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Translators of science are badly needed

Science, like medicine, tells us our best understanding of the facts at a given point in time. Those facts are subject to change as new observations, experiments and interpretations come into play. In the face of tightening economics, many Americans have grown skeptical of the “uncertainty” inherent to science. Some even see science, not as a source of facts, but as the voice of another special- interest group.

Competing interests have taken advantage of this, and have crafted alternatives to science that are politically popular and more palatable to hear. In New York state, nowhere is this playing field more obvious than with the issue of extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracture.

Little science has been brought to the table by either side. Yet anti-fracking groups are certain that fracking will poison our water. On my daily radio spot, I reported on a study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Scientists from Duke University and Kent State found that natural gas production by fracking produced less total wastewater per unit of gas produced than conventional gas wells.

A listener accused my report of being an “egregious misstatement.” When I showed otherwise, I was suspected of obtaining support from the natural gas industry. Clearly, this individual had made up his mind about fracking wastewater, in the absence of science — because as far as I know, the paper I reported on is the only systematic analysis available.

The oil and gas industry play the same game. They claim to have lots of science in their files, but their results and the content of fracking chemicals remain proprietary. About a year ago, I suggested that New York state extend the fracking moratorium to allow some studies on potential water contamination. An adviser to the Cary Institute accused me of politicizing the issue. For him, natural gas was the state’s pathway to economic vibrancy, and asking for more science was obstructionist.

On fracking, both sides face each other in a phalanx — not based on science, but on superstition. This is a dangerous way to make the big decisions that face society on a number of environmental issues — not only fracking, but climate change, fisheries management and the Keystone pipeline.

We can do better; indeed, we must do much better. We have enough science in hand to make a major contribution to nearly all environmental issues facing us. Our science is getting better all the time. But the best science is not going speed the pace of progress on environmental issues if the scientific community doesn’t take the time to communicate its findings clearly and articulately to the public.

To that end, I am advocating a new field called “translational ecology.” It derives from translational medicine, which arose when the medical community recognized that its researchers in molecular biology, genomics and the like were outpacing the ability of physicians, let alone patients, to understand the costs, benefits and risks associated with treatment choices. We can do the same in environmental science.

A new group of translators, with a background in science, could take complicated environmental topics and convert them into accessible language. Rather than dwelling on what is unknown or uncertain, they could focus on what we can say definitively about the issue at hand, with the science in hand, in the time at hand. If it’s jobs versus the environment, at least the public will know the tradeoffs.

Translational ecologists are a natural fit for advocacy groups. But they could also play an essential role in the halls of Congress, where young staffers, largely coming from political science majors, would be joined by those who make it their business to get the science, read the science and translate the science to the elected officials, whose decisions shape the world we live in, and the world we leave behind for future generations.


W. H. Schlesinger, “Translational ecology”, Science, vol. 329, p. 609-609, 2010.

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