Changing the Research Agenda
Science has always followed the money but we can make it follow the public interest.
by Nancy Myers
Organization: Science & Environmental Health Network
Science follows money. Big government, big corporations, and big events like Sputnik or the end of World War II have set the national research agenda.
That must change. The Science & Environmental Health Network (SEHN), a small, grassroots-oriented think tank, was founded in the mid-1990s with the ambitious goal of redirecting the scientific enterprise to support environmental health. Our first White Paper described what a public interest research agenda would look like. In the years since, we have seen the beginnings of such a shift.
In 2000 two government agencies took note of our work when they established new centers to study children's developmental disorders, with special emphasis on environmental exposures. The request for grant applications quoted extensively from In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, which had just been published by Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. (SEHN’s science director, Ted Schettler, was a principal author.)
Influencing the research agenda is not usually that quick or easy to document. The complicated sequence of chemical reform is more typical. Here’s one thread:
- SEHN’s 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle helped influence European leaders two years later to make the precautionary principle the foundation of EU environmental policy.
- Comprehensive EU chemical reform known as REACH followed in 2006. But new regulation requires new science, which has not yet been worked out.
- Meanwhile back in the US, chemical reform is proceeding state by state. Two SEHN staffers developed research projects for the California Breast Cancer Research Program’s Strategic Research Initiative--one to develop a complexity-theory model of breast cancer causation, and another to design a set of data requirements for breast cancer specifically, but also for cancer and reproductive harm. These will be useful in California, other states, and the US national chemicals reform effort. And they will also feed back into the EU’s REACH program.
These victories are significant parts of the burgeoning activity around environmental health and the precautionary principle, which SEHN has brought into public policy as well as the research agenda. Years of collaboration, relentless media work, dozens of campaigns, and hundreds of speeches, publications, and meetings are shifting public opinion—and the research agenda is starting to follow the public interest, not just the money.
 “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
 Tim Lougheed, “Outside Looking In: Understanding the Role of Science in Regulation.” EHP 117/3, March 2009.