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Chemistry and our planet

by Allison A. Campbell, ACS President
July 31, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 31

Allison Campbell
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Allison Campbell
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

In the course of my career, I have witnessed a remarkable transformation as environmental awareness has moved from the periphery to the center of our practice.

We are now on the threshold of another landmark moment in the relationship between the chemistry profession and the environment, as questions about the legitimacy of science, expertise, facts, and the nature of truth itself have become prominent in our public discourse. These questions are fueled in part by the ready availability of information to support the firmly held beliefs and arguments of partisans on all sides of an issue. With so much information traveling at us all, continuously and at high velocity, it becomes difficult to decide which sources are authoritative.

Climate change is one of the noisiest and most contentious issues in the public forum, where the ongoing debate in the U.S. remains snagged on first principles: Does the problem exist? If so, do humans have a causal role in it? Although the overwhelming body of scientific evidence concludes that anthropogenic climate change is real, vast volumes of less scientific, unscientific, and even outright false information sustain the contention that the issue is too uncertain and doubt-ridden to warrant decisive policy action.

The fact that we in the U.S. continue to argue about climate change on this fundamental level tells me that the scientific community has not been effective in communicating its findings and potential impact with respect to climate change.

More consequentially, we have also not been as effective as we need to be in communicating the nature of science itself—that it most often progresses incrementally, that it is inherently skeptical, that uncertainty is an essential element and not a mark of failure, and that evidence sometimes prompts changes in—even reversals of—previous thinking.

We must earn our legitimacy through committed engagement, exchange, and education.

President Donald J. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and the deep budget cuts to climate research programs in his recent budget proposal are indicators of our communication disconnect. As I have noted in previous C&EN comments, politicians chart policy courses that reflect what they see as their constituents’ values.

So, I see the current challenge to the ACS community not as a scientific or policy or regulatory one, but as a communication challenge. I ask myself how we might find ways to cut through the noise and dissonance and equip people to weigh the evidence that supports one assertion versus another, whether in the climate debate or in any number of others with significant scientific components and where science can play a decisive role.

Now that the March for Science has concluded, we must not allow that energy and passion to dissipate. It is important that we engage with the public, with elected officials, with educators, and with our peers at all levels, from local to national. The ACS local sections have an especially important part to play because they are best situated to interact in their communities on an ongoing basis and to initiate a sustained dialogue at the local level through a variety of channels, including classroom discussions with students, op-eds and other appearances in local media, and less formal interactions. An excellent resource to help you get initiated with advocacy, both at the individual level and local sections, is ACS’s Act4Chemistry site.

ACS local sections are especially important because public credibility of science must be built on trust relationships. Although it may be difficult to differentiate among contending sources of information online and in the media and to establish their legitimacy, relationships based on repeated, personal contact among members of a community are more likely to form a foundation for mutual trust and understanding. We must also recognize that although we have knowledge to share with our communities, we have much to learn from them as well. We cannot take for granted the perception of scientists as authoritative sources of facts and accept that we must earn our legitimacy through committed engagement, exchange, and education. In my recent comment in C&EN (May 1, page 34), I laid out the urgency of communicating science to the public, providing four principles to guide scientists to become effective communicators and advocates for their discipline.

The presidential programming of the ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., this August will include sessions aiming to help prepare members for dialogue with the broader public and the role of chemistry in environmental sustainability, all in the hope of sparking a lively discussion with participants. The meeting will also feature an advocacy workshop to help ACS members develop skills they can use to engage with elected officials and to teach others. We also recently launched the online Advocacy Toolkit to offer ACS members resources, support, and reinforcement for their advocacy and outreach activities.

There is a lot at stake in this moment—the credibility and legitimacy of science as a source of facts, the effectiveness of science in the public and policy discourse, and, ultimately, the health and sustainability of our planet. The chemistry profession has proved itself remarkably resilient over the past two decades and has been able to reinvent itself to be seen as a critical part of the solution to environmental problems. Striving to communicate effectively beyond our peer and professional circles may be our next and most consequential feat of reinvention yet.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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