Scientist-Community Advocacy: My Journey and My Advice for You

October 30, 2019 | 8:45 am
Jiayu Liang/UCS
Monica E. Unseld
Associate for a data hub in Louisville, KY.

As a grad student, I struggled to find my place. I knew I could transform the world through academia or industry, but I wasn’t convinced those were my only options.

Like many, I was taught that scientists should always maintain objectivity. We should not take a political stance or pick a side. We present the data and step back. I understand that, but I wasn’t convinced that was the only way.

I was first introduced to scientific activism while attending Tulane University’s e.hormone conferences in graduate school. There I heard Dr. Robert Bullard speak on environmental justice. I also heard Dr. Tyrone Hayes speak on atrazine and how he left industry to speak the truth. Dr. Hayes left his job at Syngenta, the company that makes the widely-used pesticide atrazine, to tell the world that the chemical is an endocrine disruptor. This opened my eyes to a new potential use for the knowledge I was acquiring.

Based on the most obvious job options available, I began my career in academia. I was able to teach my students about science policy issues, quietly hoping that they would take up the activist mantle. Then I was invited to join the board of an environmental nonprofit. Then the floodgates opened. It was on. Note: My Dean used to refer to me as a “hell-raiser.” In my own way, I guess I am.

Emotion is a part of this work, and that’s ok

My journey into the unapologetically activist space was a bumpy transition. I had to quickly learn that statistics and p-values were not the be all and end all to community residents. When someone is struggling, when someone is sick, when someone is watching their loved ones die, they understandably want a “yes” or “no” answer and a quick resolution.

People have the right to be emotional. They have a right to be hurt and angry. I often tell new activist scientists that it is best to leave your feelings at home. Let the community speak. They have been holding things in. I’ve been yelled at. I’ve been hurt. I will stand up for myself, but I do not lash out. I give them space for their bodies to process their emotions. They may not get these opportunities often. I’ve heard horror stories of scientists literally turning their backs on emotional community members. Don’t do that. Acknowledge and respect people and their feelings. This creates trust and breaks down barriers. Help to create a safe space. I have even been to community meetings where I just sat and listened. I didn’t present anything. They appreciated the fact that I showed up. Again, this builds trust.

Uncertainty and self-empowerment

I also had to learn how to communicate uncertainty. I had to figure out a way for people living in fear and pain to accept that uncertainty exists in science. This definitely meant no hero cape for me. Many people see science through the lens of Hollywood. Scientists know that things are not always as clear as it was in the film Erin Brockovich. The precautionary principle is one of my most-used tools.

The precautionary principle is used to guide decision making. In simple terms, it advises decision makers to choose precaution in the face of uncertainty. It places the burden of proof of safety on those advocating for any activity that may be harmful. I have often seen it used to argue for stronger environmental regulations. For example, if a chemical facility wants permission to release chemicals into the air, they would have to provide evidence of the chemical’s safety. Until they can produce that evidence, they do not get permission to release the chemical.

I’ve asked residents and decision makers if they are willing to let themselves and their loved ones be guinea pigs. Are they willing to be exposed to chemicals that we don’t know are safe? Scientific training is useful here because we know that we cannot go by just one study, even if the news media made it into a major headline. We know how to question a study. Our honesty can empower others. Do decision makers always use the principle? Of course not, but it is still useful. Helping people understand their own worth and power is also a powerful tool. They have a right to question authorities and their decisions. They have a right to expect to be protected from potential harm.

Communicate by meeting people where they’re at

My third point, and this is important, is to never equate effective scientific communication with “dumbing down” the research. This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve met community members, I’ll call them community investigators, who can teach me some things. Be humble. Residents may already have an understanding of the issues. They may just want some confirmation from us. They may just require further explanation. They may not know any of the technical aspects of the science. It is still not our job to talk down to them. If you were teaching freshmen who were not science majors, you would find a way to communicate with those students. You wouldn’t speak to them the same way you would speak to students highly trained in the sciences. You respect community members for where they are. We have no idea why they didn’t get Master’s or Doctorate in science. It doesn’t matter. They are just as capable as we are. The information is more important than your ego. Data can be a powerful tool.

Use your platform to be a bridge

My last point is about the importance of being a bridge. If you are at meetings with decision makers, notice who is not in the room. If you can’t get them a seat at the table, go into the community, listen to what people have to say and take that information back to the next meeting. One of my favorite things to do when speaking with the community is to help them realize that they do have questions. I may even help them come up with questions to ask their decision makers.

Your degree provides you with privilege. How will you use it?

Monica E. Unseld, Ph.D, MPH  is a research associate for a data hub in Louisville, KY. She received her doctorate in biology in 2008 from the University of Louisville and her Master's in Public Health from Benedictine University in 2018. She is active in the environmental justice movement, locally and nationally. She currently works with grassroots groups, nonprofits, and city government to advance the cause of environmental justice.  She can be found on twitter at @purpleactivism.

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