Charles Menzie, SETAC Global Executive Director, and Ross Smith, SETAC President
SETAC is intentionally a tripartite (academia, government and business) professional society of scientists and engineers. We make no apology for that as it is essential for advancing scientific discourse directed toward solutions of complex environmental problems that involve all of these individuals and associated interests. The tripartite nature is a founding principle of the society and underpins our slogan “Environmental Quality Through Science®.” However, sometimes we find ourselves disparaged by individuals or groups for collaborating with scientists from particular backgrounds, especially from the business community. When this happens, SETAC examines the claim, investigates the merits and implications of it, and responds to the claimant and to the membership. We have investigated allegations of plagiarism, research reproducibility and ethical violations, and we are discussing ways to communicate the findings so that our efforts are transparent.
This self-examination is critical for insuring integrity in our science communications via all mechanisms, from journal articles to outputs from our various workshops. Our response back to an individual or group is important as it serves to educate and sometimes highlight an unrecognized bias. We address all raised concerns, but we do challenge individuals and groups who presume that our collaborative tripartite efforts cannot be trusted because they are open to tripartite perspectives and funding from each of the sectors.
While most commonly raised issues are legitimate scientific or policy matters, we have found that some are politically motivated efforts to tear down science and scientists, promote a particular viewpoint or reflect bias of the claimant. Our view is that open scientific debate and discourse are healthy and should be encouraged. For that interaction, scientific integrity is paramount. In this article, we share SETAC’s fundamental premise that a diversity of perspectives benefits the discourse necessary for applying scientific information to health and environmental problem solving. We begin by acknowledging that bias is pervasive and crosses the political advocacy spectrum. We can’t escape it, but we can acknowledge and manage it.
It is common for activists of all persuasions to paint particular companies or government departments as failing to act in a responsible manner in order to influence social pressure for what den Hond & de Bakker (2007)1 call field-level change. This can occur even where the organization being targeted is actually a change leader, with the logic being that if it can be proven that a leader is failing to reach acceptable standards, more pressure will be applied to poorly performing organizations (see example of Nike in den Hond & de Bakker ). This tactic is often taken further to attack individuals within the organization and discredit their motives or, if they are technical leaders in the field, their credibility. This tactic does not seek to encourage rational debate, it seeks to promote only one viewpoint that is accepted by the in-group as being the only reality.
One result of this strategy is that in the cauldron of advocacy bias, leading scientists working within the targeted organizations will be dismissed or beaten back to prevent them from contributing their knowledge and skills to the discussion, irrespective of their actual views or publication record on the matter. Political advocacy pushes the discourse toward simple stories that benefit the advocates. This is achieved, in part, by narrowing the input of people and information to what aligns with a desired outcome, i.e., selection bias. The funnel constructed by these groups is narrow and exclusive. It is an “end justifies the means” track.
In writing about scientific integrity, we must acknowledge that individuals cannot completely escape bias regardless of their scientific lineage or source of research or project funding. This encompasses scientists from government, academia, business, including industry, professional services and non-governmental organizations. The membership within SETAC is no exception, and as an organization, we have always striven to identify, recognize, acknowledge and address bias. Our focus on distilling the essence of the matter and striving to ensure scientific integrity is an extension of our founding principles, and our tripartite structure, and we feel these are useful to highlight at this time when political rancor and advocacy seek to push science in one direction or another or simply out of the policy-making process altogether.
Bias ferments best when like-minded people reinforce each other. Advocacy strives to limit dissenting voices, to promote the favored viewpoint. But science is not about that. Science progresses best by rigorous debate and by welcoming disparate and dissenting viewpoints, then exposing those views, or hypotheses, to evidence-based scrutiny. It is that welcoming of dissent and counter-evidence that differentiates science from most other human endeavors. Nevertheless, in scientific discourse, as in most other areas of discussion, distilling the essence of the matter is a lumpy and dynamic process. As the distillation progresses, the reactive vessel sputters with new information and can bubble loudly with disparate voices. Entrenched positions that may have served those that hold them extremely well over the course of their careers can resist the change for a time but will not prevent it from being distilled from the dialogue. Because people from different backgrounds will bring different points of view on the information to the discussion, or have various degrees of understanding, reluctance and pushbacks are to be expected. However, bringing together a variety of perspectives will result in deeper analysis than could ever be achieved by a single view point. The operative word is discussion and how to foster this among scientists to capture the diversity of available scientific input – that full range of viewpoints and evidence.
One of SETAC’s founding principles is that our governance, scientific workshops and outreach are all carried out within a tripartite framework. This is expanded whenever possible to include scientists from non-government organizations, not for profits and non-profits. Therefore, the funnel to the discussions within SETAC is kept wide to allow for the needed essential ingredients for the scientific distillation process involving shared knowledge, debate, peer review, critique, shared understandings (not necessarily requiring consensus) and communication.
The founders of SETAC envisioned a professional society that brings together diverse perspectives and scientists as a way of illuminating and advancing issues within a constructive forum. The resulting personal and professional connections within SETAC workshops and meetings have often led to solutions that were not readily obtained when scientists only worked with like-minded peers or only engaged confrontationally with opposing points of view. This is why we champion the notion of a wide funnel for bringing together a diversity of scientists as compared to the narrow funnel – the natural preference of those advocating a particular position.
The manner in which SETAC approaches our programming provides an example of how we seek to bring in diverse thought and ensure integrity. All SETAC-sponsored programs are multidisciplinary and multi-sectorial. To help ensure scientific integrity, we disclose all financial and in-kind contributions and vet programs for conflicts of interest. Because of these characteristics, SETAC’s premier global programs – the SETAC Pellston Workshops® – have served to inform regulatory science and policy around the globe. Pellston Workshops are intentionally planned so that participants and sponsors represent all sectors within SETAC and reflect diversity in geographic origin, gender and career level. Moreover, workshop participants must possess technical expertise and the ability to set aside parent affiliation agendas. Workshop results are reviewed internally within the tripartite structure of SETAC. Only then are they subject to further peer-review for publication in SETAC journals or other publication formats. The credibility of the outputs of these workshops is only strengthened by the fact that they develop consensus on the issue among science leaders from cross-sectorial backgrounds.
We recognize that vigilance is necessary to continue to ensure the integrity of science published in SETAC journals and presented through our workshops. When claims have been brought to us about the reliability of laboratories or behavior of individuals, we have investigated such claims to ensure that scientific integrity has not been compromised. We are keenly aware of the need to protect the integrity of our journals. We have approved a move to a double-blind peer review system for our journals, and we are considering enhanced means for presenting complete results including negative results. Ensuring the integrity of science also means contributing to the development of the next generation of scientists, which is why students and young scientists are a priority for us.
SETAC embraces and indeed is founded on the lumpy process of scientific discussion inclusive of disparate viewpoints. We believe it only enhances the balance and rigor of our aim to improve Environmental Quality Through Science. Far from rejecting the input of groups that others class as biased because they have opposing views, we welcome the diversity of views we bring to all our activities. Only with that inclusiveness can we be sure that the outputs from SETAC are truly evidence-based and unbiased.
We welcome your feedback. We should all be passionate about our work and points of view. SETAC provides a forum for those diverse voices to be heard. More importantly, it serves as a unique global venue for moving the distillation of ideas and perspectives forward towards productive solutions. The decision of our founders to make us a society based on a diversity of backgrounds through our tripartite structure is our greatest strength, and we hold it dearly.
1den Hond F. & de Bakker F.G.A. (2007) Ideologically motivated activism: How activist groups influence corporate social change activities. Academy of Management Review, 32, 901–924.