My scientific journey started at the University of Utah chasing fallout. It was on everything, in everything, and was distributed throughout the ecosystem. This resulted in radiation doses to humans and caused me great concern. From this concern I asked the question, “Are there health effects from these radiation doses and levels of radioactive contamination?” I have invested my scientific career trying to address this basic question. While conducting research, I got acquainted with many of the What ifs of radiation biology. The major What if in my research was, “What if we have underestimated the radiation risk for internally-deposited radioactive material?” While conducting research to address this important question, many other What ifs came up related to dose, dose rate, and dose distribution. I also encountered a large number of Wows. One of the first was when I went from conducting environmental fallout studies to research in a controlled laboratory. The activity in fallout was expressed as pCi L−1, whereas it was necessary to inject laboratory animals with μCi g−1 body weight to induce measurable biological changes, chromosome aberrations, and cancer. Wow! That is seven to nine orders of magnitude above the activity levels found in the environment. Other Wows have made it necessary for the field of radiation biology to make important paradigm shifts. For example, one shift involved changing from “hit theory” to total tissue responses as the result of bystander effects. Finally, Who cares? While working at U.S. Department of Energy headquarters and serving on many scientific committees, I found that science does not drive regulatory and funding decisions. Public perception and politics seem to be major driving forces. If scientific data suggested that risk had been underestimated, everyone cared. When science suggested that risk had been overestimated, no one cared. This result-dependent Who cares? was demonstrated as we tried to generate interactions by holding meetings with individuals involved in basic low-dose research, regulators, and the news media. As the scientists presented their “exciting data” that suggested that risk was overestimated, many of the regulators simply said, “We cannot use such data.” The newspaper people said, “It is not possible to get such information by my editors.” In spite of these difficulties, research results from basic science must be made available and considered by members of the public as well as by those that make regulatory recommendations. Public outreach of the data is critical and must continue to be a future focus to address properly the question of, “Who cares?” My journey in science, like many of yours, has been a mixture of chasing money, beatings, and the joys of unique and interesting research results. Perhaps through our experiences, we can improve research environments, funding, and use of the valuable information that is generated. Scientists that study at all levels of biological organization, from the environment to the laboratory and human epidemiology, must share expertise and data to address the What Ifs, Wows, and Who Cares of radiation biology.
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(Manuscript accepted 21 May 2013)