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Beyond Barcelona—Making Our Science More Valued

Peter Calow (Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota)

It was a pleasure and privilege to be invited to make the opening keynote address at the SETAC Europe 25th Annual Meeting in May 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. It was also somewhat sobering to realize that I had been involved with the society for more than a quarter of a century. I became the second president of SETAC Europe at the inaugural SETAC Europe conference in April 1991 at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, after the society had been operating for a year under the visionary guidance of the first president, the late Nick de Oude.

The keynote in Barcelona was largely about the past and has been documented by others; so I wanted to take this opportunity to make some comments on how I see the future of the society and its science.

A developing theme over the past 25 years has been a shift from concerns about the reliability and repeatability of the work we do so that it can be used in a legal context to an increasing preoccupation with the somewhat elusive concept of its relevance for ecological protection goals. Reliable science makes no sense if it is failing to provide a basis for protecting what it is about – ecosystems that we value.

From Sheffield to Barcelona, annual meetings in Europe have grappled with these issues without nailing the elusive concept of relevance. And this is not surprising, given the science we do is intended to address the causal connections between exposures and effects, not the aspirations embodied in protection goals. Ecology provides an understanding of the relationships between structure and process in ecosystems, but the connection between these processes and valued ecosystem services is meant to provide priorities for protection, based on how the services are valued.

Increasingly, there is recognition that risk management is a place where risk assessment confronts values. SETAC has focused on the science of risk assessment and now, for the sake of relevance, should recognize the important influence of the societal processes that shape values and priorities. If it is to be useful for informing environmental policy, the science that we do will need to relate to these. Making the science more value- and hence policy-relevant will mean crossing disciplinary divides and forging collaborations with the social sciences including economics. We have made a start with sessions appearing on risk communication in the SETAC annual meetings and a Pellston Workshop on ecosystem services (jointly organized with the Ecological Society of America, October 2014) that involved a mix of risk assessors and social scientists. But for the sake of being more useful for public policy, these cross-disciplinary ventures should become deeper and more routine. This is surely the way that our science will make even more of a contribution to developing effective environmental policy over the next quarter of a century and beyond.

Authors contact information: pcalow@umn.edu

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