Environmental health experts strategized about how best to inform policy decisions at local, state, and national levels, at a meeting in Durham Oct. 30 and 31. The Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative (RTEHC) 10th Annual Summit was titled “When Facts Are Not Enough: Getting from Good Science to Good Decisions in a New Age of Environmental Science.”
The meeting brought together a range of scientists and decision makers to look at how to improve the translation of scientific knowledge into actions to protect public health.
“Sometimes environmental problems can seem too complicated, but in fact this is some of the most exciting work we do,” said Carol Folt, Ph.D., during her opening plenary speech. Folt is the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
Harold “Hal” Zenick, Ph.D., formerly of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), summarized the discussion from two days of panels and working groups. He said there was unanimous agreement that experts need to do a better job in building trust and credibility with those affected by environmental health research, not just with other scientists.
The need for effective communication
Zenick said effective communication about environmental health science is essential. “The messages must fit the different audiences and their values,” said Zenick. “This means translating the science at a level appropriate for the stakeholders.”
Effective communication also involves understanding how people process information, according to Louie Rivers, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University (NCSU). He said that a lot of scientists operate under the presumption that if people just have the right information, they will make the decisions that scientists want. This is called the deficit model. He said that people’s values and how they perceive themselves both influence how they take in scientific information.
“We need to go a step beyond just having a conversation about science, and also have a conversation about values,” said Rivers. “I believe that a lot of us share common values but often they are clouded over by the technical conversations that we have.”
Rick Woychik, Ph.D., NIEHS deputy director, questioned whether scientists are trained adequately to be effective communicators. He suggested that negotiation training — understanding the audience, knowing your position, and communicating ideas clearly — might be an appropriate skill to foster.
Perspectives from outside the bubble
Woychik moderated “Perspectives from Outside the Bubble,” a panel of experts in disciplines outside of environmental science who use such science to make decisions, about how to best move scientific findings from the laboratory or publication into the public realm.
Congressman David Price, Ph.D., said that scientists should be translating science through compelling stories that bring environmental health knowledge home to decision makers.
Representatives from state and federal government emphasized the importance of building relationships, so that when specific questions arise about environmental health topics, staff researching an issue know whom to contact for more information.
“Scientists need to bring information to policymakers, and be able to explain how it can make people’s lives better,” said Jeremy Tarr, J.D., of the North Carolina Governor’s office. This outcome is one of the summit’s goals. The annual meetings are structured around intensive, small group work to produce recommendations that decision makers can act upon.
“This is very much a working meeting, and that sets the collaborative’s summits apart from many other types of scientific meetings,” said Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D., program analyst in the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. As NIEHS liaison to the collaborative, Thigpen Tart was deeply involved in planning the event. She noted that a report on the recommendations will be published and made publicly available.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)