UCS Blog - Science Network Guest Posts

The Masked Syndrome: HIV, Health Disparities, and the Two-Pronged Approach

“I have to tell you something” he said to my father on the phone. My father could sense immediately the conversation would be pivotal. “Cancer?” my father asked, to which he quietly responded, “Much worse.” He was my mother’s uncle; he was hilarious, hardworking, and passionate. He was also a gay Armenian man, and his sexual orientation was a subject of shame, criticism, and volatility in many cultures like my own. It was 1989, and the public, including my father, knew little about human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. Within days of this phone call, my parents flew to see him. I often think about this moment and my mother’s uncle considering his diagnosis the worst news he could possibly share. I think about the shame he felt and the vulnerability he displayed in sharing his status. This moment of sheer vulnerability and honesty has been shared by over 36 million individuals and their families worldwide.

Disproportionate impacts on already vulnerable communities

Despite significant advancements in the understanding of HIV over the past thirty years, the epidemic disproportionately affects disenfranchised communities. The health disparities are striking, affecting communities of color (Black and Latinx people account for more than sixty percent of cases), sexual minorities, and the intersection of these communities (Black gay males account for about half of cases). A number of crucial risk factors have been identified, including poverty, substance use, low educational attainment, unequal access to health care, and discrimination. These disparities are present not only in the transmission of the disease, but in the diagnosis and treatment as well. Research has shown that compared to non-Hispanic whites, racial/ethnic minorities have a higher likelihood of virologic failure and resistance; being prescribed less efficacious and more toxic treatment regimens; brain and cognitive impairments; poorer quality of life; and early mortality. Additionally, racial/ethnic minorities report experiencing discriminatory health care experiences and overall distrust toward health care providers. The access to quality care in these communities is heavily impacted by a number of social, environmental, and psychological factors.

The two-pronged approach to reducing disparities

The HIV epidemic is unique in that transmission is dependent on both behavioral risk factors and the federal government’s historical role in the silencing and marginalization of minority populations. Though significant public health advancements and advocacy efforts have been made over the course of the epidemic’s history, these benefits have not necessarily been shared equally throughout the U.S. population. In order to better conceptualize and treat this syndrome, a two-pronged approach is needed to better integrate research findings with social justice efforts. First, research will continue to aid in the identification of risk factors and protective factors to prevent further damage. Second, policymakers and organizations must integrate these findings and mobilize in order to combat social injustice and properly communicate this information to all.

Advocating for compassionate, accessible and equitable care

Research has shown that discrimination is a major barrier to care and facilitates the transmission of HIV and disease progression. Currently, explicit protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender identity do not exist at the federal level, which can lead to significant problems in accessing health care. More than a third of LGBTQ+ people of color have been refused treatment and/or feel scared to access health care resources due to fear of discrimination. This results in low accessibility of care and subsequently worse health outcomes. Organizations such as the Prevention Access Campaign work to devise equity initiatives such as U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable), a global community of advocates and researchers working to disseminate the crucial finding that individuals on effective treatment with an undetectable level of HIV in their blood have a negligible risk of transmitting HIV sexually. This may assist in the eradication of the stigma associated with sexual disease transmission and encourages diagnosed individuals to remain adherent to treatment regimens to keep both themselves and their partners healthy. It is crucial to continue to combine research findings with advocacy work in order to bring together professionals from a number of sectors to increase communication, understanding, and prevention of further risky behavior.

HIV can be characterized as a syndrome with two faces. The face of the disease we see corresponds to the physical and cognitive burden associated with the diagnosis of a chronic disease. The second, and arguably more important part of the syndrome is a masked face tucked behind the first, corresponding to the internal turmoil, which includes enduring stigma, shame, and discrimination. Stigma is considered a major predictor of mortality within this population and serves as a barrier to accessing both HIV testing and treatment.

It was this masked face that led my mother’s uncle to respond with “much worse” and it was this face that had kept his life, sexual orientation, and diagnosis a secret from everyone he loved. Resiliency in this community is the pulsing, beating heart allowing them to overcome adversity, despite this diagnostic label. This resiliency has been tested repeatedly, yet this community has continued to laugh, sing, advocate, and share their experiences, shining bright and dispelling the grim social pressures casting a shadow on their lives. The time has come for the American people to enact change; let us collectively stand behind a relentlessly strong community who need not hide behind any mask.

 

Maral Aghvinian is a doctoral student at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY specializing in clinical neuropsychology. Her research interests include the intersection between neurocognitive functioning, health behaviors, cross-cultural issues, and health disparities in highly stigmatized, chronic disorders. Maral’s primary goal is to use a biopsychosociocultural framework to better understand the relationship between the role of stigma and factors that contribute to disparate health outcomes in underrepresented populations. By conducting clinically informed research, she hopes to eradicate the climate of stigma surrounding mental health, especially in marginalized groups.

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 Execs Care More About Dodging Responsibility for Climate Damages Than Preventing More Harm

I had the privilege of attending the ExxonMobil annual shareholders’ meeting on May 29th in Dallas, Texas. As a scientist focused on urban ecology and biodiversity in the context of the sustainability of urban greenspaces in my home state of Texas, I attended the meeting with a question for ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods.

I wanted to know why the company was so far behind in creating a business plan that protects the Gulf Coast, and the entire planet, from the impacts of fossil fuel-driven global warming. What I heard instead was corporate double-talk: ExxonMobil simultaneously claims that it is doing plenty to curb climate change, and also that it is not the company’s responsibility to act. I disagree. Like the majority of Texans, I believe that global warming is harming my community and that fossil fuel companies are responsible for climate damages (such as the devastation wrought by increasingly destructive hurricanes).

Before the meeting even began, I was able to discuss my concerns with ExxonMobil Board member and climate scientist, Dr. Susan Avery. I was curious to speak with Dr. Avery about her personal and scientific position on climate science, and specifically on the aspect of uncertainty, since ExxonMobil’s public statements have misrepresented climate science by downplaying the connections between its global warming emissions and climate change.

Dr. Avery’s comments were representative of what I observed overall for the day regarding ExxonMobil’s official policy positions and talking points: that despite science that causally links climate impacts to emissions from major fossil fuel producers, neither ExxonMobil  nor the petroleum industry as a whole should be singled out for primary culpability as a major enabler of fossil fuel emissions over other segment of polluters.

This sentiment was again enforced in a second informal discussion among several ExxonMobil employees, Union of Concerned Scientists’ Kathy Mulvey, Edward Mason with the Church of England, and me at the pre-meeting coffee hour.

We were gathered at the ExxonMobil Environment kiosk sign discussing ExxonMobil’s role in promoting disinformation on climate science and its avoidance in adopting strategic corporate polices and goals to bring the company’s emissions in line with the global temperature goals of the Paris climate agreement.

What struck me about the replies from ExxonMobil employees was the insistence—again, in sticking to the corporate talking points— that ExxonMobil is being unfairly singled out for negligence and that we need to look beyond ExxonMobil to other polluters for both blame and solutions.

During the formal shareholder meeting, I must admit that I was very surprised when Mr. Woods pointed to me to take my question. I stated that ExxonMobil has failed to take responsibility for its contribution to climate impacts and failed to help prepare and protect Texans and our neighbors along the Gulf Coast from the impacts of its products.

I illustrated the impacts I’ve seen in my own backyard: urban green spaces threatened by changes in temperature and precipitation trends, extreme weather harming plant and wildlife biodiversity, and of course the toll that climate change-charged storms like Hurricane Harvey have had — and will continue to have – on communities living along the coast.

I also stated that the company claims to support the Paris Agreement, but has not taken any serious actions toward achieving its goals. Finally, I asked why ExxonMobil still fails to lead the way globally on protecting our safety and curbing emissions.

Mr. Woods’ response was a litany of the official corporate talking points of the day. Namely, ExxonMobil believes that it can have its cake and eat it too: we can have continued reliance on fossil fuel exploration, production, and consumption while simultaneously reducing environmental impacts, “including the risks of climate change.”

However, in reality, ExxonMobil is committed to a false dual challenge and solution, one that is non-sustainable and unfortunately encourages and promotes continued reliance on fossil fuels and its heavy carbon footprint, while obstructing policies that would bring us towards renewable energy solutions. It might look good on paper, but it is business as usual.

Rick Hammer is an Associate Professor Biology at HSU and Associate Professor of Restoration Ecology at the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in Mancelona Michigan. He holds a Ph.D in botany and ecology from Texas A&M University.

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.

Chevron Evades Questions About its History of Climate Disinformation

On May 29, I joined Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) at the annual Chevron shareholder meeting in San Ramon, California. There, I asked the company’s CEO, Michael Wirth, about

Dr. Benjamin Franta is a PhD Candidate at the Stanford University Department of History and a JD Candidate at Stanford Law School. He has a PhD in Applied Physics from Harvard University and is a former Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Chevron’s past and present promotion of climate disinformation.

Documents continue to be uncovered showing the internal knowledge fossil fuel companies had of the harm their products would do to global climate. Two reports in particular — one from Exxon in 1982 and another from Shell in 1988 — stand out for their detailed predictions of global warming and its consequences.

Chevron Knew About “Globally Catastrophic Effects”

Although ExxonMobil has received the most attention for its early knowledge of climate science (spawning the hashtag #ExxonKnew), the entire petroleum industry knew its products would cause global warming.

In 1959, the physicist Edward Teller warned the industry about global warming in a keynote address. In 1965, the President of the American Petroleum Institute (API) followed with a warning of his own.

By 1968, the API was commissioning scientists to write private reports assessing the problem, and by the end of the 1970s, the trade association had established a committee to monitor climate science. That committee was warned of “globally catastrophic effects” by the middle of the 21st century if fossil fuel production continued to expand. Chevron’s precursor companies were members of the API and had this information.

Industry Disinformation Campaign

Despite knowing that its products had dangerous side effects, the industry didn’t warn the government or the public.

And when, in the late 1980s, governments around the world began proposing policies to avert climate change by reducing fossil fuel use, fossil fuel interests coordinated with each other to form the Global Climate Coalition, which spread disinformation about climate science and blocked climate policies for over a decade.

Chevron’s precursors, including Texaco and Unocal, were members of the Global Climate Coalition, along with industry-wide trade associations such as the API.

Chevron and other fossil fuel producers knew their products would cause the climate change damages we’re now experiencing, such as sea level rise, drought, and flooding. First, these companies failed to warn the public despite studying the problem privately. Then, they actively denied the problem, spread disinformation, and blocked attempts to prevent the damage –- practices Chevron and its peers continue to this day.

Lawsuits Against Chevron and Other Fossil Fuel Companies

That brings us to lawsuits. A variety of cities, states, and private groups — including New York City, Rhode Island, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations — are bringing suits against fossil fuel companies in order to be compensated for climate-related damages resulting from the industry’s products and corporate behavior.

Chevron is a defendant in at least eight of these suits so far, and more are being filed regularly. These lawsuits expose fossil fuel producers — and their shareholders — to significant liability risks.

My question for Michael Wirth, Chevron’s CEO, was simple: How will the company protect shareholders from its own history of disinformation?

His answer was part avoidance and part additional disinformation. Wirth stated, without rationale, that the growing number of lawsuits facing the company won’t help to address global warming (a claim the plaintiffs presumably disagree with). He then went on to tell shareholders that the suits bring “no new science” and “no new evidence” to the table.

Both claims are false. Attribution science — the epidemiology of climate change — is central to these lawsuits and can causally link Chevron’s products to damages from global warming.

Additionally, historical researchers continue to uncover more and more evidence of industry knowledge, denial, and malfeasance. These two prongs — science and history — proved devastating to Big Tobacco in American courts, and Big Oil may be next. That’s likely why fossil fuel producers are now seeking legal immunity from climate lawsuits in exchange for a small carbon tax.

Chevron’s CEO might be misinformed about these lawsuits. Or he might be lying to shareholders. Either way, it’s not a good look for Chevron.

 

Under Our Noses: PFAS Contamination in Southern Colorado

I was born an only child in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1979. My father, who is a retired military officer, moved us from coast-to-coast and across the country until we finally returned home in 1989. By the time I was 20, I had traveled and seen parts of the Western world that continue to enrich my life. However, Colorado has always held me safe, secure, and nestled in the Rocky Mountains as I continued to mature into adulthood. The quiet solitude the outdoors here provided me just as much ecological insight as scuba diving in the Grand Caymans or walking along the coasts of Hawaii. Now I’ve seen the delicate balance of nature in Colorado disrupted by devastating wildfires and operations from fracking plus other continued operations of big oil and gas.  

There were a lot of wake-up calls to the United States in 2018. Following my own personal revelations, I emerged from my own cave of isolation as a single parent to learn just how bad things have gotten. Seeing the corruption of facts and scientific evidence in my own local community I started working to illuminate truth in others and grasped what an uphill battle it is.

In January 2019, my formal training as an activist began. As an advocate for Colorado’s environment, one of the first things that truly disturbed me to the core was the contamination of drinking water—which I thought I was well-informed upon regarding my involvements in attempting to ban fracking last year in Colorado. The data in front of me stated that immediately south of Colorado Springs the worst circumstance imaginable was already over and done with, the PFC levels detected in water supplies makes it unfit for human consumption.

Contamination of the Widefield aquifer

Fountain Creek flows through the heart of downtown Colorado Springs, past the Martin Drake Power Plant fueled by coal, south-southeast to the communities of Fountain, Widefield, Security, and others in Southern Colorado. At least 57,000 residents were drinking water from the Widefield Aquifer, which is a paleochannel of Fountain Creek, in a renewable annual supply of nearly four billion gallons. During 2013-2014, as part of regular EPA testing done under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology collected surface and groundwater samples from various areas of Fountain Creek and Sand Creek.

Solid phase extraction followed by high pressure liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry pinpointed the examination of ten separate PFAS compounds of differing lengths and makeups. The data was compiled using ArcGIS software to indicate concentrations along the paths on surface water. This initial study produced conclusions that showed contamination in every area that was sampled, the contamination exceeded the EPA’s advisory of 70 ppt being as high as 320 ppt, and that one of the local United States Air Force (USAF) bases was likely responsible for the contamination. It’s an Air Force base I know well.

Peterson Air Force Base, like other airstrips and airports and institutions throughout the world, has conducted firefighting training for its airmen using aqueous film forming foams since the 1970s. For decades the foam seeped into the Widefield Aquifer. In addition to that, base leaders admitted to disposing of foam-contaminated wastewater directly into the sewers in Colorado Springs three times a year. A report released by the Air Force clearly downplayed their responsibility for this contamination, but they did admit to it.

While the ultimate source of the Widefield Aquifer’s contamination may never be determined, just as the contamination might ever be fully removed, Air Force officials immediately began discussions with local congressional delegates, county commissioners, city staffers, and representatives of environmental agencies plus regional water districts. The Air Force committed to a five-year plan in providing alternative drinking water and funding installations for water treatment. Still, local and state officials have clearly indicated that even the proposed $4.3 million would not be enough to restore the damage done. To this day residents surrounding the Widefield Aquifer don’t trust that the water that comes from the taps in their homes is safe.

New watchdogs emerge

As of July 2017, the United States Air Force no longer uses AFFFs (aqueous film forming foams) as part of an internal mitigation plan. In April 2018 the USAF announced plans for delivering clean water to the impacted residents outlining the installation of filtration systems and purchasing 235 million gallons of drinkable water. Investigations continue in and around Peterson while local and state environmental scientists establish standards to limit contamination of the aquifer to 70 ppt. Water officials and advocates from the towns of Fountain, Security and Widefield continue their efforts in exposing and preventing further water contamination. Their sights are upriver directly at the Martin Drake Plant where its residual coal combines with surface runoff flowing downhill right into Fountain Creek. Also, in downtown Colorado Springs is Colorado College (CC), whose students and faculty are on the front lines of creating a sustainable future. CC’s chemistry students and faculty collaborators are working on an intensive curriculum of analyzing and eventually predicting contamination from surface water flow. All involved have established direct communication and contacts with different officials of the EPA.

The EPA gathered for a conference in Fountain, CO on February 14, 2019 for discourse on the contamination there and across the country. EPA regional administrator Doug Benevento and senior counsel to the administrator Peter Wright were present. One thing communities have been demanding is an enforceable standard, known as a maximum contaminant level, for drinking water. Benevento and Wright stated that the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to gather this data, but they must go through legal steps in this as well as recommendations for treatment. PFOAs and PFOSs are planned to be first for detection with steps in place by the end of the year and will begin regulating PFASs as dangerous chemicals. Furthermore, the eight examples of contamination, which were given direct orders from the EPA, will provide information and cleanup recommendations for maximum containment levels in drinking water plus establishing timelines for future purification efforts.

If our communities are going to have any semblance of normalcy in recovering from such disaster, then it is the communities who need to be directly involved. This sentiment is mirrored directly by Cornell Long of the Air Force’s Civil Engineer Center, “Thanks to our strong partnership with Fountain, Security and Widefield, these agreements will help us protect those communities as we move forward.” The more we know, the more we can prevent things like this from happening again, even if we can’t undo the damage that has already been done.

 

Ryan Nelson has profound loving respect for the Earth learning from invaluable conservational wisdom and traditions for over 25 years. Ryan grasped the importance of activism as a lead volunteer citizen advocate in his community. Now he works internationally empowering others in their own contributions enacting environmental and social justice. 

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: FEMA

Bury Myers’ NOAA Nomination

Photo: C-SPAN

We became scientists to make discoveries and explore the unknown, not to wonder why science is rife with sexual harassment and discrimination. But that is not how our paths have gone. One of us (Dr. Willenbring) survived severe sexual harassment at a remote field station in Antarctica, which only recently resulted in the firing of the perpetrator. The other (Dr. Freitag) is a NOAA contractor who has watched how handling of sexual harassment cases can make or break a career in science.

We knew from our own experience that sexual harassment in the scientific fields is all too common. And so we were appalled, but not surprised to learn that AccuWeather—led by the President’s pick to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Barry Myers—agreed to pay $290,000 to 35 women as part of a settlement after a federal oversight agency found the company subjected female employees to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. We also were not surprised that AccuWeather denied any knowledge of harassing activity, declined on-site access to investigators, and objected to any expansion of the investigation. And sadly, we were particularly unsurprised at the original 2016 complaint by a former AccuWeather employee alleged that she was, among other things, subjected to a hostile work environment and ultimately terminated due to her sexual orientation.

But despite our hard experience, we were surprised, shocked, and disgusted by the sheer extent of the harassment that occurred while Myers was CEO of AccuWeather, which was detailed in a federal report that became public earlier this month. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) found, “Over two dozen witnesses spanning many different departments and in positions ranging from administrative support to senior management described unlawful sexual harassment that occurred at the company. This sexual harassment was so severe and pervasive, that some female employees resigned.” The investigation confirmed that AccuWeather was indeed aware of the sexual harassment but took no action to correct the unlawful activity.

At the same time that women at AccuWeather were being subjected to this pervasive harassment, so were women scientists, observers and contractors at NOAA. After several came forward to alert Congressional leaders to a system that had failed to protect them, Congress passed legislation to require the agency to develop a comprehensive policy on sexual assault and harassment prevention and response. NOAA complied with that requirement in February 2018.

NOAA’s reforms are working. We have seen them play out in practice and are cautiously optimistic that progress is being achieved. But those steps forward are still incremental enough to be undermined and will only be as strong as the leadership of the agency enforcing them. Myers claimed to be unaware of rampant and pervasive sexual harassment in a company of only about 500 office employees, How are we to have any confidence that he will have the capacity to ensure that an agency with 11,000 employees and contractors, many of whom are at sea and in remote locations, is aggressively enforcing an anti-harassment policy? As we both know all too well, serial harassers thrive in isolate environments where their victims have little recourse.

Myers has already made clear how he views such matters. When asked by the Senate during his confirmation process if “any business where he served as an officer had ever been involved as a party in an administrative proceeding, criminal proceeding, or civil litigation,” he responded that the company has been involved in “routine civil and administrative actions, such as (1) contracts disputes; (2) employee claims for unemployment compensation, EEOC matters, workers compensation, and OFCCP compliance; and (3) other personnel matters.” In other words, he views a settlement of pervasive sexual harassment in his own company, and financial payouts to at least 39 women who were subject to that harassment, as “routine.”

The women and men of NOAA, and of the ocean science community, deserve better than for gross sexual harassment and a hostile workplace to be considered routine. The nation’s premier ocean science agencies cannot and should not be led by anyone who does not understand that. The environmental threats facing our ocean today can only be addressed by the best scientists and subject matter experts in the world – and they should be led by someone committed to protect them. Barry Myers has shown he is not up to the task. We urge the Senate to reject his nomination.

 

Dr. Jane Willenbring is an Associate Professor at the Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and Dr. Amy Freitag is a contract social scientist for NOAA.

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: C-SPAN

Scientists Advocating for Climate Action in Oregon: Why we are stepping up and speaking out

Photo: BLM Oregon

We are two climate scientists, currently teaching about climate change at two universities in Portland, Oregon. We are also two concerned scientists who understand the severe threats that climate change is posing to human well-being, as well as two concerned parents (and one concerned grandfather) who are worried about the future of climate extremes that our children and grandchildren must bear. As members of the UCS Science Network, this year we have used our voices as scientists and experts to speak with Oregon state legislators and advocate for strong climate action in Oregon. Here are our stories.

Sharon Delcambre’s Story: Inspiring (and inspired by) frontline students

I am a climate scientist, teacher, mother, and North Portland resident for the past 6 years.  I am a physical scientist through and through, and worked hard to gain the credentials to call myself a scientist (MS in atmospheric science, PhD researching the impacts of global climate change on weather systems). I am currently a 2-year Visiting Instructor of Environmental Studies at the University of Portland. In my prior position at Portland Community College, I spearheaded development of a “Global Climate Change” course taught online and in-person that reaches hundreds of students each year.

Some of the science I teach is about how climate change is a real threat to our collective ability to live the good life we all desire.  Globally, carbon dioxide concentrations are higher than they have been during the past 800,000 years, primarily due to human emissions.  Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we are witnessing less winter snowpack, leading to water shortages and increased risk of damaging summertime wildfires.  We see impacts to our fish and other marine life from changes in ocean and river temperature and chemistry.  We see the very personality of our region changing, as our abundant waters, forests, and farmlands irreversibly change.

Upon consideration of these depressing statistics, most of my students immediately ask for solutions.  And thus began my own journey of learning about the intersectional nature of climate change.  While solutions such as a decarbonized electrical grid and solar panels for everyone are powerful and worthy aspirational goals, any solution must address those most vulnerable populations in our society.  For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, just like in most regions globally, “frontline” communities are the first to experience harm due to our changing climate.  In the 2018 National Climate Assessment, Pacific Northwest frontline communities are defined as “tribes and indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the economically disadvantaged.”   People in these communities do not have as many resources with which to prepare or respond to climate changes and are thus inherently vulnerable.  In fact, climate change has been said to be a multiplier of injustice, compounding co-existing gender, racial, or economic injustices that exist in our communities.

I tell my students that whether they fight for gender, racial, or climate justice they are helping prevent climate change, and I truly believe this.

I tell my students that whether they fight for gender, racial, or climate justice they are helping prevent climate change, and I truly believe this.   As a white woman with economic and educational privilege, I see my role as more than just a scientist.  If I want to be an ally for those with less privilege, I need to infuse this social justice lens into my classroom, but also step outside of my classroom and work to affect change in our society. And as a mother of a young child, I want to advance solutions that will help to avoid some of the worst climate impacts my child may have to live with.

That is why I am finally stepping up to publicly ask my legislators for action on climate and to serve as a resource on the climate science I know so well.  That is why when Union of Concerned Scientists asked me to sign an expert letter in March, urging the Oregon legislature to take strong climate action in 2019, I did it.  Then, when they asked me to visit Salem to speak with my legislators in April 2019 and again in May 2019, I did it.

The Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Bill addresses climate change at the root cause by capping carbon emissions in the state of Oregon in order to reduce the state’s emissions to 80% below 1990 values by 2050.  But it does not forget about the frontline communities in our state and invests profits in low-income and rural communities, as well as communities of color, affected workers, and Oregon’s tribal communities.

While it was my own frontline students at Portland Community College who first alerted me to this bill in spring 2018, it is the Union of Concerned Scientists who has enabled me to make a difference as a scientist.  They have kept me abreast of updates from Salem and told me what I can do to support the work my legislators are doing.  They educated me on how the political process works and where I can play a role.

Frank Granshaw’s  Motivations for Climate Advocacy: Being a glacial geologist and a grandfather

Frank Granshaw delivers a letter from 71 Oregon scientists calling for strong climate action in 2019 to Logan Gilles, the Chief of staff to Oregon state senator Michael Denbrow, the co-chair of the Oregon Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction.

I’m a retired community college geology instructor now doing climate and sustainability work with Portland State University and several community organizations in Portland Oregon.  I have also done climate advocacy work with the UCS Science Network and have participated in several UN climate conferences as a citizen observer.  Being originally trained as a physicist and a Methodist minister, I eventually went on to become a geologist and geoscience educator. As a researcher my work has been in glacier monitoring, glacier/climate interactions, and the design and use of virtual reality in geoscience education.  During my 40+ years of teaching, much of my work has revolved around helping non-scientists understand, appreciate, and care for earth systems.

During a recent visit to the state capital with UCS, a legislative staffer asked me what brought me to the capital.  I explained that I was there delivering to individual legislators a letter signed by 71 Oregon scientists supporting the Clean Energy Jobs bill (or HB 2020).  She next asked what motivated me to do this.  I answered simply that I’m a glacial geologist and a grandfather.  At which point she simply smiled and said “that definitely explains it.”

In my work as a glacial geologist in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been part of a community monitoring the decline of the region’s numerous alpine glaciers.  Some of the recent work being done by this community indicates that at current rates we may see entire ranges like the Olympics and North Cascades rendered ice-free by the latter half of this century.  While concern about this trend may seem like a nostalgic luxury, there are a host of unsettling issues involving water resource management, forest and stream health, natural hazard mitigation, and rising sea levels that come along with it.

As an elder geoscientist, I am constantly seeking ways to create a better legacy for my grandchildren and their peers.

As a grandfather, I’m aware that what I’m seeing as a glacial geologist is part of a larger package of escalating climate changes that my twelve year old granddaughter and six year old grandson will have to contend with as they become adults.  Like many grandparents, it is hard to look into my grandchildren’s eyes and not feel a sense of sadness about the world they may inherit because of our inaction.  So as an elder geoscientist, I am constantly seeking ways to create a better legacy for my grandchildren and their peers.

For this reason I started visiting the Oregon legislature with the UCS Science Network about two years ago.  It was a very new and somewhat intimidating experience to talk with legislators and their staffers.  Like other science types who have engaged in advocacy, I can find it frustrating that I have to reduce complex issues and concerns to “elevator speeches.”  But at the same time, I’ve learned a lot about the legislative process and how to listen to the spectrum of different and often competing voices.  More than once I’ve been surprised by unexpected instances of genuine support and all the serendipitous windows into being able to “talk across the divide.”

During the past year much of my conversations with Oregon legislators have been about the Clean Energy Jobs bill (HB 2020).  I am a strong supporter of this legislation in large part because of my experience with the UN climate negotiation process.  Although process at the international level has slowed to a crawl, many stakeholders feel a sense of hopefulness about change coming from the subnational level.  I believe that the Oregon Clean Energy Jobs Bill is a critical example of such a movement.

Advocating for more scientists to step up and speak out

Through our advocacy as scientists, we have learned some lessons we hope will help our fellow scientists to step up and speak out for science-based solutions to climate change. On the practical level: wear comfortable shoes! Stepping up for advocacy means you do a lot of walking around the state capital.

Expect surprises and enjoy what those surprises can teach you. Spend some time looking at the photos and other memorabilia on the walls of legislators’ offices. These will tell you a lot about what they value and make for interesting casual conversation that you can connect to your issues and values.

As you speak out, you have to practice and get comfortable with short conversations, sharing your story authentically, and be capable of speaking to legislators’ real concerns quickly and succinctly. As scientists we are comfortable speaking in detail about methods, complexities, and uncertainties. UCS has resources to help you hone in on your message and share your expertise in simple and credible ways. [For example, see the resources in the Science Advocacy Toolkit, like “How to Give a One-Minute Pitch” to your elected official.]

Oregon’s Clean Energy Jobs bill has passed out of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction and is being considered in the Joint Ways and Means Committee. We will continue to raise our voice as scientists and urge Oregon legislators to pass this bill and show the leadership that our country and the world needs to see: that solutions are within our reach if we work together.

We look forward to many more opportunities to create a peaceful, sustainable future by serving as a resource on climate science for UCS, for our communities, and for our legislators.

We encourage you to try it too – if not us, then who will?

 

Sharon Delcambre is an atmospheric scientist currently teaching Fluid Earth systems classes in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Portland and Portland Community College.  She believes in the importance of hands-on learning, field trips, and community-based learning and loves watching students make the connection between the theory and application while in the field. In off hours, she is most often found in her garden, walking her extra-large dog, or exploring local parks with her family and friends.

Frank D. Granshaw PhD, is an adjunct professor of Geology and University Studies and Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. He is retired Geology Faculty at Portland Community College, and active in the National Association for Geoscience Teachers, Geological Society of America, American Geophysical Union, and Northwest Glaciologists. He considers himself a fiercely proud Oregon native, an insufferably proud grandfather, and an occasional beekeeper, gardener, carpenter, hiker, and general wanderer.

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: BLM Oregon

Managing the Work: Reflections on a year of science advocacy from the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellows (Part 2)

Science and Democracy Fellows with trainers and fellows from COMPASS.

This is the second part of our series reflecting on the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellowship. You can read the first part here

Learning to be an effective science advocate isn’t just about developing advocacy skills and learning about science policy. It’s also learning about how you make advocacy a sustainable part of your life’s work. It’s easy to get frustrated, burnt out, and want to give up when change isn’t coming fast enough. Strategies for approaching advocacy in a thoughtful way can lead to more long-term gains and also make it feel less overwhelming.

4. Pace yourself! Time management and self care are important.

5. Remain detached from the outcome. Celebrate little successes.

4. Pace yourself! Time management and self care are important.

Emily – Remember that “the work” is the work of a lifetime – while it may seem as if there is no time to wait, “there will be time, there will be time, there will be time” (to quote T.S. Eliot). Pace yourself! The timeline of the fellowship was not the timeline of the issues at hand, but was a start that led to meaningful and continued engagement, rather than a finite experience.

Tim – Emily brings up a great point that, for me, gets lost sometimes in this age of partisan political turmoil. I would add that focusing on what can be done rather than what could happen and being mindful of the moment allows the opportunity to take advantage of new possibilities that happen unexpectedly.  As an example, I was at a get-out-the-vote event and was able to network with other groups that were also there for a similar event that day. We took opposite sides of the student fairway and engaged more students together than we would have been if it had just been my group.

Adrienne – As Tim highlighted, look to build bridges with those already engaged in community building. No need to reinvent the wheel! Instead, think about how together you can do more.

Lindsay – It was really beneficial for me to have a timeline when planning my events, I am motivated by approaching deadlines. However I had a few very significant life changes last year that led to a shift in prioritization of my commitments. The timelines were essential, but so was extending grace to myself and realizing I’m just getting started, these are tools for a greater shift in engagement, not just tools to complete the Fellowship.

Shri – Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to share your struggles with your cohort. None of us are alone in these struggles.

Trainer Pamela Chang leads a group exercise at the fellows summit.

5. Remain detached from the outcome. Celebrate little successes.

Adrienne: Grassroots community advocacy work is a challenging long-game and successes didn’t always come in the form I expected during my fellowship. Thankfully, in times of frustration my UCS fellows reminded me to detach from the original goal and attach to each little success — a room full of students and community members at a LTE workshop (regardless if we didn’t get anything published), walking a few new voters to polls, or encouraging one more student to regularly call their representatives. I believe there is a gradual ladder of engagement and getting any individual to step up one rung is a success. Even just passively exposing constituents to a dialogue of science advocacy gives me hope that one day others will walk up the ladder towards more active advocacy.

Emily – As Fellows, our goal was to open a door into political engagement and advocacy for others who were new to the work, or for those who were seeking to collaborate. Who can tell where an opened door will lead at the start? Often, unexpected opportunities became available, and we learned to follow where they lead. Personally, I grappled with some opportunities becoming dead ends, but I learned that did not mean THE end of my work or goal. I just had to keep searching.

Lindsay –  Even if your actions don’t yield the results you were hoping for, your involvement is still valuable. Maybe it taught you an essential lesson to carry into your next action or prompted important dialogue within a partnering organization. I worked to increase indigenous attendance at a partner organization’s statewide event. While we didn’t get the attendance we had hoped for, we learned from the process and the partner organization realized its important to their membership that they are intentional about organizing inclusive events.

Shri – Celebrate connections made and recognize that it’s okay to go with the flow. Things become much less overwhelming when in good company.

Tim – I had to keep reminding myself that a healthy democratic process involves many differing opinions from people who must come together with compromise and common ground.  Engaging in a partisan way can make others feel excluded and or minimized.

Advocacy as a life-long pursuit

We started as neophytes who came to understand that advocacy is a continual learning process. While our Fellowship has ended, our advocacy and teamwork has not. In struggling and striving to enact positive change we developed powerful bonds with one another. Mutual appreciation, support, respect, and willingness to lift each other up after inevitable mistakes, let-downs, and self-perceived failures facilitated the formation of vibrant inter-connections. This sense of belonging to a purpose and movement greater than ourselves is priceless. We discovered that our individual experiences were not separate from other Fellows’ experiences, but rather like threads in a tapestry they provide variation in texture and color, supporting and complementing the other strands that make up our fabric.

 

 

Shri A. Verrill grew up in the Western foothills of Maine and holds a M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Maine where she gained expertise in wetland science focusing on coastal salt marsh, estuarine ecology. Shri is currently a Habitat Restoration Project Manager with the Downeast Salmon Federation, and has lobbied both at the State and Federal level with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and with the Downeast Science Watchdogs.  

 

Lindsay Wancour works with Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education non-profit, as their Field Program Coordinator. Originally from Michigan, Lindsay moved to Montana after graduating from Michigan State University and served in Americorps’ Montana Conservation Corps. She then went on to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science from University of Montana, focusing on community engagement in watershed health. After completing her UCS fellowship, she started a UCS Western Montana Local Team and has continued her work in advocacy with her newly formed team.

 

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.

 

Tim Rafalski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He works under Dr. Andreas Stefik conducting empirical studies—designing, running, and implementing programming language experiments—to validate scientific computing design and organization. Outside of the lab, Tim is a math and science tutor for students in elementary school through college, and he helps organize and participate in community elevating educational events.

 

Emily Piontek is seeking her master’s degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She believes that climate solutions and common-pool-resource protections require a combination of political action and the fostering of place-based environmental values in our communities. In her classes and as a research assistant, she studies the relationship between human behavior and natural resources.

 

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.

Fellows workshop ideas in small groups.

Drops, Ripples, Waves: Reflections on a year of science advocacy from the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellows (Part 1)

In response to the increasing political attacks on science, in 2018 the Union of Concerned Scientists launched the Science and Democracy Fellowship to support scientists in becoming local advocacy leaders. We were selected for the inaugural six-month program to mobilize our local communities, in partnership with UCS, in confronting federal attacks on science.

Who are we, and what did we do?

We are five early- and mid-career scientists from Indiana (Adrienne), Maine (Shri), Missouri (Emily), Montana (Lindsay), and Nevada (Tim) who organized actions and events within our respective local communities to stand up for science-based policies at the local and federal level. Some common themes emerged as we reflected on our collective lessons-learned, which we’ll share in a two-part blog series.

  1. Being a constituent gives you the right to engage. Start with one small step; each action you take will empower you to do more.
  2. Develop inclusive relationships.
  3. Be explicit in your ask and prepare to be adaptive to the response.

We continue to integrate these ideas in our advocacy and invite you to listen to our experiences in our own voices below.

1. Being a constituent gives you the right to engage. Start with one small step; each action you take will empower you to do more.

Tim – Advocacy doesn’t have to be complicated or be some huge project. Little efforts, like letters to the editor (LTEs), are small acts of advocacy and achieve small action goals when people don’t have much time or experience.  Having success on these smaller projects builds momentum that can provide better support for larger projects. I found that once my group had done a smaller effort, it was easier to focus on a bigger goal.

Adrienne – I agree, Tim. Leading with small examples makes the bar lower for others to get engaged. For example, if you are trying to get others to call their congresspeople, are you also calling every week? Even better, can you get someone else to make a call with you during your coffee break? LTEs can be short, but should be timely which can be challenging to accomplish as a solo act. Can you get one other person to join you in writing a letter, getting them engaged, splitting the work, and enhancing inclusivity?

Shri – The template for writing LTEs provided by UCS made it so easy! Once I had a local paper in my hand it took about 5 minutes of skimming to find an article I could reply to. Then it was as simple as plugging in sentences according to the template. The biggest barrier during our LTE party was the fact that none of us actually read the paper! We realized that this was an important way to be connected to the local community.  Writing an LTE is a great place to start. If I were to do it over again I would get a bunch of people in the same room with a stack of papers. We could easily go through the whole process of skimming the paper, finding the article and writing the letter in an hour.

Emily – Remember that newspapers are struggling with shrinking budgets! Many editors and  reporters will be happy that you’re offering your own perspective in the form of an op-ed or LTE, and they don’t have to use vital resources to track a story down themselves.

Lindsay – It’s easy to make excuses that prevent you from engaging. It’s just as easy to engage. An LTE is a mere 150 words, we all have 150 words to share on a topic we care about! I put off writing an LTE for months, when I finally did it, it was a breeze. Having community members and representatives reach out to me on social media in response was validating, and made me feel silly for putting off such a simple, effective task for so long.  

  2. Develop inclusive relationships.

Shri: Build inclusive relationships, make connections, use your network. Consider who is at the table, be grateful to those who show up, and make the effort to reach out to the people who are not at the table, whose voices are under represented. When you prepare to take an action, take a step back and identify who is impacted, then make moves to raise their voices. This could mean putting your efforts on hold to support what they already have going on. Be intentionally inclusive and proactive about addressing equality. It’s helpful to make meaningful connections by keeping the ask low pressure, simple and sincere.

Tim – I think of this one as a network circle. A journey around my network circle includes members of science advocacy groups, such as the Nevada watchdogs, the communities who have a specific science supported goal, and the audience or recipient of the action or advocacy goal. I agree with Shri and the other fellows that inclusion is essential to success. This inclusion was a key to identifying important scientific question topics that we submitted to our Senate debate.

Emily – As Tim has said, a “network circle” is a great visual that really speaks to the core importance of advocacy communities. I envisioned a “ripple” when thinking about the network I hoped to build. As in, how far do my advocacy concerns resonate outside my immediate circle? Also, in thinking about diversity equity inclusion (DEI), it’s important to ask, “Who am I not seeing ‘at the table’? Who is missing, and why?” I’m learning not to assume that the people who show up to your actions are the only ones interested. Many others may be constrained by time, resources, or a feeling they don’t belong. But the strongest network circle is going to be the one that captures as many voices as possible.

LindsayDiversity, equity, and inclusion were at the forefront of all of my planning but I struggled to incorporate it in an effective way in my actions. This struggle led me to organize a discussion that was open to the community on the challenges and importance of creating inclusive spaces. My takeaway is that this is not always an easy task, but it is a task worth every ounce of energy. Be willing to learn in public spaces and learn from your neighbors.

3. Be explicit in your ask and prepare to be adaptive to the response.

Tim – In my experience, people have limited time but do want to get involved. That being said the more specific tasks or asks that you present, the greater the chance for involvement or success. I had two contrasting group events and saw a noticeable difference in engagement when I was able to drill down to a single or few items for each person to accomplish in a project rather than an open format that allowed individuals to work out the details of a larger project.

Shri – Use examples to show what a finished piece looks like, i.e., an LTE or letter to one’s representatives.

Emily – After you’ve made a specific ask, as Shri and Tim mention, it might be time to “adapt to the response”. Remember that your advocacy goals versus the goals of the groups or individuals you are working with may differ, but be prepared to lean into that difference. A community member who’s been engaged for longer than you has insider information as well as needs and constraints that are important to heed.

Each of us joined the Fellowship as a single drop, so to speak, but in joining our advocacy efforts with each other, and in engaging with members of our local communities, we made ripples in advancing science and policy advocacy in our respective states. Over time, these advocacy ripples became waves and influenced science and policy at a higher level. Just remember – we started as drops. Now, that little drop could be YOU.

Stay tuned for the second part of our series where we focus on how to make organizing and advocacy a sustainable endeavor–even while juggling work, school, and life.

 

 

Shri A. Verrill grew up in the Western foothills of Maine and holds a M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Maine where she gained expertise in wetland science focusing on coastal salt marsh, estuarine ecology. Shri is currently a Habitat Restoration Project Manager with the Downeast Salmon Federation, and has lobbied both at the State and Federal level with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and with the Downeast Science Watchdogs.  

 

Lindsay Wancour works with Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education non-profit, as their Field Program Coordinator. Originally from Michigan, Lindsay moved to Montana after graduating from Michigan State University and served in Americorps’ Montana Conservation Corps. She then went on to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science from University of Montana, focusing on community engagement in watershed health. After completing her UCS fellowship, she started a UCS Western Montana Local Team and has continued her work in advocacy with her newly formed team.

 

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.

 

Tim Rafalski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He works under Dr. Andreas Stefik conducting empirical studies—designing, running, and implementing programming language experiments—to validate scientific computing design and organization. Outside of the lab, Tim is a math and science tutor for students in elementary school through college, and he helps organize and participate in community elevating educational events.

 

Emily Piontek is seeking her master’s degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She believes that climate solutions and common-pool-resource protections require a combination of political action and the fostering of place-based environmental values in our communities. In her classes and as a research assistant, she studies the relationship between human behavior and natural resources.

 

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.

Science and Transparency: Harms to the Public Interest from Harassing Public Records Requests

Photo: Bishnu Sarangi/Pixabay.

In my work as a professor and researcher in the Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I investigate the basic mechanisms underlying how exposure to toxic metals contribute to cellular effects and disease. My lab explores how exposures to environmental toxins, such as lead, manganese, and arsenic can cause or contribute to the development of diseases in humans. For example, some neurobehavioral and neurodegenerative disorders, such as learning deficits and Parkinsonism have been linked to elevated lead and manganese exposures in children and manganese exposures in adults, respectively.

California condor in flight. Lead poisoning was a significant factor precluding the recovery of wild condors in California.

In my career spanning 25 years, I helped develop and apply a scientific method to identify environmental sources of the toxic metal lead in exposure and lead poisoning cases in children and wildlife. I helped develop laboratory methods for evaluating tissue samples, including a “fingerprinting” technique based on the stable lead isotope ratios found in different sources of lead that enables the matching of lead in blood samples to the source of the lead exposure.

In the early 2000s, I collaborated with graduate students, other research scientists, and several other organizations to investigate the sources of lead poisoning that was killing endangered California condors. Our research showed that a primary source of lead that was poisoning condors came from ingesting lead fragments in animals that had been shot with lead ammunition, and that this lead poisoning was a significant factor precluding the recovery of wild condors in California.

Our work provided important scientific evidence of the harm that lead ammunition causes on non-target wildlife, and it supported the passage of AB 821 in 2007 and AB 711 in 2013, which led to partial and full bans on the use of lead ammunition for hunting in California.

Gun lobby attempts to discredit research

Because of our research, I and other collaborators received five public records requests under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) between December 2010 and  June 2013 from the law firm representing the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation seeking, in summary: all writings, electronic and written correspondence, analytical data, including raw data related to my research on lead in the environment and animals spanning a six year period. The very broad records requests asked for any and all correspondence and materials that contained the word “lead,” “blood,” “isotope,” “Condor,” “ammunition,” or “bullet.”  The request essentially sought everything I had done on lead research for this time period.

One seeming goal of the requestors was to discredit our findings and our reputations, as made apparent on a pro-hunting website that attempted to discredit our peer-reviewed and published findings. We initially responded that we would not release data and correspondence relating to unpublished research, because of our concern that we would lose control of the data and risk having it and our preliminary findings be published by others. As a result, the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation sued us in California Superior Court.  Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the university and researchers by narrowing the scope of the CPRA requests, and limiting the requests to published studies and the underlying data cited.

Impacts and harms from overly broad public records requests

These very broad public records requests have had a significant impact on my ability to fulfill my research and teaching duties as a faculty member at University of California, Santa Cruz. I personally have spent nearly 200 hours searching documents and electronic files for responsive materials; meeting with university counsel and staff; preparing and sitting for depositions, court hearings, and giving testimony. Our efforts to provide responsive materials are ongoing.

Overly broad public records requests deprive the public of the benefits that such research can bring, such as helping wildlife and endangered species (such as the California Condor) survive and thrive by removing sources of environmental lead contamination.

While these requests have had a personal and professional impact on me as an individual, they have caused broader harms to the university’s mission of teaching and production of innovative research that benefits students, California residents, and the public at large. Impacts include:

  • Interfering with my ability to pursue research funding, conduct research, analyze data, and publish my research because of the time required to search and provide responsive materials that takes away from time invested in other duties.
  • Squelching scientific inquiry, and research communications and collaborations with colleagues or potential colleagues at other research institutions.

By chilling research and discouraging graduate students and collaborators from pursuing investigations into topics that could put them at odds with powerful interests, these types of expansive records requests deprive the public of the benefits that such research can bring, such as helping wildlife and endangered species survive and thrive by removing sources of environmental lead contamination.

Why I support modernizing the California Public Records Act

I chose to testify in front of the California Assembly Committee on the Judiciary in support of AB 700 and the effort to modernize the California Public Records Act to protect the freedom to research and to help  streamline the ability of California public universities to process and manage public records requests. This bill establishes very narrow exceptions for researchers to protect unpublished data and some peer correspondence, which would help prevent task diversion, reputational damage, and encourage inquiry and knowledge production at public universities across the state. AB 700 would also reduce the serious burden from expansive and overly-broad records requests on researchers and on the courts and the long backlog of records requests. I think this bill strikes the right balance between public transparency and privacy for research. Ultimately, the public will be better served if the state provides more clarity about what information should be disclosable under the California Public Records Act.

 

Donald Smith is Professor of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He received his PhD in 1991 and he joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1996. He has over 20 years experience and published over 100 peer-reviewed articles in environmental health research, with an emphasis on exposures and neurotoxicology of environmental agents, including the introduction, transport and fate of metals and natural toxins in the environment, exposure pathways to susceptible populations, and the neuromolecular mechanisms underlying neurotoxicity.

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: Gavin Emmons Photo: Donald Smith

6 Ways to Make Your Science Advocacy Effective at the State and Local Levels

Photo: Gage Skidmore

I’m a huge believer in the idea that to make a difference, you should start where you’re already at. For me, that’s a graduate student studying bioengineering in Arizona. Many of us start graduate school with grand plans that inevitably are cut to size by our advisor. It takes time to learn the tools to make an impact, so we start small by learning to be the best scientists and community members we can be in our own labs. Ultimately these small steps help us to leave graduate school with the skills and confidence to make that big impact we wanted to when we first started.

Similarly, the goal of affecting political change can feel amorphous and far away when you’re just getting started. Washington D.C. is a long way from the lab for many of us and the distance can sometimes feel too far to bridge. However, much of the policy that affects our day-to-day lives is made on the state and local level. In my state, this includes everything from tax rates on gasoline to water usage to renter’s rights. My health, finances, and housing are directly affected by decisions made fifteen minutes down the road from me at our state capitol in Phoenix.

With this in mind, myself and other concerned graduate students got together to organize the first ever Science Day at the Arizona state legislature this past February. Our initial goals were pretty simple. We wanted to introduce ourselves to our legislators so they could learn about our science, and to introduce young scientists to the legislative process. We spent the day mingling with legislators, presenting our work on water issues, brainstorming new advocacy ideas, and observing law-making in action.

We learned a few key things along the way that may help your advocacy as well!

  1. Don’t go it alone: Several of us had been to the capitol before as individuals to comment on bills or speak with our legislators. I for one, sat through many frustrating hearings without back-up or moral support. Having a group of peers to help with organizing and refine the direction of our advocacy is an invaluable resource. Team up!
  2. Have an ally (or allies!) on the inside: Prior to Science Day, we built relationships with several sympathetic representatives. Their staffers were instrumental in helping us navigate everything at the capitol from room reservations to political dynamics. Build relationships and maintain them to work effectively at your state legislature. More often than not, representatives are happy to engage with you. Which brings me to our next tip…
  3. Make calls: In D.C., people’s phones are constantly ringing. In state capitols, much less so. Your calls have much more influence here. Trying to schedule something? Pick up the phone rather than sending an email. Staffers are an amazing resource and you can often get issues resolved quite quickly if you speak with them directly. Likewise, if you want to make yourself heard on an issue, keeping a representative’s staffer tied up on the phone is an effective way to make a statement. Fielding 50 calls from concerned local scientists takes up time that a staffer would otherwise be using to plan a representative’s schedule, bring them lunch, or make their day run more smoothly in a myriad of ways. Your lawmakers will notice you!
  4. Plan diligently but be flexible: While we scheduled our room for Science Day months in advance, the majority party decided to use it for caucusing the day before our event. We scrambled to find another space last minute and had to make some changes to the agenda, but ultimately the day went fantastically. Plan as best you can, but be prepared for some hiccups. Use those allies of yours to navigate them!
  5. Speak their language: Before we went to the capitol, we held several happy hours with local legislators and a fellow graduate student working in communications to help prepare us for speaking with our lawmakers. It’s a good idea to do some preparation beforehand on non-confrontational communication. Focus on building relationships and telling your story first, instead of starting with a demand. This will make the legislator you’re speaking with more receptive to the message you ultimately leave with them.
  6. Have a continuation plan: Put plans in place to sustain your advocacy like debriefing after events to discuss what worked and what didn’t, keeping in touch with staffers on a regular basis, and making sure that when a key player graduates or moves, someone else in the group can pick up the torch where they left off.

We hope that this Science Day will be an annual event that becomes part of our larger goals that have emerged from productive time with our lawmakers. Ultimately, we are working to establish a group of scientists as a “go-to” resource for science advising at the Arizona legislature. Just a few weeks after Science Day, a representative we spoke with decided to found a Science Caucus at the capitol to help represent scientific formally in our lawmaking. We’re excited to use the caucus as a stepping stone to the formation of a formal office for science advising at the state capitol. Secondly, we hope to continue empowering young scientists to make change in our state and beyond by giving them the confidence that comes from directly learning the structure, culture, and language of politics. Plans are in the works to provide regular speaking opportunities at the capitol for trainees in STEM.

Cassandra Barrett is a science policy activist and co-founder of the Arizona Science Policy Network. Her background is in CRISPR and epigenetic therapeutics development, and science communication in unconventional spaces. Her personal mission is to help ethically shape the regulation and implementation of genetic medicines by centering patient needs and justice practices. Cassandra obtained her PhD in Biological Design from the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. Find her on Twitter @cas9bar.

 

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: Gage Skidmore

The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics Continues to Weaken

This letter was originally posted by our partners at the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN). PR-SPAN is a new initiative of Ciencia Puerto Rico that seeks to activate the Puerto Rican scientific community, wherever it may be, to inform the development and implementation of federal, state and local policies based on scientific basis. PR-SPAN and Ciencia Puerto Rico have been diligently following the important issue of the integrity of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics for many months now. As partners in support of science-based advocacy and policy making, the UCS Science Network is sharing their call for signatures to raise support for the independence and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

 

Dear members of the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico,

We want to draw your attention and invite you to take action on an urgent public policy issue: the continued weakening of the governance of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS). We invite you to sign and share the petition below.

Sign the petition

Are you signing on behalf of a professional organization or scientific society? Click here.

—The Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)

————

We demand strong governance for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics

During the past two years, the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) has faced a series of threats that have undermined its autonomy, credibility, and reputation. From 2017 to date, the administration of the Hon. Dr. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has illegally removed members from the Board of Directors, tried to dismantle the Institute and outsource its functions, and made appointments to the Board that have been questioned by the international scientific community. In January 2019, there were allegations about the politicization of the Board of Directors and their ability to act independently and free of partisan influences. As of February 10, 2019 the role of executive director of the Institute has been vacant, after the resignation of Dr. Mario Marazzi Santiago, who had served in this role since 2007.

These events not only cast doubt on the future of the Institute of Statistics, but also create serious concerns about the capacity of the Puerto Rican government and society to make decisions and create public policies informed by scientific evidence and by statistics that are timely, reliable, and of high-quality.

Therefore, we ask the Government of Puerto Rico and the Board of Directors of the Institute of Statistics to take the following actions to strengthen the governance, independence and autonomy of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics:

  • Maintain the powers and faculties of the Executive Director to protect the independence of PRIS: Any future amendments made to the organic law of the Institute should seek to strengthen the governance and independence of the agency, but without weakening the powers and faculties of the Executive Director, and without granting more power to the Board of Directors or the Governor.
  • Dissociate the Governor and Puerto Rico Senate from the process of nominating and confirming members to the PRIS Board of Directors: Currently, the members of the PRIS Board of Directors are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Puerto Rico Senate. To avoid the possibility of partisan influence, we ask that the nomination and confirmation process to the Board of Directors of the Statistics Institute be dissociated from the government in turn (similar to the nomination process for the Board of Trustees of the Puerto Rico Science Trust).
  • Strengthen the PRIS Board as an independent, objective body of experts: We ask that candidates to the PRIS Board of Directors (1) are nominated by scientific associations or professional and industrial groups that represent the relevant fields of specialization; (2) are experts with integrity, personal and professional objectivity, demonstrated expertise, and advanced academic preparation (a master’s or doctoral degree) in the use of statistics, economics or planning; (3) do not have direct connections to the current or previous government administrations (i.e. not having held elective public office during at least five (5) years prior to their appointment; not having participated, collaborated or made political or financial contributions to political candidates or campaigns, as suggested in Article 2 of P. de la C. 4409 from May 12, 2008 [Word document], presented by the Representative and now Resident Commissioner Hon. Jennifer González-Colón).
  • The search and appointment of the next Executive Director is done transparently and in consultation with the Puerto Rican and international scientific community: The scientific community has demonstrated time and again its commitment to the autonomy of the PRIS and government transparency in Puerto Rico. Therefore, the members of PR-SPAN and UCS, and members of the Puerto Rican and international scientific community are willing to actively participate in the nomination, search and selection process for the next Executive Director of the PRIS. It is of the utmost importance that the Executive Director has the relevant expertise, and is committed to the independence and autonomy of the Institute, and to keeping it free from partisan influences.

We urge the scientific community and friends of Puerto Rico to join this petition and continue advocating for the autonomy, independence, reputation and credibility of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics.

Sign the petition

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Carlos M. De León-Rodríguez is a PR-SPAN ambassador, was also part of the inaugural class of the Scientist Sentinels: Civic Engagement & Leadership Program. He is an advocate for evidence-based policy making.

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.