UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

Federal Health Study on Drinking Water Contaminants Calls into Question Safety of Nation’s Drinking Water Supply

The public water supply in Hyannis, Massachusetts, one of the communities currently dealing PFAS contamination. Photo: A. Fox. Courtesy of STEEP

On a late June evening in a high school auditorium in Exeter, NH, dozens of people stepped up to the microphone to tell EPA about contaminated drinking water in their communities. They described unexplained illnesses in their families, expressed frustration about inadequate government response, and shared their guilt and fear about their children’s exposures to toxics and the possible long-term effects. “Years before becoming pregnant, I was educating people on how to eliminate environmental toxics from their personal care products and food. That’s why this was so devastating,” said Alayna Davis, co-founder of a local community group called Testing for Pease. “I could not prevent this water from contaminating my son’s body.” 

This event was the first in a series of community listening sessions that EPA will host nationwide on a class of chemicals called PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—toxic chemicals that, in recent years, have been detected in drinking water supplies across the country serving millions of Americans. A new federal report on PFAS health effects suggests that drinking water guidelines developed by EPA are not protective enough and should be lower. Scientists, environmental organizations, and community groups are urging the agency to take strong steps to address the problem. How the agency will respond is unclear at this point. What we do know, however, is that regardless of EPA action, the problem will not go away anytime soon unless we reduce our reliance on these chemicals and invest in safer alternatives.

A wake-up call

PFASs are ubiquitous. They’re used in stain-repellent furniture and carpets, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, and even some fast food packaging and dental floss. They can also end up in drinking water through waste released from chemical manufacturing sites as well as military bases and airports where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used. Due to their extreme persistence, these chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” PFASs are found in all of our bodies, and have been linked to cancers, developmental and reproductive toxicity, thyroid disease, immune system toxicity, and other effects.

In May, there was public outcry over efforts by the White House and EPA to delay the release of a federal health study on PFASs. The study was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to internal EPA emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, officials were looking to avoid a “public relations nightmare.” Advocacy groups circulated online petitions and launched social media campaigns, pressing the government to release the report. On June 20, after much anticipation and controversy, ATSDR finally released a draft of the study, which found health risks associated with exposure to PFASs at levels much lower than the threshold levels estimated by EPA.

Weighing the evidence

Weighing in at 852 pages, the report is a comprehensive review of dozens of published studies on the toxicity of PFASs in humans and laboratory animals. While there are at least 4,700 PFASs on the global market, the report looked at just 14 types—ones the CDC monitors in the general population. Of these, ATSDR found it only had enough information on four—PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFNA—to generate what are called minimal risk levels, or MRLs.

An MRL is essentially a measure of how much of a chemical a person can be exposed to each day without it causing health effects. MRLs encompass exposures from all sources, including drinking water, food, and consumer products. To calculate an MRL, scientists identify the lowest levels of exposure shown to cause harmful effects in humans or laboratory animals. They further reduce these levels by building in various safety factors to ensure that MRLs are protective for even the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.

Safety in numbers

What got the attention of EPA officials earlier this year was that ATSDR’s new MRLs for PFOA and PFOS (the two most prevalent PFASs) are 6.7 and 10 times lower, respectively, than comparable values developed by EPA, which are known as reference doses (RfDs).

Although MRLs and RfDs are more or less the same thing, in this case, there were some differences in the way the two agencies generated their numbers. For PFOS, ATSDR and EPA both based their values on the same study that showed developmental effects in rats. However, in calculating its MRL, ATSDR lowered its value by a factor of 10 to account for additional studies showing effects on the immune system at low levels of exposure. In the case of PFOA, ATSDR and EPA relied on different studies altogether for their calculations.

What does this mean for our drinking water?

In May 2016, EPA issued a non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, individually or combined. Dozens of public water supplies across the U.S. scrambled to meet this new advisory by shutting off polluted water sources and installing new treatment. For instance, on Cape Cod, where I have been studying unregulated drinking water contaminants including PFASs since 2010, the Hyannis Water System issued a temporary do-not-drink advisory to its customers. It has since spent millions of dollars to install large carbon filters to remove PFOS and PFOA from polluted wells.

The EPA develops its drinking water health advisories based on its RfDs, and includes assumptions about how much water people drink and how much of people’s exposure comes from other sources. Using the same methods and assumptions as EPA, when we translate ATSDR’s MRLs into drinking water guidelines, we get equivalent levels in drinking water of 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA—7 to 10 times lower than EPA’s. These values are also similar to those developed by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, which recommends limits of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

What’s next?

The public comment period for ATSDR’s report ends on August 20, and anyone can submit comments online. Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, officials from EPA’s Washington DC and Boston offices have pledged to take action on PFASs in drinking water. Following a federal PFAS summit in May, EPA identified four areas for future action, including developing enforceable drinking water standards and groundwater cleanup recommendations to speed up remediation at contaminated sites.

These are good first steps. EPA should also consider ATSDR’s recent report and additional evidence of health effects at low levels of exposure. For instance, a study led by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean concluded that drinking water guidelines for PFOS and PFOA should be closer to 1 ppt based on immune system effects in children. In addition, studies in laboratory animals have found that low levels of PFOA exposure can impair mammary gland development. This is concerning because research shows that altered mammary gland development may increase breast cancer susceptibility later in life.

While PFOS and PFOA have received the most attention, it’s important to remember that PFASs are a broad group of chemicals, each with its own unique structure but united in their persistence. Although manufacturers have moved away from PFOS and PFOA, new alternative PFASs have emerged to fill their place, and these too raise concerns about effects in the environment and in people. Efforts to limit PFASs as a class rather than one at a time, such as Washington State’s recent ban on PFASs in food packaging and firefighting foam, are an important step in the right direction. Residents of affected communities across the U.S. are demanding action, and EPA needs to follow up on its promises by taking strong steps to protect public health.


Dr. Laurel Schaider is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. Her current research focuses on PFASs in drinking water and consumer products, including fast food packaging, and on septic systems as sources of unregulated drinking water contaminants. She is a researcher on the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and is a technical advisor to ATSDR’s Community Assistance Panel at the Pease Tradeport, a site of PFAS drinking water contamination. Find her on Twitter @laurelschaider.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Courtesy of STEEP, photo by A. Fox.

If You Smell Something, Say Something: Identifying Local Natural Gas Leaks

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Walking my dog around my neighborhood one day, I caught a whiff of something very clearly – gas. At first, I noted the smell but assumed it was a fleeting odor and chalked it up to urban living. But soon I realized there was nothing fleeting about it.  I take the same route each day, and it became clear that specific locations  persistently smelled strongly of gas. Internal alarm bells went off in my head as I calculated the amount of gas necessary to be detected outside, in open air, uncontained. I asked my neighbors and the local utility company about the leaks – surely, I was not the only one who had noticed the smell, which led to my next question, what was being done about it? I was surprised to find that my neighbors had actually been smelling the leaks and alerting the utility companies for years. YEARS. I was shocked, and I wanted to know more.

Boston is leaking gas, and we are not alone

Click to enlarge.

I quickly learned Massachusetts depends heavily on natural gas and unfortunately has very old (and thus leak-prone) gas infrastructure. Natural gas leaks are associated with a host of negative impacts to our health, our environment, and our wallets. Methane, the main chemical released in a natural gas leak, is toxic and has been known to aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases. Leaks are damaging to local flora as methane displaces the oxygen in the soil, essentially suffocating plants and trees. Additionally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), and the amount released from natural gas is affecting the climate at an alarming rate. Currently there is no law that requires utilities to pay for gas that is wasted and released into the atmosphere; instead companies build that cost into consumers’ bills. Most consumers are neither aware of the extent of the leaks nor that they are footing the bill. Through the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I was connected with Dr. Nathan Phillips at Boston University who led a study in 2013 which quantified the location and concentration of leaks in Boston. This study identified more than 3,000 leaks, many of which had methane concentrations well above expected background levels. With miles and miles of aging infrastructure, this leaking problem is pervasive throughout the natural gas industry and is not unique to Boston.


Many small leaks = one big problem; many voices = one big solution 

Click to enlarge.

When combined, the thousands of natural gas leaks in Massachusetts account for a 10% increase in the state’s annual GHG footprint. Furthermore, just 7% of leaks are responsible for 50% of total methane emissions. Yet, methane from natural gas systems is not accounted for when tallying citywide GHG emissions in Boston’s climate action plan. As a citizen, it is easy for me to view a problem of this size as insurmountable, but as a scientist I know there is much to be gained from analyzing the data and sharing the results. For instance, the work outlined above prompted legislation requiring utilities to report the locations of leaks to the MA Department of Public Utilities. Subsequently, the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), took it upon themselves to map utility-reported gas leaks and make this information clear and available to the public. Making science accessible for people to use to improve their community is a fundamental step forward. So far I have accomplished this in my community by holding information sessions and sharing the locations of leaks in Roxbury. Scientists and experts can make valuable contributions to advancing solutions in many ways and it all starts by joining the conversation.


Sarah Salois (@Sarah_Salois) is a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology with a focus on theoretical ecology at the Marine Science Center of Northeastern University in Nahant MA. Her dissertation work focuses on the assembly and dynamics of ecological metacommunities. She is passionate about understanding the vulnerabilities of ecosystems to a changing climate and other anthropogenic pressures.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Science Citizenship: Making Science Actionable

Photo: InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

I decided to pursue a career in science in part because my high school chemistry teacher believed in me and sent me on a glacier expedition. My research as a Masters and PhD candidate brought me to remote corners of the earth, exploring glaciers at all latitudes. At otherworldly sites, I sampled the chemistry of snow and glacier melt. Most of my work was based in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, earth’s analogue to Mars. It was just 100 years after the first explorers set foot on these lands and numerous programs funded scientific research in extreme ecosystems, such as the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Program, which enabled scientists to study and understand trends through time.

During my 2006 field season, a helicopter of twelve national political leaders descended on our camp to learn about polar science. I spent ten minutes talking to Senator John McCain, who had recently tried to pass legislation on global warming with Senator Joe Lieberman. After the policymakers flew off, I returned to the field, energized by science and optimistic that climate policy was on its way.

Connecting students to local issues

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

In 2011, I began my career at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In Springfield, one in four elementary school children needs food assistance. Water quality is threatened by combined sewage overflow, which is amplified by aging infrastructure and climate inaction. While there were nominal resources to address these issues, the community response and rallying around this issue highlighted to me how important social capital is to problem-solving. Access to food and water for Springfield residents was at stake.

My experiences in Springfield and dismay at the lack of national climate policy impressed upon me that my students needed to learn about more than how earth and environmental systems work; they needed to know how their work connected to community and political decisions. Millennials are the largest block of voting aged citizens, but are the least likely to vote. They are inundated by partisan media but are able to quickly search for information for everyday decision making. As a whole, our recent graduates have discussed the big issues we face as a society, but have not reflected on how those issues manifest in their communities. Helping students see and realize their personal and local power is central to justice.

Each of my classes focuses on addressing major justice issues in our community. I see my introductory courses as science citizenship classes where students gain skills in evaluating the science they read and gain insight into the perspectives involved in local issue decision making. Our program features partnerships and working on community solutions-centered projects. Students evaluate carbon sequestration opportunities in vacant lots, soil health improvement strategies in places suffering from housing blight and soil lead contamination, and water quality solutions. Key to this work is having students reflect on their individual roles and what they have learned from community perspectives that informs next action steps.

Small changes in curricula can have a big impact

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

During my sabbatical I’ve reflected deeply, reviewed resources on teaching to support democracy, and created and compiled teaching resources that help science faculty interested in designing their courses and activities to support democracy. These include design prompts for identifying civic activities that fit the current roles and interests of faculty and resources to design courses around local issues and build student civic agency, or consider how you, as an invited speaker or host of a seminar series might help students think about their future roles as scientists or constituents.

Are you helping your students understand how to form a science supported-opinion? Are you teaching your students how to evaluate and communicate using science? Are you showing them the complexity of scientific problem-solving and the views incorporated or missed in political decision-making? Some teaching activities that help build these skills appear here. While some of the specific examples relate to teaching geology and environmental science, these strategies apply to any science faculty interested in making connections between their discipline and positive societal transformation.

I encourage other faculty to join me in building science literacy, agency, and designing curriculum to support informed, equitable, and just decisions. If you are just getting started, start by making one change, such as including an example of local or student-relevant science in your class, or including an op-ed writing or social media assignment. If you want to learn more about your community, consider inviting local experts as guest speakers, or exploring locally-relevant data. This may be especially important in small towns that sometimes lack fact sheets on climate change, water, or other resource trends. Finally, you might directly show your students how to take action by hosting a science literacy or advocacy event in your class through campus programming. Faculty play an important role in making science actionable.


Sarah Fortner, Ph.D., (@erthsarah) serves as the Geological Society of America Scholar in Residence for the American Geosciences Institute. She is an Associate Professor of Geology and Environmental Science at Wittenberg University. Both programs are recognized for civic excellence by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

The Time Has Come for Stronger Investment in Water Infrastructure – Especially for Underserved Communities

Photo: US Marines

When news of the Flint water crisis broke headlines, 21 million people across the country relied on water systems that violated health standards. Low-income communities, minority populations, and rural towns disproportionately deal with barriers to safe water. Drinking water challenges are complex: failing infrastructure, polluted water sources, and low capacity utility management are all part of the issue. Declining investment in water infrastructure over the last several decades has exacerbated the problem. Access to safe water is essential for human health and well being. Without serious investment in our water infrastructure we will continue to put communities at risk. As a country we must support existing funding sources for water infrastructure, develop new and innovative funding mechanism for long-term solutions, and more effectively prioritize the water needs of underserved communities. Furthermore we must support the science that helps us understand the nature and extent of these water challenges.

To be clear, the U.S. as a whole has very good water quality. The 21 million Americans without safe drinking water make up 6% of the country’s population. But this low percentage means nothing to those who can’t turn on their tap to quench their thirst, take a shower, or cook their food. A host of federal programs help reduce the number of communities without safe water. The EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), the USDA’s Rural Development Water Program, and HUD’s Community Block Grants, provide essential funding and low-interest loans to fill gaps in state and local resources. These projects not only replace dilapidated pipes and pumps, they also provide trainings for utility operators, support partnerships to consolidate resources, and hire experts to identify the cause of contamination. These opportunities are crucial in rural municipalities where water utility operators are commonly residents who volunteer their time.

Figure 1: Spatial clusters (hot spots) of health-based violations, 1982-2015. Hot spots of health based violations by county. Higher Z-scores indicate a higher number of health violations as compared to the average. Source: Maura Allaire et al. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1719805115. Copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

But how do we know if the communities that need the most help are getting it? In the case of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, states are required to prioritize systems with the highest health risk and the greatest financial need. An EPA database helps states identify which drinking water systems have the highest number of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) violations, but it does not track whether these communities are considered low-income or disadvantaged.

For communities that can’t afford to take on the debt of a low-interest loan like the ones provided through the DWSRF and WIFIA, grants offer a debt-free alternative. The USDA’s Rural Development Water Program offers about ten types of grants for rural and small communities and tribes. The 2018 Congressional Budget also included a new EPA grant solely for addressing the water needs of disadvantaged communities.

Regardless of these efforts, there are communities without safe water. From 1982-2015, the number of drinking water violations actually increased. It is unclear what proportion of this increase is due to stricter safety regulations, more polluted waterways, degrading infrastructure, operating errors, or a combination of these factors. What we do know is that most of the health violations link back to pathogens and that the communities with the most violations are low-income and/or communities of color. A study from the American Water Works Association concluded “in communities with higher populations of black and Hispanic individuals, SDWA health violations are more common…it is in the poorest of communities that race and ethnicity seem to matter most in determining drinking water quality.” Housing density is also a factor. A study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that urban and suburban areas tended to have fewer violations than rural areas.

Figure 2: Total violations per water system by housing density category and income group. Violations represent the portion of water system-year observations with violations. Low-income counties have median household income below 75% of national median household income. Source: Maura Allaire et al. PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1719805115. Copyright: National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

On top of increasing violations, investment in water infrastructure has decreased. An analysis from the Value of Water Campaign shows combined federal investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has declined from 63 percent of total capital spending to 9 percent since 1977. State and local governments have also decreased their capital spending on water infrastructure in recent years. The EPA estimates we need to invest $472.6 billion in our drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. Majority of this need can be attributed to rehabilitating, upgrading, and replacing existing infrastructure.

Federal investment in water infrastructure must continue and grow. Federal funds for infrastructure do more than build new systems and replace pipes; they support management and maintenance to achieve long-term goals. Communities all over the country struggle to have safe water. There are people working hard to address these issues, but more work is needed. Everyone has a role to play by supporting politicians who prioritize the needs of our failing water systems and the communities that rely on them. We must also support the science that has enabled us to better understand the nature and extent of these water challenges and their disproportionate impact on underserved communities. Safe water must no longer be a luxury.

Sara holds a Master’s in Environmental Management specializing in Water Resources Science and Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about many angles of water resources management. Currently Sara is working to reduce the loss of coastal wetlands as an ORISE Research Participant at the EPA.

Photo: US Marines

Uniting Young Scientists: Building a National Network for Grassroots Science Policy

According to a 2014 study by the American Institutes for Research, less than half of STEM Ph.D. graduates are employed in academic careers. Unfortunately, by nature of pursuing our degrees in academia it is difficult to identify mentors, expand networks, or practice skills for a non-academic career during graduate school. This challenge has been recognized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in their recent report, which calls for a broad range of changes in the graduate education enterprise to make the system more student-centric and better prepare students for careers that address global societal needs.

Thankfully many early career scientists are already taking the task into their own hands. Students and postdocs are independently questioning how to best utilize their critical thinking skills in the real world, which should come as no surprise. Having recently dedicated ourselves to answering hard questions in science, it often feels like our duty to tackle the dearth of evidence-based policy making that is increasingly plaguing our country.

In search of sustainability and support

As one of these doctoral students in pursuit of a non-academic career path, I have found the grassroots support for science communication, advocacy, and policy training to be inspiring and ever-expanding. A nationwide survey that we conducted found that of the 22 early-career science policy groups surveyed, 45% have started in the past year and a half. However, many of these groups are run by the sheer willpower of their membership. Comprised mostly of graduate students, 60% of these groups operate on meager annual budgets of $1200 or less.

This is especially disappointing considering that there is significant public support for this: a Research!America survey showed that 84% of Americans believe that it is important for scientists to inform the public and policymakers about their research and its impact on society.

These student groups are essential for supporting and promoting graduate student engagement in science policy and advocacy within their communities, and are supplemented by national organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. However, the NASEM report points out the challenges that graduate students continue to face in an uphill battle against an academic culture that lacks incentives for science advocacy and civic engagement. Research productivity and peer-reviewed publications remain the singular metrics for traditional academic success, which creates reward systems that do not adequately prepare STEM graduate students to translate their knowledge into impact in an increasingly broad range of career paths.

Introducing the National Science Policy Network

On June 18, the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) was officially launched as a national network of science policy groups led by early career scientists. Our work focuses on providing training and resources that strengthen this burgeoning science policy-community and foster a network of engaged young scientists and engineers. We will be providing microgrants to support underfunded groups, collaborating with Research!America on a nonpartisan midterm election initiative, and hosting a science policy symposium in New York City this fall.

In just one week, NSPN has attracted over 100 subscribers, representing 50 different universities nationwide within the Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern Hubs. As we continue to grow, we aim to be a grassroots advocacy network for scientific expertise, critical thinking, and data-based decision-making that supports graduate student efforts to translate science and engineering from their laboratories to government.

In the current political climate, translating and amplifying the voices of scientific knowledge are more important than ever, but most academics remain isolated in their ivory tower. Scientific leadership’s reluctance to address internal cultural problems is not new, but recent threats to restrict the role of science in democracy has catalyzed change. This vacuum of support is being filled by local groups of scientists nationwide who are taking the task into their own hands, and NSPN is here to help.

Join us at scipolnetwork.org.


Holly Mayton (@hollindaze) is a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical and Environmental Engineering with a Designated Emphasis in Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, and is currently serving as a National Chair of the National Science Policy Network. Locally, she is helping create the Science to Policy program at UC Riverside and has been involved in the UC Global Food Initiative, the California Agriculture and Food Enterprise, several California state advisory committees on environmental science and public outreach, and the California Council on Science and Technology. Holly is broadly passionate about connecting food and water science to policy and advocacy outcomes, from the local to the international level.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.


Engaged Science: 6 Tips for the Trump Era

March For Science PDX, Portland, OR, April 22, 2017. Photo: Joe Frazier Photo/CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia)

A 2017 public opinion survey found that only about one in five American adults has a great deal of confidence in scientists. Some of the most pressing environmental challenges, including climate change, have not motivated sufficient action despite the accumulation of scientific evidence. These days, the Trump Administration routinely attacks, misrepresents, and ignores science to the detriment of the environment and our health. How can scientists improve their engagement with the public and decisionmakers to help solve these problems?

Last month, a cohort of scientists, scientists-in-training, and environmental advocates came together in Seattle, Washington to discuss these challenges in person. The workshop, led by COMPASS and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), convened participants working to address environmental and public health problems from multiple angles and diverse skill sets, including public health, ecology, biochemistry, computer science, water policy advocacy, and community-based participatory research. COMPASS and UCS supported cohorts of Science Sentinels and Science and Democracy Fellows (including both of us) in order to help to build a network of empowered, mutually supportive leaders that can help advance the role of science in society, guide their peers, and support evidence-based decision making on environmental issues at the local level and beyond.

Based on some of our workshop discussions and a roundup of resources from the UCS Advocacy Toolkit, the American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science project, and the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we’ve compiled six ways for scientists to improve their engagement with some of society’s most pressing and vexing environmental challenges:

1. Focus on connection, not explanation

Scientists may have advanced degrees and specialized training, but that is just one kind of expertise needed to inform our most pressing environmental and public health problems. Community members, including those on the front lines of the environmental justice movements, are often experts in the challenges that their own neighborhoods face. Instead of trying to explain or convince others that your ideas are valid, focus on connecting with people in a way that identifies common ground and builds mutual trust. Take an opportunity to listen to others before offering your perspective, and offer your ideas with humility and a collaborative spirit. Check out the UCS Guide on Engaging Communities for more information on this topic.

Figure: Adrienne Keller

2. Know your (specific) audience

One key for engagement is to define the audience for scientific outreach more specifically than just the “general public.” “The public” can be a difficult audience to craft a message for, because it is so large and so diverse. Try to identify a specific target person or group, if possible (e.g., a key legislator, community organizer, or local journalist). The COMPASS Message Box, which focuses on the distillation of a scientific problem or study into a handful of key ideas and results, can be a helpful tool for shaping messages that will resonate with a specific segment of the public. Listen carefully to your various audiences and craft messages that are succinct and responsive to their questions and interests.

3. Make your science relevant

Scientific results are often confined to academic meetings and subscription-access peer-reviewed journals, even though the research itself may have been taxpayer funded. Consider broadening the reach of your work and ideas by communicating through other channels, like social media sites (including Twitter), blog posts, YouTube videos, and audio podcasts. These mediums offer opportunities to shed light on different aspects of your work and allow for a creative outlet within which to share your talents. In these settings, you have more flexibility to contextualize your results, and doing so may even provide you with new insights to bring back to the lab bench or field site.

4. Don’t get lost in the details

Scientists are well-versed in the details of their work. While this comfort with the technicalities helps ensure research results are solid, scientists can get lost in nuanced discussions about statistics and lose sight of the bigger picture. When communicating science to the public, focus on the “so what?”, emphasizing how your research connects with your audience’s values and concerns. Using the figure below as a guide, focus on the public audience approach (on right side) that emphasizes key results above all else. And remember, most people can only remember three to five ideas at one time, so stick to your key take-home points and make them extra “sticky” by giving your quantitative results meaningful context relevant to your specific audience.

Figure adapted from COMPASS and Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter by Nancy Baron, Island Press 2010

5. Offer your perspective to journalists

Graphic: American Geophysical Union

This may come as a surprise, but most journalists are eager to hear from scientists, especially at your local paper. Proactively engage with journalists, introducing yourself by offering thoughts on a recent article or inviting a journalist to your lab or field site. Ashley Ahearn, guest panelist at our workshop and award-winning public media journalist (see her stories at PRI), encourages scientists to “meet journalists halfway”; as you actively develop a trusted relationship with a local journalist, you could become a valuable and accessible resource of technical expertise. In return, members of the press, who are practiced storytellers with a knack for accessible communication methods, can help to get a scientific message across to a wide audience. These communicators are trained to focus on eliciting the main points out of trusted technical experts, such as the novelty and implications of new research.

6. Identify policy windows for effective public engagement

As the federal government under President Trump takes on an increasingly anti-science tone, you can stand up for science by weighing in as a technical expert and constituent of your elected leaders. Keep an eye on public comment periods on Regulations.gov, and write comments that speak to the technical aspects of proposed rules. One opportunity to do this right now is the open comment period for EPA’s recent proposal to censor science, which would undermine decades of science-based policymaking that serves as the foundation for our nation’s clean air and water standards that protect our health. For more information on this proposal and how you can offer your comments, check out this blog post and how-to guide for developing public comments.

This list is just a start; we welcome your ideas for engagement on Twitter using the hashtag #SciComm. For more information on sharing your science and tips for effective public engagement, check out these resources from the Sharing Science project and Science Network (including archived webinars). For now, we’ll leave you with this helpful visual from the American Geophysical Union, which walks through some of the many options for scientific engagement.

Vijay Limaye is an environmental health scientist working as a Climate Change and Health Science Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City. He is broadly interested in quantifying, communicating, and mitigating the health risks associated with climate change, with a focus on the public health burden of global air pollution and extreme heat events. Prior to his role at NRDC, Vijay worked for three years as a scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional offices in San Francisco and Chicago, focusing on issues such as Clean Air Act regulatory implementation, risk communication, citizen science, and air-quality monitoring policy. Vijay holds a B.A. from the University of California-Berkeley and a Ph.D. in environmental epidemiology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For his dissertation, Vijay has conducted interdisciplinary research quantifying the health impacts of climate change–triggered air pollution and heat waves for populations in the United States and India.

Adrienne Keller is a PhD student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, where she studies forest carbon and nutrient cycling. Adrienne holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and a B.A. in Biology and Geography from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). In addition to her research in ecosystem ecology, Adrienne is an active member of the newly formed, grassroots organization Concerned Scientists @ IU. Prior to graduate school, Adrienne was involved in science policy work as a Program Assistant with the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C. Adrienne has also enjoyed working with K-12 students in a variety of settings, including leading cross-cultural immersion programs for high school students to Africa and Latin American with the Student Diplomacy Corps and teaching field ecology courses in the Galapagos Islands with Ecology Project International. 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Breaking Through the Ice: LGBTQ+ Visibility in Stem

I grew up in one of the only Democrat-voting counties in Texas, along the border of Mexico. The majority of people who live in the city are Hispanic, and Catholic culture runs deep for those people who practice religion and those who don’t alike. My family wasn’t much for religion, but one summer my grandmother sent me to Vacation Bible School, as it’s called in Texas. I fit in perfectly because on the first day I declared to the rest of the kids that I was a boy. I guess I knew from the ripe old age of six that being a girl who was a tomboy wasn’t going to make me any friends in West Texas, and it was easier to fit in pretending to be something I wasn’t, which in this case was a boy.

In the years since, I’ve never tried to fit in as a boy but am still often mistaken for one when I visit home. The lesson I learned that summer, however, must have stuck with me because as I started my career in science I often adjusted my language in talking about my life in order to fit in. I didn’t mention my girlfriend to most colleagues in conversation, and remember once acting confused when a professor asked me about my son, just so that I could avoid the lengthy discussion of my personal life that always follows that revelation. In hindsight, most of those people have no problem with LGBTQ people on a personal level, and almost certainly not on a professional one, so I’ve often wondered why I feel so alone on this scientific journey.

But over the last few years, I have read articles discussing the experience of being LGBTQ(AI)+ in STEM, and came to realize I wasn’t alone. In fact, many LGBTQ+ people working in academia and STEM professions report that they have experienced an ‘icy environment’ that makes it uncomfortable to be ‘out.’ There are statistics to back up the feelings I’d been having during my early career:

While it certainly does not make me happy to read these statistics, it confirmed that there is a larger problem. The lack of visibility of LGBTQ+ people in academia leads to a feeling of isolation, which can make one wonder, “Is it just me?” Some scientific societies have begun tackling this issue head on. For example, a 2016 report by the American Physical Society found that the major issues faced by sexual minority physicists are a heterosexist climate that reinforces stereotypical gender roles in work environments, a culture that requires, or at least strongly encourages, LGBTQ people to remain closeted at work, and a general lack of awareness about LGBTQ issues among STEM professionals. While there is not an easy ‘fix’ for any of these issues, the clear articulation of the problem is the first step in figuring out the path forward.

Getting away from the thought of “Is it just me?” is why visibility is so important. Visibility forges connections and builds a sense of community that breaks through the icy silence experienced by queer and trans people in STEM careers. 500 Queer Scientists is an online visibility campaign for LGBTQAI+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. The campaign is fueled by individual, self-submitted bios and stories intended to boost the recognition and awareness of queer scientists. Launched in early June, the campaign has already accumulated over 500 stories of incredible people in fields ranging from quantum physics to conservation biology, undergraduate students just starting out to deans and directors of research institutes. Scrolling through the Twitter feed with the hashtag #500QueerScientists, there are endless tweets and comments extolling the importance of the campaign and how uplifting it has been on an individual level. Collectively, we have found each other. What comes next is up to the LGBTQAI+ STEM community, but judging from the suggestions for 500 Queer Scientists 2.0, the single most important thing is connection. Individually, queer people working in STEM have been powerful forces of scientific progress and discovery. I am holding my breath to see what we will become together.  

If you would like to be inspired by stories of LGBTQAI+ scientists, you can read them on our website 500queerscientists.com, on Twitter @500QueerSci, or on Instagram @500QueerScientists. You can also submit your story on our website!


Dr. Lauren Esposito (@CAS_Arachnology) is the Assistant Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences. She is also the co-founder/director of a science, education, and conservation non-profit called Islands & Seas, and the co-creator of 500 Queer Scientists. Lauren’s current research investigates the patterns and processes of evolution in spiders, scorpions, and their venoms.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

ExxonMobil Refuses to Give Scientists the Floor: Reflections from a Corporate Shareholders’ Meeting

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

It was with great anticipation that I attended the ExxonMobil Shareholders Meeting last month at the invitation of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). My attendance was facilitated via proxy from Mercy Investment Services. In doing so, I joined a multitude of interested parties—some of whom had traveled great distances—to engage ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods in discussions concerning a wide array of topics including, but certainly not limited to, climate change. Alas, none of us (representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists or others who had come prepared with questions about climate change or environmental issues) were called upon. We were, in fact, studiously avoided.

Thus, sadly, I must admit that when it was all said and done: I walked away from the experience with my skepticism of the petro-chemical industry giant’s sincerity in addressing climate change in any meaningful way intact. Simply stated, what I heard from Mr. Woods—though masterfully cloaked in symbolic-laden rhetoric—came down to one very clear point: ExxonMobil is committed to business as usual.

Yes, Mr. Woods did indeed address the company’s efforts in advancing lubricants for expanding wind facilities; yes, he addressed efforts to advance cutting-edge technologies in carbon sequestration; yes, he addressed lowering emissions from natural gas production; and finally yes, he also addressed furthering the company’s commitment to developing algae-based biofuels of the future. Historically, total projected investment capital for these projects amounts to roughly $8 billion.

Nevertheless, all of this spending was offset (and not in the good way) with a promise of low-cost/high-return investment in oil and gas mega-projects: (1) Offshore oil reserves of Guyana and Brazil, (2) Liquefied natural gas reserves in Mozambique and Papua New Guinea, and (3) Unconventional shale reserves in the Permian Basin of Texas. Total projected investment capital for these projects is roughly $30 billion.

This “dilemma of rhetorical disconnect” was further exemplified throughout the course of Mr. Woods’ remarks to company shareholders and other interested parties.

In specific terms, Mr. Woods began his remarks by stating, “We’re… committed to be a part of the solution in addressing the risk of climate change and other pressing societal challenges.” He continued, “Society has aspirations for economic growth, reliable and affordable energy and environmental protection. We see our role as helping close the gap between what people want and what can be responsibly done. This is what I believe sustainability is all about and frankly, is what we’re all about.”

Mr. Woods then expressed confidence in projections of steady markets for oil and gas through 2040, and the belief that “… meeting the world’s energy need will require trillions of dollars in new investments, even in a two-degree scenario.” At the close of his remarks, Mr. Woods restated ExxonMobil’s commitment, “…to help close the gap between what society wants and what is economically available, using advantaged investments and promising technology. As society’s need [sic] continue to evolve, we’ll continue to respond.”

All of which leads me to the question I would’ve asked Mr. Woods had I been given the opportunity:

In a recently published article with my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, we note that should the known fossil fuel-based energy reserves within and around the Arctic Circle be developed, the probability of achieving the Paris Climate Agreement’s stated goal of limiting global temperature at or below 2C will be highly unlikely, if not impossible.

As a scientist, and a citizen, I worry that ExxonMobil’s conclusion, as stated in the company’s recent “Energy & Carbon Summary Report,” that its upstream recoverable reserves poses “little risk” is a false conclusion given the scientific-basis for the heightened risks posed to human society, including our health, our natural resources, and even our national security should those reserves in the Arctic be developed and then utilized as a primary source for generating energy.

In order to resolve this problematic finding, Exxon/Mobil should seriously consider shifting the lion’s share of its capital investment resources away from exceedingly difficult and expensive endeavors like that of developing Arctic-based fossil fuel resources and instead toward— what by all free-market indicators suggest is taking hold across the globe—meeting/addressing the public’s increasing demand for alternative and renewable energy resources.

So, given that scenario as well as Exxon/Mobil’s existing investment portfolio my question then, is this:

(1) Why is Exxon/Mobil so risk averse to shifting away from an upstream fossil fuel-based investment paradigm and toward an upstream alternative/renewable-based investment paradigm?

(1a) Why not redirect those monies into the clean energy of the future to better sustain Exxon/Mobil’s business model as a global energy leader for future generations of stockholders?

(1b) Wouldn’t that resolve the problematic finding in your “Energy & Carbon Summary Report” that the emissions trajectory of Exxon/Mobil’s “Outlook for Energy” will far exceed the Paris Climate Agreement goal of keeping global temperature increase well below 2C?

The questions I raised are based on two fundamentally important components that drive any shift in energy policy. First, policy research finds that three conditions are required for energy policy to shift: (1) energy markets, (2) energy technology, and (3) political willpower. Second, that same research also finds that there is an inverse relationship between the advancement of energy production technology used to develop exceedingly difficult upstream fossil fuel resources and the rapid deterioration in the environmental quality of our collective natural resources.

Any closing of Mr. Woods’ so-called “gap(s),” then, requires that energy markets, technology, and political willpower align themselves in such a manner that the well- below two degrees Celsius (2°C) objective of the Paris Climate Agreement is attainable.

If ExxonMobil is serious about addressing climate change, then I would suggest that Mr. Woods abandon the rhetoric of seeking change and provide greater detail to his vision of a sustainable future. (Note to Mr. Woods: your definition of “… what sustainability is all about” is not even close to being correct). I would also suggest to Mr. Woods, or any other member of ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors, that the only condition left unmet for fully realizing a historic shift in how America powers its economy is that of political willpower.

Or perhaps, what’s missing is dynamic leadership from the private sector, from an industry leader in innovation, that’s willing to take the risk to sustain its business model and the environment for future generations. Clearly, while Mr. Woods suggests that ExxonMobil is articulating some notion of what it views as being responsive to the public’s demand for action on climate change, its actions remain cloaked in rhetorical subterfuge.

Taking risk to address the pressing societal problems of climate change requires bold and dynamic leadership. What are you waiting for, Mr. Woods?


Dr. Robert E. Forbis Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Research Associate with the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University (CSC-TTU). He is a former Research Affiliate with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at the Idaho National Laboratory (CAES-INL). His research interests primarily concern the policy nexus of environmental protection and energy development. He teaches courses on Public Lands and Resource Management, Climate and Sustainability, Energy and Environmental Policy, Environmental Theory, and Environmental Justice. Dr. Forbis is a recipient of the “Professing Excellence” Award (2014) and “Phi Beta Kappa Honored Professor” (2018) from Texas Tech University.

Will Chevron Show Leadership in Climate Solutions? Notes From the 2018 Shareholders’ Meeting

Photo: ArtBrom/Flickr

Last week, I joined the Union of Concerned Scientists at the Chevron shareholders’ meeting in San Ramon, CA. We were there to ask why Chevron leadership, and shareholders, have not pushed for more meaningful action to meet global emissions targets that would keep climate warming well below 2 degrees celsius.

The security to get into Chevron Headquarters in San Ramon was tight – more significant than your typical airport security. In addition to multiple steps of checking of our passes to enter and walking through metal detectors, we were only able to bring in paper and pen, and each of our papers were shuffled through and inspected on the way in. Once seated, we listened to the presentations by the company’s Chair and CEO and by shareholders advocating proposals on environmental, social, and governance issues. During this time, shareholders followed the Board’s recommendation to reject proposals to “transition to a low carbon business model” and improve lobbying disclosures, among other things.

During much of the meeting, I was scribbling down notes and adapting my prepared statement based upon what I was hearing. I also spent some time staring into this infographic that was provided in the Chevron Climate Resiliency Report (data from IEA 2015 World Balance and Final Consumption Report 2015):

This diagram highlights the flow of energy — the width of the bars reflects the relative size of the production/consumption budget — in our current fossil-fuel focused energy system. This diagram allows you to watch the flow of energy towards different areas of our economy that utilize that source. One remarkable aspect of this data, which is pointed out in the Climate Change Resilience Report, is that “about 25% of global oil consumption is used in personal vehicles” (to see this, follow the bar from “oil”, to “transport”, and then to “passenger”). This means every day that we drive in our personal vehicles we are making choices about fossil fuel emissions that add up to something very significant. I was struck by this statistic because it underscores something that I frequently address in my public talks about climate change: personal, individual action is one piece of the puzzle in solving the climate problem. But there are other pieces of the puzzle – government leadership and corporate accountability which I address again below.

At the end of the scheduled shareholder proposals, it was time for the lottery of Q&A. Each of us who had a question or statement had to get a numbered ticket; tickets were pulled randomly and there was no guarantee that all questions would be heard. In total, about a dozen people asked questions or made statements to the Chairman. Of these, almost all of them were on three topics: climate change, human rights, and an ongoing lawsuit with the people of Ecuador due to a decades old environmental disaster.

Here was my statement and question when my number was called:

Good morning Mr. Chairman, members of the Board, and Stakeholders. Your recent Climate Change Resilience report was a step toward responding to investor demands that you disclose your plans for operating in a world where global temperature increase is kept well below two degrees Celsius. However, your company emphasizes potential conflicts rather than synergies between climate solutions and other societal goals and dismisses a rapid transformation of our energy system as “unlikely.”

I am a scientist here in Northern California. One of the areas of my research focuses on the impact of rising carbon dioxide concentrations on the changing chemistry of the ocean. I collaborate with businesses along the coast that are deeply concerned about the impacts of rising carbon dioxide on their financial future. Specifically, rising carbon dioxide concentrations threaten a key part of our history, culture and economy of California – sustainable harvests of food from the sea. As a scientist, I understand the grave risks we are facing without deep reductions in emissions and know that swift action is precisely what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

You stated this morning, and you describe in the Climate Resilience Report, that a first principle that guides your views on climate change is that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement and action”. Yet, in this report you bet against our ability to tackle meaningful energy transformation. When will Chevron show greater ambition to keep global warming below 2 degrees C?

In his answer, Chair and CEO Michael Wirth was respectful, and thanked me for my work in the scientific community. He explained that the company simply “meets the demands of energy used by people around the world,” and that it does “look at low carbon scenarios” as part of its business plan. However, Mr. Wirth argued that global policies are needed – ones that would require government intervention – and that it isn’t the role of individual companies to make decisions on this matter. This was an interesting answer because it spelled out something that Chevron doesn’t say directly in its public report – the company isn’t planning on taking leadership on climate change until governments lead the way. Which is hard to imagine, since fossil fuel companies spend millions every year lobbying our government to support policies that promote the use of oil and gas.

Why does this matter – and why would a climate scientist attend a Chevron shareholders’ meeting? I pondered this quite a bit when I was asked to join the UCS team for the meeting that day. For me, the decision came down to three things. First, because I am asking Chevron to use the best available science to make decisions for our future. Was a being an ‘advocate’ – yes – I am advocating for the use of science in decision making. Second, because I have made a commitment to not just communicate with those who already agree with me. We need to be able to put ourselves in situations where we work to find common ground and similar values with people in many different communities. Finally, as I’ve discussed above, I think individual responsibility is an aspect of the problem – people need to feel emboldened to make their own decisions that place our planet on a better path. But individuals can’t solve this problem alone: corporate accountability is important here. We need to be asking more of corporations that contribute significantly to our greenhouse gas burden. If they contribute significantly to the problem, they should be contributing significantly to the solution.


Dr. Tessa Hill is a Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at University of California, Davis, in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences. She is resident at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, a research station on the Northern California Coast. She is part of the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research (BOAR) group at Bodega Marine Laboratory, which aims to understand the impact of ocean acidification on marine species. Tessa leads an industry-academic partnership to understand the consequences of ocean acidification on shellfish farmers. Tessa is a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, and a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists & Engineers (PECASE).

Weathering the Storm: Building Community Resilience in Environmental Justice Communities

Art by Micah Bazant

In 2015, It Takes Roots convened a delegation of climate justice leaders to participate in mobilizations at the COP21 in Paris and proclaimed “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm.” When I first heard this statement, I was struck by the vivid imagery it evoked. I envisioned a tree with roots that, despite a powerful rainstorm, swirled, connected, and clenched with fortitude into the depths of its rich soil. I imagined branches growing and the emergence of leaves bearing fresh fruit.

I see these roots as representing the cooperative networks, social fabric, and human relationships that ground us firmly in the soil of our diverse communities. In the face of climate change, how do our community roots support neighborhoods — not only to withstand immediate disruption, but to thrive, sustain our cultures, and provide for future generations?

As a grassroots, environmental justice organization, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is addressing climate change through base building, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. The communities we organize, low-income Asian American immigrant and refugee communities in California, are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, our approach to resilience bridges mitigation and adaptation, with the aim of simultaneously addressing the risks from climate change alongside the inequalities embedded in our current systems that marginalize low-income communities of color.

APEN members and organizers in the East Bay

Emergency response must reach communities in their language

Since the 1980s, Richmond has been a home to many Southeast Asian refugees who were uprooted from their homelands by the Vietnam War. Our members live on the fence line of the Chevron Refinery and suffer from contaminated air, soil, and water due to their close proximity to industrial sites and toxic hazards. A major chemical explosion in March 1991 at the Chevron Refinery revealed Contra Costa County’s inadequate emergency response system, as monolingual residents were poorly informed of emergency safety procedures. In response to this, the Laotian Organizing Project launched and won a historic campaign that pushed the health department to implement a multilingual emergency phone-alert system.

This campaign is a lesson about the importance of accessible and targeted early warning systems to alert residents of predicted extreme weather events. This is particularly important for immigrant and refugee communities with limited English proficiency as well as communities living in proximity to industrial facilities, where coastal flooding and other climate disasters could exacerbate toxic releases and air pollution.

Housing justice is climate justice

In addition to organizing in Richmond, APEN works with low-income Chinese immigrants in Oakland. Oakland’s Chinatown, like many immigrant communities, is a historic neighborhood offering essential services like health clinics, schools, and grocery stores in culturally and linguistically relevant ways. These institutions not only preserve Chinese traditions and practices, but keep immigrant families deeply rooted in a thriving, culturally rich community.

The growing crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness is closely connected to climate vulnerability. Rising housing costs and displacement threaten to tear apart the social fabric of communities like Chinatown, making it more difficult to ensure that our communities have accessible emergency resources like health care, evacuation shelters, and transportation during a climate disaster. For this reason, our climate justice activism centers strategies like renter protections ordinances and anti-displacement in statewide policies.

Community microgrids promote energy democracy

Low-income communities have a higher energy burden, and thus are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices and increased energy needs due to climate change. Power outages can leave the lights out when electricity needs are crucial, particularly for those that rely on medical equipment and families with young children. In light of these impacts, we are pushing for prioritization of critical facilities that serve our communities with emerging clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, solar, and storage.

Recently, APEN proposed a community microgrid project in Chinatown to strengthen a local school and health clinic’s ability to serve as emergency support facilities and offer services to the linguistically isolated families in the community. The accompanying economic savings and community ownership from these investments can root community organizations and institutions that contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhood.

In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis notes that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” In order to address this intersectional crisis, then, scientists must acknowledge the underlying social inequities faced by disadvantaged communities and approach climate solutions through a lens of community development, public health, and social justice. As part of the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I am working on a project that analyzes climate vulnerability tools that integrate climate impacts and socioeconomic factors. Leading with values like trust, empowerment, and cooperation, researchers can equitably partner with grassroots advocates to advance our knowledge about community resilience. Centering these principles in our collective work will support meaningful policy and pave the way towards deeper systemic change.


Amee Raval is a Policy and Research Associate at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an environmental justice organization that empowers Asian American immigrant and refugee communities across California through grassroots organizing, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. Through her role at APEN, she offers an environmental justice and health equity lens to climate and energy policy in California. She previously worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on research and advocacy focused on the environmental and occupational health impacts of extreme heat and rising temperatures due to climate change on vulnerable communities. Amee has an MS in Environmental Health Sciences from UC Berkeley School of Public Health. @APEN4EJ


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.


Building the Right Project: An Engineer’s Perspective on Infrastructure Adaptation to Extreme Weather Events

The view from aerial tour of Hurricane Sandy damage of New Jersey's barrier beaches, Nov. 18, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Infrastructure Week 2018 is upon us, and it’s important that we highlight the state of our nation’s infrastructure and why it’s critical to our economy, society, security, and future. So what is the status of our infrastructure?

The National Infrastructure Report Card is issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) every four years. The Report Card offers a comprehensive assessment of our nation’s 16 major infrastructure categories providing information on their conditions and needs, assigning grades and making recommendations to raise those grades. While first issued in 1998, not much has improved. ASCE has yet to give a grade out of the “D” range; in 2017, America’s infrastructure earned a “D+”.

The work to change the depressing state of our infrastructure is daunting, but I try to be calm and take in my unique privilege as a professional engineer to be involved in the many facets of infrastructure and how we need to better plan, design, build, operate, and maintain these critical projects and systems. As an environmental engineer that also has science and policy backgrounds, I am involved in all facets of the infrastructure lifecycle: planning, design, construction, operations, and financing. I also work in the third largest transit agency in the United States and am responsible for the environmental, sustainability, and resiliency efforts associated with the agency’s infrastructure.

Climate change presents engineering challenges

Let’s face it, our infrastructure is crumbling and significant investments are needed to improve our grade. Regardless of your politics, we see evidence of exacerbation of these impacts through the effects of increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events: increasing ambient temperature, higher frequency of high heat days, more extreme flooding and inundation, more intense storms, and greater length of droughts and heat waves. These conditions are now more common; and forget about the impacts across the world, you need not look beyond your neighborhood. While infrastructure is traditionally designed to hold up to rare but expected extreme weather events, these events are no longer rare, and their durations and intensities are now well beyond normal expectations.

As an engineer, I am faced with a new set of design challenges that force me to rethink how infrastructure should be planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained for conditions that are substantially changing in unpredictable ways. As a scientist, I am struggling to define what information I should use to ensure the infrastructure we build remains useful throughout its expected life, and keeps people safe while enhancing their quality of life. And as a person and global citizen – of Filipino ancestry and having visited many parts of the world – I am humbled and amazed seeing how those who have the least are able to survive the harshest of environments and economic conditions. We need not go far, as many of us who live in the poorest of our American neighborhoods have come to adapt to similar conditions, and chose to survive after hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and droughts. Many of us involved in this conversation about infrastructure have differing life experiences and perceptions.

A multi-disciplinary approach to infrastructure planning

The facts about our deteriorating infrastructure and a future with more weather extremes should make us think very hard about how we as a society will continue to maintain our livelihoods and well-being. A unifying philosophy that brings us all to the table should be the realization that maintenance of the built infrastructure has primarily been a neglected element of society; consequently the cost of less (or even no) action has never been so great and the urgent need to address the compounded issue is now! We should look more closely into how resilient communities do it and learn from them. To design for a resilient future that can handle more extremes, we must upend some engineering paradigms and approach solutions in inclusive, collaborative, multi-disciplinary, and multi-sectoral ways.

As the executive who oversees the implementation of environmental compliance and sustainability at a major public transportation agency, I am immersed in a transportation revolution here in Los Angeles. This revolution goes beyond pure transportation projects, but involves all the things that the transportation system touches or connects. And infrastructure, transportation in particular, touches everything – energy, water, mobility, housing – and is affected by all types of extreme events – heat, droughts, floods, wildfires, and sea level rise.  Because engineers can also be systems thinkers, I get pulled into a variety of situations where not only environmental issues need to be resolved, but other topics are common fare: policy deliberations, energy resiliency, climate change impacts, alternative financing, social equity, fresh food access, electrification, and of course engineering and science, among others. This multi-faceted approach, which also requires people skills, understanding of human behavior and finding common ground, is fundamental to advancing infrastructure solutions that will function under a future with more extremes.

Promising Developments to Integrate Climate Science into Infrastructure Standards

The Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group, under the California Department of Natural Resources, is a pioneering effort to foster this needed cross-discipline dialogue by bringing together climate scientists, engineers, architects, and other professionals to discuss how to incorporate climate change impacts into infrastructure. I was appointed as a member of this Working Group, and with my fellow members have been deliberating how to integrate scientific data concerning projected climate change impacts into state infrastructure engineering and develop and make specific recommendations to the California Legislature and the Strategic Growth Council later in 2018.

Our Working Group’s task gets to the core of making a major overhaul in the way infrastructure projects are planned, designed, constructed, and operated. We are grappling with questions on risk and liability, governance, equity, means and methods of construction, and most importantly identification of the gaps from translating science into practice are debated and discussed. How does this information get incorporated into the standards and practices of civil engineering and architecture? How can the workforce, who have been trained to plan, design, build, operate and maintain infrastructure in a certain way, strategically transition to incorporate modifications that account for new and changing environmental conditions, as well as integrate natural infrastructure solutions? How can financial instruments be used to minimize infrastructure risk to public health, safety, and well-being? The experience has reminded me of the community meetings I often lead or attend: seeking input, debating on the solutions, and in the end, gaining consensus on what is best to make infrastructure serve all stakeholders while simultaneously promoting social cohesion and economic development. I anticipate this to be the flavor of our final report.

The disconnect between disciplines and a lack of an integrated approach across jurisdictions is recognized as a problem by many in the engineering and infrastructure fields. Agencies like mine, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), have navigated through this dilemma by incorporating into our design criteria and specification the requirements to build climate-safe infrastructure based on information we know now.

In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been advancing new approaches to integrate climate science into infrastructure. Under Canon 1 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, engineers have the obligation to hold “safety, health, and welfare paramount and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties”. ASCE Policy Statements 360 and 418, about climate impacts and the role of civil engineers in sustainability, are key drivers to the execution of this obligation. ASCE’s National Committee on Sustainability (COS) is working on the continued development of a Sustainable Infrastructure Standard as well as an ASCE Policy for infrastructure owners to recognize the value and importance of building sustainable infrastructure. The COS is working hand in hand with the ASCE Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate in ensuring infrastructure resiliency and sustainable infrastructure principles and frameworks align with one another.

Investors are listening as well. Here at LA Metro, we are using the revenues generated from the sale of our low carbon fuel standards carbon credits to exclusively invest in carbon emissions reducing strategies, energy conservation and resiliency, renewable energy, and similar projects. We tendered about $500 million in Climate Bond certified Green Bonds in October 2017 for others to invest in our transportation related projects. My invitation to participate in two important symposia on how to finance and make the business case for sustainable infrastructure here in California  in February 2018 and Massachusetts in March 2018 creates a significant degree of personal excitement and inspiration to do more with the financial community to advance climate resilience.

Advancing a new engineering paradigm

There is no other time to do more than now.

Whether we like it or not, infrastructure plays a major role in ensuring that we as a species survive the increasing negative impacts of extreme weather events. But the cost of ignoring infrastructure investments is mounting. More importantly, we need to reassess how we continually value the benefits of a well maintained infrastructure. We need to build the right project as much as we need to build the project right. While I see advances on many fronts, we need more engineers and our partners to step up and take a leadership role in advancing this new paradigm.

Finally, many of these discussions have concentrated on the consideration of the most vulnerable populations or those who are “not in the room” with the professionals. This is not about working to relieve these communities of their burdens but instead all about how we learn from them. With all the tools we have at our disposal, we need to re-think and reassess such tools in the context of how the most vulnerable of communities survive significant stressors. Let’s step-up our active engagement with them for that very reason.


Dr. Cris B. Liban, P.E., ENV SP is a professional engineer and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, with a focus on environment and transportation. He has chaired or participated in multiple research panels through his involvement with the National Academies of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, translating research into policy through his work as an environmental executive and political appointee in federal, state, county, and city governments, currently as the Executive Officer, Environmental Compliance and Sustainability at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is also the Chair of the National Committee on Sustainability of the American Society of Civil Engineers. More on Dr. Liban’s work here.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

So, What Does the Endangered Species Act Mean to Me?

I was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, a land of extremes. Temperatures could drop below -50ᵒ Fahrenheit in the winter and the darkness would seem to stretch out endlessly, while the summers provided radiant sunshine for months that infused a sense of magic into our town. Certainly, for me, the most charmed experiences from my childhood all happened in the Alaskan wilderness. I deep-sea fished on my grandparent’s boat in Prince William Sound, spending a week on the ocean each summer exploring coastline that would reach up and tower over me like a fern-covered arctic rainforest, trees hung with pale green moss. I saw sea otters floating on their backs in the surf, and watched sea birds dive for scraps cast off by anglers as they cleaned their catch on the docks. These experiences throughout Alaska shaped my desire to work in a field that allowed me to study and protect the natural world around me, including threatened and endangered species.

In southern Nevada doing some rare plants surveys.

I moved to Reno, Nevada to attend college, and ended up in the Great Basin Desert, a landscape that felt about a million miles away from the forests I’d grown up in. My first field research job entailed hiking around the desert one autumn mapping the water boundaries of the Amargosa toad, an amphibian up for listing consideration under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the time. Post-undergraduate work led me to an environmental non-profit, where I coordinated the monitoring of habitat restoration projects for the Greater sage-grouse, a large bird also being considered for protections under the ESA during that period. Now, in graduate school and subsequent professional experiences, I’ve worked on rare and endangered plant surveys, hiking across harsh desert terrain to search for shy little species like the Black wooly pod.

As I look back on my experiences, I’ve realized that in the decade since I began my journey as a research scientist, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in not one, but two ESA success stories. Through a collective effort by government organizations, private landowners, and other stakeholders, both the Amargosa toad and the Greater sage-grouse are no longer up for listing under the ESA. These accomplishments have been the product of incredibly large-scale collaborations across agencies, disciplines, and state boundaries, and were no easy feat. However, the Trump administration has recently proposed loosening the hard-won protections for sage-grouse, underlining the need for continued vigilance by scientists and science-supporters to ensure those interest groups benefiting from such a decision are held accountable.

I’m still early in my career, and I found it difficult at first to articulate what the Endangered Species Act means to me. But, after reflecting on my experiences, I’ve realized my personal and professional journey to where I am today has been wholly influenced by the ESA.

Nevada scientist Rob Mrowka and I went to Washington, DC, to meet with our legislators and advocate to protect the Endangered Species Act.

I was able to advance my support for the law when I traveled to Washington, D.C. this past February to take part in a collaborative effort between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Endangered Species Coalition to bring awareness to threats against the Endangered Species Act. Along with Rob Mrowka, a career scientist from Nevada, I met with our state legislators and their staff to discuss the importance of protecting the ESA and the species it covers. In collaboration with other scientists from across the country, our collective efforts helped raise awareness of riders and amendments meant to weaken important ESA protections, and I am thrilled to say that many of these provisions were rejected by Congress in the end. To me, this victory reinforced how important our voices as scientists and science-supporters are, and how diving into the politics of science to contribute our expertise and opinions can truly have an impact. We should not feel helpless in these challenging times when we have so much power in collaboration.

So, what does the ESA mean to me? It means opportunities for research, and a chance to take lessons learned from one species’ survival story and apply them to other complex conservation problems. It means collaboration, among people that may not otherwise ever share a meeting. It means support, for those species awarded protections they might desperately need to stabilize and grow, ensuring we maintain our biodiversity on this planet. And it means hope, that a small toad only living along a single ten-mile stretch of road, or a bird that performs one of the most beautiful mating displays I’ve ever witnessed, can rise up from the threat of extinction, all because of the collective efforts of a community.

As scientists, please join me in signing this letter telling Congress to protect science and the Endangered Species Act, because our collective voices are louder and can do more than any one of us alone.


Cody Ernst-Brock is currently finishing her M.S. at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science program. Her research centers on analyses of restoration projects implemented across the state, often in sensitive sage-grouse, pygmy rabbit, and mule deer habitat. She hopes to continue her work in conservation and restoration post-graduation, preferably in a capacity that allows her to travel. In her free time she enjoys exploring her home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where you can find her mountain biking, kayaking, and swimming in Lake Tahoe.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Do Local Food Markets Support Profitable Farms and Ranches?

Local produce, sold through direct-to-consumer channels like farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs, is often sold at a price premium. But does that premium impact farmers’ bottom line? Photo: Todd Johnson/ Oklahoma State University.

How many times have you heard that when you shop locally, farmers win? Families shop at farmers markets, school districts procure locally-grown and raised items, and restaurants curate seasonal menus at least in part because they believe they are supporting the economic viability of local producers. But do we have evidence that these local markets actually provide economic benefits to farmers and ranchers?

For the past decade, we have seen growing evidence that household and commercial buyers are willing to pay a premium for local products, and that farmers capture a larger share of the retail dollar through sales at local markets. But until recently, there was little evidence of the impact of these markets on farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom line.

To better understand the potential of local food markets, we evaluated the financial performance of farmers and ranchers selling through local markets compared to those selling through traditional wholesale markets, which may pool undifferentiated grains, animals or produce from hundreds of producers to sell to large food manufacturers or retailers. We use data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), a nationally representative survey providing annual, national-level data on farm and ranch businesses. ARMS targets about 30,000 farms annually, of which about 1,000 report some local food sales.

For this research, we define local markets in two distinct categories: direct to consumer sales (such as farmers’ markets; community supported agriculture, or CSAs; and farm stands) or intermediated sales to local food marketing enterprises that maintain the product’s local identity (such as restaurants, grocery stores, or food hubs).

Local food can spur rural development

The first notable difference between farms and ranches that sell through local food markets and those that do not is that, on average, farms selling through local food markets spend a higher percentage of their total expenditure on labor (8% compared to 5%). Even more interesting is that as local food producers get larger, their share of expenditure on labor increases! (See the green bars in figure 1). This stands in contrast to the ‘efficiency’ story we have long heard in agriculture. Conventional wisdom dictates that as farms scale up, they substitute capital for labor, becoming more efficient and producing more with less. But in the case of local markets, it appears that as the volume of direct and intermediary sales grows, the hours, skills, and expertise needed to manage buyer-responsive supply chains increases, as well. This finding supports the argument that local food can serve as a rural economic development driver; farms selling through local markets require more labor per dollar of sales, thus creating jobs.

Figure 1 Share of Variable Expenses, Local Food Producers, by Scale (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)


Do these additional labor expenditures impact the profitability of local producers? To answer this question, we categorized farms and ranches that sell through local markets by size, or sales class—the smallest reporting less than $75,000 in sales, and the biggest reporting $1,000,000 or more. We then broke down each sales class by performance, using return on assets as our indicator for performance, and organized farms and ranches into quartiles (see Figure 2). This categorization allowed us to zero in on the highest performing producers of every sales class.

Though performance varies widely, we found that of all producers with more than $75,000 in sales, at least half were break-even or profitable. Of every sales class – even the smallest!—farms in the top quartile reported returns over 20 percent—very strong profitability for the agricultural sector, where profit margins are generally slim.

What makes a local farm succeed?

To explore patterns in profitability a little bit further, we can compare how various financial measures vary across those with low vs. high profits. Among the top performing quartile, farms and ranches that sell through intermediated channels only or a combination of direct and intermediated channels performed much better than those using direct markets only. This may signal the importance of intermediated markets, and justify support for intermediated market development through grant programs such as the Local Food Promotion Program. Further, using more in-depth statistical analysis of local and regional producers, we found that farms and ranches selling only through direct-to-consumer markets may be struggling to control their costs, and that strategic management changes to these operations could result in significant improvements in profitability.

Figure 2 Local Food Producers Return on Assets by Sales Class and Market Channel (Quartile 4 is the most profitable) (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

In summary, we see that local food markets provide opportunities for profitable operations at any scale, but that sales through intermediary markets are correlated with higher profitability when compared to producers that use only direct channels.

To learn more about the economics of local food systems (including more about this research), we encourage you to visit localfoodeconomics.com, where we have compiled a number of fact sheets on this topic. We started this community of practice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service and eXtension. The website and listserv serve as a virtual community in which academic, nonprofit and policy professionals can engage in conversations about the economic implications of the many activities that fall under the umbrella of local food. For the broader food system community and consumers, gaining insights on the underlying economic implications of how food markets work may inform their decisions on how they can use their food dollars in ways that impact their community in a positive way. We hope to see you there!

Becca B.R. Jablonski is Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University.

Dawn Thilmany McFadden is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Outreach Coordinator at Colorado State University.

Allie Bauman is Research Assistant in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Colorado State University.

Dave Shideler is Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.

This research is supported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (award number 2014-68006-21871).


Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.