprise tens of thousands of chemicals, such a compilation has to remain painfully incomplete if squeezed into one chapter in a single volume textbook. For example, herbicides, by far the biggest pesticide group, are summarized in just a couple of lines.

Chapters 6 to 12 are at the heart of the book and systematically explore the science of ecotoxicology, from molecular effects to landscape and global impacts. This hierarchical treatment of ecotoxicology is often a characteristic of Michael’s texts and it works extremely well to introduce of general principles and mechanisms, and then to explain how they link together. All fundamental principles are explained by a careful selection of illustrative case studies. However, the reader should be aware that the book has a strong bias towards using examples from experiments with animals, studies from the realm of plant or microbial ecotoxicology are comparatively rare.

These six central chapters cover an enormous breadth of topics, and also provide the mathematical / statistical underpinnings or shortcomings of standard approaches, always keeping the principles in focus, i.e. without getting lost in too many numerical details. The interested reader might be referred to Michael’s book on “quantitative ecotoxicology” for an advanced in-depth treatment of the numerical aspects of ecotoxicology.

Chemical risk assessment, the activity to which the majority of ecotoxicological work ultimately aims to contribute, is discussed in a separate chapter near the end of the book. The US perspective of the author becomes obvious here, which is why the appendices, written by international experts on the subject, are of tremendous help for the reader to develop a global perspective.

Already the earlier editions of the book have served me well in my courses on fundamental and advanced ecotoxicology. This new edition is certainly going to continue with that tradition. It comes highly recommended as the textbook on the fundamentals of ecotoxicology. The main text does not only provide naked facts, but is a well woven fabric of facts, personal insights, experiences and critiques by the main author – lined with insightful contributions from additional experts, suggested readings, various appendices, study questions and an extensive glossary. This structure makes the book as a whole refreshingly unique and engaging. Beyond its excellence in the subject matter, the book therefore also provides a prime example of how a modern academic textbook should look.

680 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1466582293. $68.95. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Thomas Backhaus

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

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Workshop on future risk assessment and management strategies


Those were two really interesting days! Putting a bunch of ecotoxicologists, risk assessors, environmental chemists and LCA experts into one room with environmental lawyers, tax experts and economists in order to discuss possibilities for future chemical risk assessment and management strategies. Took a while to understand each other’s language and concepts (and we’re certainly not ‘there’ yet), but I get the feeling that this could really be an interesting constellation for further discussions. I certainly learned a lot.

Thanks to all participants, and thanks to the University, who provided the funding for this workshop in the context of the “UGot Challenges” program!

Stay tuned, there are some thoughts in the pipeline…

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NICE Summerschool on Next Generation Sequencing in Ecotoxicology

summerschool final

Almost a full week talking about possibilities, limitations and methods for using next generation sequencing (RNAseq and metagenomics) for ecotoxicological purposes. Thanks a bunch to Erik Kristiansson, Tobias Österlund, Emil Karlsson, and Nataliá Corcoll for organizing and running the show! Judging from the course evaluations, it wasn’t only me who enjoyed the course.

Now I still have a whole bunch of photos lying around on various memory cards. Need to sort and send around the best ones to the participants. Especially the ones with Tobias hunting for his doorcode… 🙂

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Copy of presentation from SETAC annual meeting in Barcelona

Below you find a copy of my presentation from this year’s SETAC meeting in Barcelona. The corresponding report – which is hopefully easier to understand than a couple of slides – will be published by the Swedish Chemicals Agency in the near future. I’ll post a link as soon as it is available.

Let me know if you have any comments or questions!

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New Publication on Planetary Boundaries for Chemical Pollution

Here is the final version of our paper entitled ”Exploring the planetary boundary for chemical pollution”, which was just published in Environment International. Paywall, unfortunately. But drop me an email if you’d like a reprint.

The publication is the outcome of a workshop that my colleague Sverker Mollander organised a while back. Thanks for setting things in motion, Sverker!

The abstract reads as follows:

Rockström et al. (2009a, 2009b) have warned that humanity must reduce anthropogenic impacts defined by nine planetary boundaries if “unacceptable global change” is to be avoided. Chemical pollution was identified as one of those boundaries for which continued impacts could erode the resilience of ecosystems and humanity. The central concept of the planetary boundary (or boundaries) for chemical pollution (PBCP or PBCPs) is that the Earth has a finite assimilative capacity for chemical pollution, which includes persistent, as well as readily degradable chemicals released at local to regional scales, which in aggregate threaten ecosystem and human viability. The PBCP allows humanity to explicitly address the increasingly global aspects of chemical pollution throughout a chemical’s life cycle and the need for a global response of internationally coordinated control measures. We submit that sufficient evidence shows stresses on ecosystem and human health at local to global scales, suggesting that conditions are transgressing the safe operating space delimited by a PBCP. As such, current local to global pollution control measures are insufficient. However, while the PBCP is an important conceptual step forward, at this point single or multiple PBCPs are challenging to operationalize due to the extremely large number of commercial chemicals or mixtures of chemicals that cause myriad adverse effects to innumerable species and ecosystems, and the complex linkages between emissions, environmental concentrations, exposures and adverse effects. As well, the normative nature of a PBCP presents challenges of negotiating pollution limits amongst societal groups with differing viewpoints. Thus, a combination of approaches is recommended as follows: develop indicators of chemical pollution, for both control and response variables, that will aid in quantifying a PBCP(s) and gauging progress towards reducing chemical pollution; develop new technologies and technical and social approaches to mitigate global chemical pollution that emphasize a preventative approach; coordinate pollution control and sustainability efforts; and facilitate implementation of multiple (and potentially decentralized) control efforts involving scientists, civil society, government, non-governmental organizations and international bodies.

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E., Lenton, T.M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H.J., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C.A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sorlin, S., Snyder, P.K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U., Falkenmark, M., Karlberg, L., Corell, R.W., Fabry, V.J., Hansen, J., Walker, B., Liverman, D., Richardson, K., Crutzen, P., Foley, J., 2009a. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating
space for humanity. Ecol. Soc. 14 ([online] URL:

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E.F., Lenton, T.M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H.J., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C.A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sorlin, S., Snyder, P.K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U., Falkenmark, M., Karlberg, L., Corell, R.W., Fabry, V.J., Hansen, J., Walker, B., Liverman, D., Richardson, K., Crutzen, P., Foley, J.A., 2009b. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475.

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Empowering academic research in chemical risk assessment and management

The following text will appear as an editorial in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management in the April 2015 issue. As usual a button for a printer-friendly format is found at the bottom of the text.

Scientists in the fields of toxicology and ecotoxicology are expected to explain how chemicals act on organisms and ecosystems and to make predictions that help guide regulatory actions and policy-making. The role of academic science in this context is challenged time and again, often with the argument that its contributions are not sufficiently in line with regulatory approaches for chemical risk assessment and management. Here we argue that nonconformity in academic research should be welcomed because academia’s crucial role is that of examination and forecasting of science, policy, and social issues potentially looming on the horizon.

Academic scientists are motivated to explore unknown phenomena, new chemicals, and novel endpoints. They often engage in exploratory toxicological or ecotoxicological research that delivers a posteriori hypotheses about cause-effect relationships, modes and mechanisms of action, and susceptible biocenoses, species, organs, tissues or cells. This type of research searches for patterns, devises novel theoretical models, and develops new experimental techniques. It is useful for determining whether a condition or problem warrants further investigation and, if so, provides the information for appropriate research designs and data collection methods. Such work often embraces John Tukey’s (1962) philosophy that it is “far better to have an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise”. Exploratory research informs regulatory chemical risk assessment and management, but rarely are the results sufficient for final regulatory decision-making.

Confirmatory research, on the other hand, is inherently narrower in scope and starts with a well-defined a priori hypothesis. It confirms or refutes a pre-specified causal relationship or mechanism of toxic action, underpins the relevance of a phenomenon, and maximizes Society’s confidence in the work presented. Confirmatory research is often intended to provide the regulatory community with the data needed to derive robust quantitative conclusions on the toxicological or ecotoxicological consequences of chemical exposure.

A great deal of value of academic science lies in exploratory research and the ability to build critical, long-term perspectives on current practices and the consequences of human activity. Researchers in academia should therefore strive to be more than service providers for regulatory risk assessment. Rather, academics should contemplate how regulatory goals, for example the substitution of hazardous chemicals with less harmful alternatives, could be implemented, or how new methods and tools could strengthen regulatory practice. Academic research in toxicology and ecotoxicology should prepare the foundation for the next generation of regulatory guidelines, which are urgently needed in an increasingly interconnected world with limited natural resources and planetary boundaries that are becoming more and more obvious.

Consequently, education in academic research institutions should provide the platforms for training the next generation of critically thinking scientists that have the intelectual capacity to ask fundamental and challenging questions about chemical interactions with the environment and human health. Education should, of course, teach students both current and new or emerging analytical tools and techniques; but education should also emphasize the limitations of current knowledge and how different laboratory and field-based studies support or distract from scientifically sound chemical risk assessment and management.

Academic research, happily ignoring prescriptive regulatory practices, guidelines, and the (eco)toxicological ‘flavor of the month’, is absolutely vital for the continuous development of new ecotoxicological and toxicological knowledge needed to solve tomorrow’s problems. The tendency to pressure academia – via grants and continuous external and internal evaluations – to justify the immediate societal value of every activity therefore warrants more critical assessment.

Academic research is increasingly built on external funding, and public institutions providing the funding rarely agree to sponsor confirmatory studies. Herein lies a challenge facing the present day chemical management as a whole: the role of the impartial, confirmatory analyst in toxicology and ecotoxicology is largely vacant. Confirmatory research in business is largely focused on chemicals and human activities immediately relevant to a particular business, and therefore not always sufficiently systematic and publicly disseminated, as well as sometimes embued with conflict of interest. Regulatory authorities often lack the financial, laboratory capacity, and technical resources necessary to build upon or confirm the results of exploratory research. Consequently, the lack of systematically planned, well implemented, documented, and disseminated confirmatory research constitutes a critical gap in our ability to assess and manage chemical risks.

Regulatory guidelines serve specific purposes, but scientific discovery and the exploration of unknown phenomena are not amongst them. This, however, does not imply that results generated from non-standard, exploratory approaches should be readily dismissed. The two volumes of “Late Lessons from Early Warnings”, published by the European Environment Agency in 2001 and 2013 [1,2] should remind us that high quality academic research can properly motivate early regulatory actions. Regrettably, assessment approaches and decision criteria addressing when and how regulatory agencies should respond to academic research (exploratory or otherwise) remain largely lacking.

The body of toxicological and ecotoxicological knowledge must be safeguarded from incomplete knowledge and spurious results. In the long run, this obligation can only be met by supporting a collaborative combination of exploratory and confirmatory research that is published and discussed in the open scientific literature.

Academic institutions have enjoyed centuries of postulating and opining on all facets of science, often leaving the task of discerning the practicality, relevance, and usefulness of academic research to business, governments, and other institutions. This needs to change, particularly with the aim to improve chemical risk assessment and management. The academic community needs to find its voice and engage more actively in promoting the value of academic research for the long-term development of toxicology and ecotoxicology and its benefits to Society.

1. European Environmental Agency, Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000. Environmental Issue Report 22, 2001. Available at the Agency’s website for direct download (PDF)
2. European Environmental Agency, Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation, Report 2013/1, 2013. Available at the Agency’s website for direct download (PDF)

Prof. Thomas Backhaus
Senior Editor, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management
University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Dr. Xenia Trier
Technical University of Denmark, Denmark

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Chemical Risk Assessment – a tightrope walk between science, stakeholders and common sense

Hm…what do you get when you start as the first speaker? Yeah, non-functional audio (microphone). My apologies, you have to crank up the volume quite a bit, hope it’s understandable…

The talk was given at the annual workshop of the Food Packaging Forum, you’ll find the compilation of all presentations here.


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