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Scientists Must Shape Our Future as They Have Shaped Our Past

Perspective of the Former US EPA Administrator

McCarthy, Gina

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doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000749
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As former Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Obama, I know that today is a time of significant challenge and perhaps change for public health and environmental protection in this country. That is why I spoke at the March for Science in Boston this year in support of our scientists. That is why I reminded the next generation of scientists of the importance of the work ahead when I was honored to deliver this year’s commencement address at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). And that is why I am writing this article today. I want to share some of the thoughts I delivered in these speeches with the scientists who are faithful readers and contributors of Epidemiology. I want you to know that in America we recognize and appreciate the work you do. Scientists have changed the world for the better, and we need you now more than ever before.

It is a time of great uncertainty for scientists and for science itself. It is a time when the progress we have made over the past 4+ decades to build the world’s strongest economy on a foundation of strong health and environmental standards is at risk of being rolled back or set aside.1 It is a time when science tells us that the risks to our health and well-being are growing increasingly complex, yet we are facing leadership in Washington that seeks to diminish investments in the very people, institutions, tools, and programs that deliver the data we need to survive and to thrive.

That’s why those of us who share a passion for public health and a respect for our environment and natural resources, must speak up for sound, credible, independent research. We must reject carefully disguised bills like the HONEST Act2 and the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act3 that claim to improve science transparency or the peer review process. If passed, they would undermine this country’s scientific credibility and act as a catalyst to unravel public health protections that have long enjoyed bipartisan support and helped deliver clean air, water, and land to millions of American families. We must reject budgets that slash support for science4 simply because the facts don’t conveniently align with political agendas or donor interests. We must reject current efforts to inhibit or eliminate public access to scientific data and analysis. And we must fight back against blatant attempts to limit the public’s ability to meaningfully participate in the rulemaking process, including budget riders that legislate science5 or eliminate the public’s right to appeal rulemaking decisions that could rollback critical clean water protections.6 We cannot fail to ensure that all final rules are actually being implemented and enforced unless a court has said otherwise.7

So we all have to be ready—even scientists—to speak truth to power as we said in the 60s or 70s. And we have to speak in ways that nonscientists can understand.

I was proud to stand with many scientists both young and old this spring at Boston’s March for Science. While the speeches were great, the signs were terrific. One of them said “Society should worry when geeks have to demonstrate”; another said: “Got polio? Me neither! Thanks, science!”

Clever, right? Well, scientists have to be clever these days. Many of you are being asked to not just conduct important research, but to professionally and personally defend that research.

I know that this is not the role you signed up for or were prepared to take on. But I have great hope and faith that our ability to conduct science will not only survive but continue to make a positive difference in our world. You will shape our future as you have shaped the past.

Today’s scientists are standing on the shoulders of the ones that came before them and all of us are benefitting from the tremendous contributions that science has made to our country and the world. That’s what the March for Science was all about, to collectively remind people of the value of sound science. Thousands if not millions marched that day to amplify the voices of scientists and the need to protect science from political interference and special interests and the importance of investing in science as the foundation of future progress. Because your work is the foundation for policies, programs, laws, rules, and investments that have saved millions of lives and will continue to save millions more as long as those protections are in place.8

From my very early days working at community health centers, to my work with local boards of health, state agencies in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the past eight years with the EPA, it was clear that people need trusted independent advisors who can help them understand the risks they may be facing and what they can do to protect themselves and their families. Scientists are those advisors.

People, especially public servants like me, need scientists like you who are mission driven, not special interest driven. We need scientists who are accountable not just for the science you bring to the table—but for the transparent, fair, and unbiased way you do your job.

And more than ever before, we need trusted advisors because despite its many benefits, social media has too often been used to spread alternative facts and drive people apart. It has been used to undermine data that are essential to guide critical decisions about our health and our future—like data documenting climate change.

I know it is hard to talk about complicated research to nonscientists and have people walk away with a good understanding of the risks and the opportunities to reduce risk. Climate scientists speak to the strength of correlations, not in absolutes. When you say that climate warming trends over the past century are “extremely likely” owing to human activities, climate deniers use that precise language to say that scientists aren’t sure, as if it is some kind of statistical crap shoot. And when you make the point that science is always evolving, it provides an opportunity for the minority of folks in the United States who don’t favor climate actions to argue for delays. These two points—while accurate—are not particularly helpful given that the challenges of climate change demand immediate action to avoid what is essentially an existential threat.

I told the HSPH graduating class that I prefer saying something like this: “Scientists have concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, man-made emissions are causing it, and that’s why women need to run the world.” While I was kidding, of course, the students understood the seriousness of the message. Climate science is complicated—that’s why people are looking for clear, unequivocal, factual statements.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change characterized human emissions as “very likely” to be causing climate change that has occurred since preindustrial times, it was the strongest statement any scientist could have hoped for. But to those seeking to discredit the science, it left an opening to sow doubt, even though 70% of the people in the United States understand that climate change is happening and we must take action.9

We need to be as clear as we can be when we explain findings that are critical to communicate to the general public. For example, it may be more effective and still consistent with the science to say something like: “There is overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is changing our climate and posing risks to our health and safety. These risks will get increasingly larger, as will the threat to our children’s future, unless actions are taken to reduce emissions that are fueling this change.” That is a message even nonscientists can understand. And the next time an ice sheet the size of Delaware breaks off a glacier in Antarctica, let’s spend less time explaining that scientists cannot attribute it or any specific event to climate change, and simply say that events like this are consistent with the what we expect to see in a changing climate.

In any case, none of us can sit quietly and allow the language of science to be misinterpreted in ways that misrepresent the facts. Today we must not only decide what we stand for, but what we will not stand for. We cannot let science that underlies the progress we have made to deliver on this country’s core values of clean air, water, and land be sidelined by politics. Our families’ health and our children’s future are at stake.

In my experience, people don’t want to be scared, they want to be informed. But they need to understand what scientists are saying and not saying. They need smart, credible people like you to clearly articulate your understanding of the world and why what you know matters to them so that people can make good choices for themselves and their families.

Simply put, today it is not enough to do science, you have to stand up and speak out for the science. Yes, you might even have to march for science—not because you want to get political, just the opposite. You march because you cannot allow science to be politicized.

Perhaps it is time for scientists to turn off your computers and practice explaining what you do, what you are learning, and why it’s important to your family and friends. Scientists might want to consider partnering with communication professionals to enhance their ability to effectively explain complex science to policymakers, community leaders and everyday people. And it’s always important to remember that the average American reads at a seventh grade or eighth grade level so know your audience and develop materials that they can understand and will want to take home with them and share with their neighbors and colleagues.10

Talk to people about what you do in the lab and learn in the library. Tell people why you think it might really matter to them and then see what happens. I think you will be really excited to know that facts do matter. People can and want to learn. By and large people will make good decisions when you arm them with good facts. And when people speak with clear conviction in this country that is “of, by, and for the people,” policymakers and politicians must—albeit reluctantly at times—pay attention. When they do, they will once again protect the core values we all hold dear—like sound science, clean air and water, heathy land, and a stable planet.

Science is the engine that drives American prosperity and innovation and fuels global progress. At EPA, science was our professor and our protector. With sound science to guide the way, EPA steered America away from health risk and toward a higher quality of life. Because of science, smoking deaths are down, lead in our kids’ blood has plummeted, the ozone layer is healing, and dangerous levels of NOx, SOx, CO, particulate matter—and acid rain—have been declining for decades.11 But I need only say “Flint, Michigan” to remind you of the work that’s left to be done. In fact, one in four global deaths result from environmental pollution, seven million people die each year from diseases related to air pollution alone, and up to 16,000 babies are born preterm in the United States every year owing to air pollution.

People and businesses depend on agencies across the federal government—including EPA—because we take into consideration science that is sound, robust, and reliable, and our world class scientists are just that: world class. Pollution does not discriminate along party lines. In fact, efforts to protect the environment have, up until recent years, been bipartisan. Remember, Theodore Roosevelt was the father of the National Park System, Richard Nixon created the EPA, and George H.W. Bush championed the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990—perhaps the most significant public health law ever passed. I myself have worked for five Republican and one Democratic governor and I can honestly say that we made significant progress under each and every administration. Why? Because they respected science and had the courage to consider it and make decisions, not delay needed actions.

We have to get back to bipartisan support for sound science and environmental protection. We cannot allow anyone to reject science simply because it is inconsistent with party politics. As Neil Degrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.”12 And it remains fundamental to the protection of public health and the planet.

The truth is, when you follow science and the law, history has shown that it is good for the planet and our pocketbooks, for consumers and companies. We don’t have to sacrifice a healthy economy for a healthy environment. In the past 40 years, the Clean Air Act has cut air pollution by 70%, while the economy nearly tripled.8 And today, with the challenge of climate change before us, science has made the impossible possible. With the advent of market winning renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, the clean energy train in this country has left the station and no one person—even the president—can turn it around.13 While I hate the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid,” in this case it is irresistible.

Look, history tells us that when we generate sound science and work together to communicate it effectively, our government leaders eventually take it into consideration. So let’s keep our feet on the gas and put our faith in American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. That’s what we do best; that’s how we move forward.

Because a clean, healthy environment is not window dressing, it is a basic human right. It is the foundation of our economy and our well-being. The students I met during my tenure at EPA and beyond understood this and because of them I have great hope. These young people are ready to pick up the torch. They will inspire us to see what can be when we’re fed up with what is. And they will continue to treat public health protections and health care not as individual luxuries, but as public necessities worthy of the support and engagement of the best and brightest. These young people are ready to be a vital part of the active citizenry that fuels a healthy democracy.

There was one other sign that stuck with me from that Science March. It said, simply: “SCIENCE NEEDS HEROES.” So let’s see if all of us—if all of you—can’t be those heroes. As President Kennedy once said, “We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” So please, keep pushing yourselves as if our world depends on it—because it does.


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2., Accessed 10 October 2017.
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