The following editorial was published in Integrated Environmental Assessment, 2010 6(3), 323–324, together with my colleagues Bryan Brooks (Baylor University, Texas, US) and Larry Kapustka (LK Consultancy, Calgary, Canada).
The emerging environmental problems associated with triclosan, which are highlighted in the series of four papers presented in this issue of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management are the latest examples from a long list of substances whose use has led to unanticipated environmental consequences. Other examples include dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), tributyltin (TBT), ethinylestradiol and diclofenac, to name but a few. At least in part, the unexpected collateral effects associated with the use of these substances has occurred because of the tendency to focus on solving a particular problem; in the case of triclosan, its antimicrobial properties were employed in personal care products and a wide range of medical equipment and procedures.
Alas, tackling only one facet (the need for certain safe and sterile environments in the case of triclosan) of broader environmental issues has been shown to collide with the reality of interconnected complex biological, chemical, and ecological systems, that need to be assessed often under conditions of substantial uncertainty. Science will never yield all that we might want to know when environmental problems need to be addressed and decisions about chemical risks are made. Hence those who are inclined to take actions with great certitude are clashing more and more often with others who seek a more precautionary approach to decision making, a conflict which ultimately becomes paralyzing.
Discussions about scientific discoveries and advancements have an unprecedented intensity and dynamic these days. We see a plethora of electronic and print media using science to advocate fundamentally opposite political agendas and perspectives. These exchanges are published by laypersons, popculture personalities, scientists from seemingly disparate disciplines, and a vast array of stakeholder organizations. Novel scientific findings and theories increasingly receive short and intense bursts of scrutiny and evaluation against a background of implicit and explicit societal expectations, often with scant appreciation of the underlying science and engineering challenges. The dissemination of new scientific evidence is faster, more comprehensive, and more commercial than ever before. The release of information on new advances in scientific research is just as likely to appear first in popular news media (including newsletters, Web sites, Internet communities, and blogs) as in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The result of this hyperactivity in recent years is a growing estrangement between the scientific community, business, government, and the general public. This might be explained partly by recent scientific scandals that were dissected in the popular media, by economic and social issues that are perceived as more pressing, and by the increasing complexity of scientific findings. However, the widening gap is at least to a good part also the result of a fundamental misconception. Science is viewed in the public eye and often also by business and government as truth set in stone, rather than a series of milestones along a continuum of inquiry by scientists. Hence, revising, amending, or even rejecting previous scientific conclusions writ large in the popular news media and the possibility of considerable investments lost by business has led to increasing mistrust of the scientific community.
Trust in the scientific community has been further eroded by the increasing emergence of normative science in the public debate, which Robert Lackey, an adjunct professor of political science at Oregon State University, defines as information developed, presented, or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy or policy choices (Lackey 2007). Lackey recently regretted that scientists in conservation biology, ecology, natural resources, environmental science, and similar disciplines are collectively slipping into a morass that risks marginalizing the contribution of science to public policy. While advocating personal positions on (science) policy issues is widely tolerated as acceptable professional behavior and even encouraged because scientists are often uniquely qualified to participate in the deliberations, Lackey believes advocating simply because of personal policy preferences is not appropriate (Lackey 2007).
The objectives of normative science are wrapped in the perversity of splitting groups into the “good guys” versus the “bad guys,” defined by which side of the argument one takes. Normative science preempts productive civil discourse and contrasts strongly with the concept of sound science advocated by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). Already in 1999, SETAC published a Technical Issue Paper in which the pursuit of sound science was defined as organized investigations and observations conducted by qualified personnel using documented methods and leading to verifiable results and conclusions (SETAC 1999). However, this term has unfortunately also been used in some contexts as a synonym for biased investigations driven by special interests.
Science as it was practiced in the era when ideas were vetted in professional circles, rather than the popular media, was characterized by profound skepticism. An initial hypothesis was proposed, experiments were designed, observations were made, data were analyzed, and conclusions derived that pertained to the initial null hypothesis. It was accepted that hypotheses are frequently amended or even rejected, and could never be finally proven. This practice was somewhat codified in 1982 when Judge William R. Overton identified five criteria that defined ‘‘science’’ in his U.S. federal district court ruling (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education) striking down an Arkansas law requiring the teaching of creationism in schools. To be considered science, Judge Overton concluded, a phenomenon must be guided by natural law; it must be explainable by reference to natural law; it must be testable against empirical work; the conclusions reached in the analyses of data should be tentative, as opposed to absolute; and, scientific explanations must be stated in a manner that permits falsification of the explanations (Overton 1982). This may be the best job description currently available explaining why scientists are trained to be critical thinkers and tend to be skeptics by nature (or should be!).
Judge Overton’s criteria underscore the vision of detached objectivity in science, despite the difficulties in practice owing to the range of technical, social, and financial pressures on scientific research. Science as such is not charged to pass value judgement, but rather provide a structured objective process intended to tease apart understandings about how the world works. This constant iterative process and self-critical analysis that marks sound scientific practice generates conflict and frustration between scientists, the general public, and business.Without much patience for delay, our modern society has identified a large number of health and environmental issues for science to solve, for governments to regulate, and for business to exploit and prosper. In particular, business requires long-term regulatory guarantees for profitable development and marketing of chemicals and products. The public on the other hand requires assurances that scientific knowledge, business decisions, and regulatory actions are certain and safe. Business also has a low tolerance for environmental science if it delays time-to-market for a new chemical product, while the public does not accept delays in regulatory actions that are deemed necessary to safeguard against toxic effects of chemicals. Environmental science, however, often calls for exactly such delays, prompted by the need for additional information on environmental fate, behavior, and toxicity.
There is, or at least should be, a moral obligation to consider all of these facets during environmental risk assessment and chemical management. Scientists in academia, business, and government alike share the responsibility to safeguard the quality and objectivity of these processes and should hence follow a solid professional ethic. While rules and ethical obligations might be straightforward for analytical work and biological testing, decisions are becoming increasingly delicate during the subsequent steps of risk analysis, benefit:cost analysis, and management. During the last decade, concurrent with the emergence of the REACH regulation in the European Union and new chemical assessment requirements in the United States, chemical risk assessment has become increasingly complex. Regulatory and business requirements are moving from a primary focus on human toxicity and ecotoxicity towards multidimensional assessments in which characteristics such as persistence and bioaccumulation become increasingly important. Integrated, holistic environmental assessments are required that consider the full life cycle of chemicals and products, adequately considering impacts on complex natural ecosystems. In the near future, the implementation of the substitution principle, e.g., in the Biocide Directive of the European Union, will set the stage for the next step: comparative environmental risk assessments as part of chemical management.
Scientific expertise is essential for the discovery, investigation, and introduction of new chemicals and products that address the environmental challenges important to society. Scientists, regulators, and business experts occasionally fall victim to reliance on judgemental heuristics in their evaluations and decision-making, which increases the risk of substantial errors when making predictions and coping with uncertainties. In fact, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994) suggested that challenges to environmental decisions can unintentionally lead to ‘‘postnormal science,’’ where intractable uncertainties result from ethical and epistemological problems, or opposing stakeholder goals. Participants in scientific and public policy debates must hence have the ability and willingness to withstand the urges of normative science. Professional organizations that encourage and support membership representing different perspectives and organizations, such as SETAC with its tripartite organization, can serve as a ‘‘meta-expert’’ in this process and build bridges that link science, government, and business expertise, chaperone the discussion process, and thereby enhance environmental quality through science.
Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR. 1994. Uncertainty, complexity, and post-normal science. Environ Toxicol Chem 13:1881–1885.
Lackey RT. 2007. Science, scientists, and policy advocacy. Conserv Biol 21:12–17.
Overton WR. 1982. Creationism in Schools: The Decision in McLean versus the Arkansas Board of Education. Science 215:934–943.
Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). 1999. Sound Science Technical Issue Paper. Pensacola, FL, USA.