Kenneth Dryden of the Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice and a former Southbridge resident leads a tour of toxic facilities to teach scientists and community members about the dangers of local air pollution. Gretchen Goldman/UCS

Ask a Scientist: Science in Service to Community Health

, senior writer | November 12, 2019, 10:10 am EST
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This post is a part of a series on Ask a Scientist

When I hear President Trump say that he loves America, I can’t help but think of that line cartoonist Charles Schulz wrote for his Peanuts character Linus: “I love mankind … it’s people that I can’t stand!” That is to say, Trump may profess love for our country, but his administration’s actions demonstrate a profound disregard for the health of the people who live here. Rolling back longstanding public health and environmental safeguards—or just refusing to enforce them—only serves to sicken and shorten the lives of all Americans, but particularly residents of neighborhoods hemmed in by superhighways and industrial facilities

A new UCS report, Abandoned Science, Broken Promises, documents the damage the Trump administration is doing to disenfranchised communities. I recently sat down with Anita Desikan, the report’s lead author, to talk about her team’s findings and how scientists can best help these communities protect themselves. A research analyst with the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, Desikan worked at the Scripps Research Institute and King’s College London before joining our staff. She has master’s degrees in public health and biomedical science.

EN: According to your new report, low-income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous communities are disproportionately harmed by the Trump administration’s failure to enforce environmental protections. What can scientists do to help them fight back?

Anita Desikan is a research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she investigates the role of science in public policy, focusing on topics like scientific integrity at federal agencies, and political interference in the scientific rulemaking process.

AD: Communities are fighting against longstanding injustices and science is proving to be a powerful tool. For example, scientific research can provide evidence of the threat posed by toxic air and water emissions, corroborating community concerns about the impact of pollution. Communities can then use this evidence to lobby lawmakers to enact policies that protect them from pollution. Scientists also can suggest potential solutions that, in conjunction with community viewpoints and expertise, increase the chance that public officials will enact policies that are equitable and evidence-based.

Scientists have an extraordinary opportunity to partner with community groups and apply their work to promoting equity and justice. This is an incredibly important function, because grassroots organizations may lack the expertise or capacity to conduct their own scientific research. For example, working in partnership with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections, and Coming Clean, UCS published Environmental Justice for Delaware: Mitigating Toxic Pollution in New Castle County Communities, which found that the health risks of pollution were higher in underserved communities than in affluent ones. One city included in the analysis, Wilmington, recently passed a resolution urging the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to consider the cumulative impact of pollution before siting new facilities, especially near disenfranchised communities. An October article by Delaware Public Media cited the report’s findings as a reason why the resolution was necessary.

EN: Could you explain in a bit more detail how scientists can promote equity and justice?

AD: The first and most important quality scientists need when incorporating equity into their work is to have an open mind. Science is a human endeavor that reflects prevailing social biases and power structures at any given moment in history that can sometimes lead scientists to exploit or exclude underserved groups in their pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, it is critical for scientists to acknowledge that implicit biases exist and that it will take work and active listening before they can make their work more equitable and community-focused.

Scientists also can help communities by coordinating with community members and relying more on their expertise. Community groups have a wealth of knowledge about their hometowns and environment, so when scientists decide to investigate environmental hazards in an impacted community, soliciting feedback from community members at an early stage can strengthen their study design. Furthermore, community groups are often hungry for information, so scientists who are willing to work directly with communities and show community members how to decipher public health and environmental data would directly aid their efforts to obtain environmental justice.

EN: Can you give us some examples of where communities have pushed back?

EN: Finally, what can UCS members and supporters do to protect themselves and help underserved communities protect themselves as well?

AD: Science-based decisions help everyone, but they are especially helpful in addressing public health and safety inequities. Public officials at the local, state and federal level have the power to enact science-based policies that halt and repair the damage marginalized communities have suffered. It’s up to all of us to let elected officials know that we care about the health and safety of impacted communities. We need to call on our representatives to establish policies based on environmental justice principles that are informed by community participation. By doing so, we can support community efforts to reverse years of neglect.

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