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Webinar Recap: Environmental advocacy

By Megan Schmit


MD-PhD Candidate


Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics

Medical Scientist Training Program

University of Minnesota

Earlier this summer we had the opportunity to hear from Andrea Lovoll, legislative director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA). The MCEA fights for the environment both in court and on the Capitol. As legislative director, Ms. Lovoll tracks policies moving through government that can have impact on environmental issues. She notes if there is legislation that can jeopardize wins environmental advocates have made in the court room as well has works with legislators to create better laws to protect the environment. Our webinar covered a host of issues, a few are highlighted below.


Ms. Lovoll first laid some groundwork. Minneapolis has two “green zones” or areas with substantial environmental pollution tied to racial and/or economic disparities and causing negative health outcomes. In addition to higher pollution than other regions in the twin cities, areas like these green zones are also more vulnerable to climate change. She noted that while many people working in

environmental advocacy such as herself, have long recognized the disproportionate impact pollution has on BIPOC and lower socioeconomic communities, environmental justice is a newer concept utilized in court and legislation. With greater recognition of the discrepancies in these areas, the links to racialized policies, and the resulting negative health effects, advocacy groups can utilize Title 6 anti-discrimination laws to fight for change. While fighting for environmental justice however you can encounter push back from members of the very community impacted by pollution due to job loss. Ms. Lovoll said this is always and will continue to be a place of tension when trying to hold those companies/individuals accountable for polluting the planet.


One major hurtle for environmental advocacy groups is successfully engaging communities in the greatest need. As discussed above, those communities most impacted by pollution and climate change tend to have more poverty and other stressors on daily life. Understandably, this can mean fewer people from the neighborhood have the time or resources to engage with government or advocacy organizations. Ms. Lovoll stressed the importance of working with community members to advance their own desires for their neighborhood rather than imposing ideas. To do this successfully it is important to be mindful of the barriers community members may face to engagement and that organizations should be flexible and reduce the labor individuals need to give to participate. When asked how we as scientists can best engage with policy makers particularly in fields of our expertise, Ms. Lovoll began with the obvious, but useful “contact your legislators”. She noted as constituents our “voice is 10xs more valuable than a lobbyist”. However, once you are done going here (https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials) to contact your legislature she also recommended reaching out to an advocacy group that deals in your field of expertise and offering to discuss your work with them

(here is a list of some Minnesota environmental organizations https://www.mepartnership.org/about/minnesotas-environmental-community/).


Some of the most poignant advice Ms. Lovoll gave was on the issue of not giving up when it feels like you’ve already lost. She encouraged us to feel both the wins and the losses, holing them together at the same time. We should utilize the rage from our losses to spark the fire we need to take on all the work to be done and hold onto the hope from wins to continue powering us long term. Importantly, when you absorb those losses, you need to keep in mind that even when you feel like you might have lost a step, it is never over. There are other wins to be made.

Webinar Recap: Sustainability in Research settings

By Elea Hansen, MS


PhD student in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Minnesota


Instagram @eleahansen

As the threat of climate change looms ever-larger, we are all looking for ways to do our part to avoid catastrophe. For researchers, the problem is unique: equipment consumes massive amounts of energy, plastic and glass waste abound, and use of hazardous substances is frequent. How might we make research more sustainable? Can we? The Twin Cities Science Policy Network invited Dr. Samy Ponnusamy, an expert in green chemistry with Millipore-Sigma, and Dr. Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar, University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) Green Labs Program manager and board member for the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), to discuss methods for improving sustainability in research laboratories.


Dr. Ponnusamy first introduced us to DOZN™ 2.0: A Quantitative Green Chemistry Evaluator. This tool was developed by Millipore-Sigma as a part of their Greener Alternatives initiative. The tool considers the 12 principles of green chemistry to evaluate the “greenness” of chemicals and chemical processes. Scores ranging from 0 to 100 are given with regard to three categories produced from the 12 principles: improved resource use, increased energy efficiency, and reduced human and environmental hazards. The closer a chemical or process score is to 0, the “greener” it is. Using tools like DOZN™, researchers may be able to identify sustainability issues in their work and utilize more eco-friendly products and processes.


While Dr. Ponnusamy provided a tool for evaluating chemicals and processes, Dr. Ramirez-Aguilar presented methods for improving the sustainability of laboratory facilities. She first pointed out the massive resource use by research laboratories: at CU Boulder, using 2017 data,, major laboratory research buildings occupied just ~22% of the campus building space while being responsible for a disproportionate ~43% of campus building energy use. This trend is likely to hold across many research-driven universities, such as the University of Minnesota Twin-Cities. Additionally, as much as 50% of energy used by laboratories may be wasted due to “inefficient and poorly operating fume hoods and ventilation systems” according to the I2SL Smart Labs Toolkit created in partnership between the US Department of Energy and I2SL.


To improve sustainability in lab spaces, Dr. Ramirez-Aguilar described solutions that she and others have implemented at CU Boulder. Aside from recycling of lab materials, labs at CU Boulder have also been encouraged to reduce water waste by recirculating water in experiments whenever possible. Financial incentives have been provided for labs looking to invest in energy efficient equipment, and labs are challenged to increase freezer temperatures from -80℃ to -70℃. And, of course, everyone is encouraged to shut the sash on chemical hoods for safety and to decrease the variable air volume fume hood energy consumption when not in active use. Larger initiatives include developing communal laboratory spaces, where shared equipment can decrease costs per-lab, use less space, and consume less energy. Many labs do not use all of the equipment they have invested in full-time. Sharing of equipment can ensure that this equipment is available for anyone without redundancy and underuse in individual labs. Finally, Dr. Ramirez-Aguilar noted that a key method for increasing sustainability efforts is requiring a consideration of sustainable methods in any applications for research funding. To find out more, visit the CU Green Labs Program webpage and the I2SL Bringing Efficiency to Research Grants webpage.


We all need to do our part to tackle the threat of climate change before it becomes too great. Research sometimes feels wasteful (think about how many plastic tubes you go through in a day!) causing feelings of guilt and helplessness. However, as we learned from Dr. Ponnusamy and Dr. Ramirez-Aguilar, we are not helpless. You can find ways to minimize your own impact, encourage others to do the same, and ultimately make scientific research more sustainable in the long run. Don’t forget to shut the sash!

By Jennifer Brown


University of Minnesota

Graduate Program in Neuroscience

Workshop Recap: Combatting Disinformation Locally

In conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the TCSPN hosted Hannah Silverfine to talk about public campaigns of disinformation and how corporations use their money to influence policy. During the second part of the event, attendees conducted research on these efforts in our own state of Minnesota.

The playbook of corporate tactics has some roots in a 1971 memo by Lewis Powell, written in a time when big business had decreased profits and was facing increasing regulation. Some of the ideas from this document have continued to be utilized by corporations and private groups looking to influence politics. As outlined in the Powell Memo, private interests can create disinformation machines by funding researchers and using the skewed output of that research as evidence to support their own agenda. Tobacco companies have long used this tactic to promote the idea that smoking was not harmful, sowing seeds of doubt into a scientific near-certainty and thus influencing public opinion.

Unbeknownst to many of us, private groups can form coalitions and pay to create legislation that is beneficial to their own interests, like keeping environmental protections weak. One of the groups who creates template legislation for industry sponsors and many mostly Republican elected officials is the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. Corporations, including some here in Minnesota (page 13) pay the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for a seat at the discussion table when bills are being crafted, allowing corporate representatives to make sure the legislation is beneficial to their finances. Legislation crafted by groups like ALEC is then delivered ready-made to legislators through lobbying organizations.

The average citizen does not have that kind of money or access to their representatives and must use voting as their most powerful tool. Which, of course, is why these groups (ALEC, Heritage Action, to name some) also want to decrease access to voting under the guise of election security and support the drawing of unbalanced district maps (gerrymandering) by opposing oversight.

So what can you do? First, become aware of this process and inform yourself about which of your elected officials accepts money from these organizations. Take a look at what companies and organizations accept donations as well, and pay attention to what that money is being used to fund. Lastly, spread the word and VOTE. Part of the playbook is keeping these methods out of public view, so simply being informed can go a long way. For information on your state, take a look at the Union of Concerned Scientists website, some of which was compiled by attendees at our event! And sign up to Combat State-Based Anti-Democracy Efforts here.


Webinar Recap: Effective Science Advocacy

By Elea Hansen


MS student in Food Science and Nutrition at the university of Minnesota


Instagram @eleahansen

What is science advocacy, and how do we do it effectively? These are the questions that Sheeva Azma and Nidhi Parekh, representing Fancy Comma LLC and the Shared Scope, helped us to address during a May webinar.


Nidhi, generously staying up into the late hours of the night to call in from her British locale, explained to us what exactly science communication is. According to Nidhi, “Science communication is the practice of informing, educating and raising awareness about the sciences.” Science communication, we learned, is important because it can help us to make important decisions. What research projects should we fund? What, and how, should we teach about science? What public health policies should we enact? The answering of this last question is something we have seen unfolding in front of us with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.


In addition to learning about what science communication is, we discussed the many avenues through which it can be done. Books and other literature, lectures, videos, works of art, and even TikTok. However, there are many potential missteps that can occur when communicating science with the public. If communication occurs inappropriately, inflated claims can be produced.


One classic example brought to us by Nidhi is the “miracle cure” for common ailments. How often have you seen someone announcing that they heard a new cure for cancer was discovered? Oftentimes, the non-specialist will assume this is a cure all for all types of cancers when it actually applies only to a small and specific subset. This miscommunication produces false hope in those searching for help and undermines the credibility of scientists. Unfounded claims can spread through communication channels like wildfires, bringing forward massive public calls for action that may be harmful or unfounded.


Conversely, science communication done well can lead to positive change. All of the work done by scientists to ensure the safety of our food, environment, bodies, and minds can be used to form policies that benefit everyone. Without effective communication and engagement people might still be blinded to the dangers of tobacco, or have succumbed to avoidable illnesses.


The next big question is , “How do I, as an individual, act as a good communicator for the issues? How do I communicate science and serve as an advocate?” Sheeva stepped in to help us answer this. Firstly, she reminded us that most elected officials aren’t scientists. This means they might lack science literacy, and may not realize that cutting funds to projects may hinder our progress as a society. Legislators also have so many issues competing for their attention, that they can only spend a short time on each. It is crucial to be clear in your messaging in order to maximize the impact of the time you have with them. Of course, as Sheeva points out, science policy would be easier to enact if our legislators were scientists, but this isn’t always feasible. Instead, because science is not meant to be a partisan issue, science advocates need to connect with elected officials of all affiliations and backgrounds to inform and influence policy. Yes, all affiliations. This is a key point. We need everyone’s help to promote positive change.


This brings us to what science policy involves, and what science policy professionals do. Guiding legislators to see the importance of science, and helping them access and interpret information to inform their positions on legislation is key to science policy. This is where science policy professionals come into play. They act as liaisons between the public, legislators, and researchers. These policy professionals do critical work, distilling scientific facts into digestible information for legislators and the public. The relationship between science policy professionals and legislators allows for formation of policy backed by science.


At this point, some of us likely thought, “Well, I’m not a science policy professional. How can I contribute to change from the place I am at?” Don’t worry, Sheeva covered that for us too. Her first tip: find out who represents you in Congress. Visit their website and learn about their positions. This can allow you to tailor your message to them in a way they are likely to respond to. You can call or visit your representative to talk about an issue. This interaction is important to bring a voice to the issue. Even better, get others to join in! The more people that talk to a representative about the issue, the more likely they are to give it their attention. Do note, if you are calling, you will likely not be talking to the representative directly. Keep the message short.

State your name, city, and tell them your message and/or question. Be specific. A tip from Sheeva: including a personal statement on why the topic is important to you is great, but it works especially if you are interacting with the representative themselves rather than one of the staffers answering calls in the office. However, it’s up to you if you want to include this or not.

Lastly, she notes that you should ask for them to record your opinion before hanging up and Always be respectful. Name calling, harassment, or social media approaches are often not well regarded and are more likely to be dismissed. Keep in mind that a lot of the people taking these messages are just interns, unpaid, and fielding these complaints daily. Be polite! The last, and very important, tip from Sheeva is to remember that change can be slow. Don’t give up. Stay informed on your issue and stay connected to your representative.


Through the webinar, Nidhi and Sheeva stressed the importance of science communication and advocacy for science policy. For more information, visit some of the links they left for us!


https://fancycomma.com/2020/11/28/capitol-hill-science-advocacy/

https://thesharedmicroscope.com/about-us/

https://gumroad.com/editoremilye

https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/for-effective-science-advocacy-focus-on-shared-values-and-speak-up-often/

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