Who Lacks Access to Science, and Why I’m Heading to Houston This Weekend

Last year, a chemical leak from a West Virginia coal plant contaminated the Elk River, a water source for 300,000 people. For several days, residents received incomplete and sometimes contradictory information about whether it was safe to drink, cook with, or bathe in the water. Residents and community leaders were left blind, unable to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their families.

We live in a complicated society, where our health and safety depend on a better understanding of the world in which we live, both in normal times and in times of crisis. Science makes important contributions to that knowledge, and has been used to make better policy decisions to improve our society.

But that doesn’t do much good for people who don’t have access to the science they need.

I have worked in science for all of my adult life, in academia, government, the private sector and in civil society organizations. I like to think that the scientific work I do contributes to understanding of how the world works, whether with regard to the ongoing impacts of climate change or food security for people around the globe. But I also want to have an impact on peoples’ lives and their everyday struggles. Is the refinery in my neighborhood safe or not? Can I get the healthy food I need to thrive? What’s the risk of a fire, drought, flood, or chemical leak where I live, and how can I prepare for it?

To do that, I not only need to “do” science, but I need to listen to people tell me about their realities. And I need to hear not just those in my own community, but also those in communities that are marginalized by race, language or income. All communities need scientific information as they work and struggle for better, safer, healthier lives — but the information people need often isn’t available or accessible.

We have to connect science to the communities who need it most, and make scientific research and outreach more responsive to community needs. That’s a big part of what I do at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and it’s why I’ll be joining scientists and community activists in Houston this Saturday to start a conversation about how we can put science to work in places that have traditionally lacked access. The forum, “Community Connections: Bringing Together Scientists and Local Voices,” is a great opportunity for scientists to learn how they can get more engaged, and community leaders to explore how they can better take advantage of scientific expertise.

Though their methods are different, community activists and scientists have a lot in common. Both ask tough questions, listen carefully, and work to solve problems. They need to be both pragmatic and optimistic. With their skills combined, they can meet challenges that now seem daunting and intractable.

Take a look at Watsonville, California, where scientist Emily Marquez helped train residents who lived near strawberry fields to detect whether potentially cancerous pesticides were drifting into their yards. That information gives parents and community members a powerful tool to advocate for their own interests.

It’s especially important in Houston, a fast-growing and diverse industrial city with many at-risk communities, a strong network of academic scientists, and an economy dependent on oil, gas, and chemical companies. We’ll be looking at the particular challenges Houston has to make sure its homes, workplaces and schools are safe and healthy.

We’ll examine the barriers between communities and scientific information, and what has worked to bridge those gaps. The conversations will kick off efforts to build innovative connections and find new ways to use science in the public interest.

“For too long, the scientific community has held itself apart from many discussions,” Rep. Raul Grijavla says in a video he recorded for the event. “While the independence of science is critically important, that doesn’t mean that independent scientists cannot be engaged with their fellow citizens.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m excited to bring together these two communities in Houston. Want to see what happens? You can watch the live webcast.