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When Scientists Speak Out

The Power of a Communications Plan

West Virginia mountaintop removal mining. SOURCE: What a highly influential recent paper on mountaintop removal mining shows about how scientists can change policy by getting their message (and timing!) right. Above: West Virginia mountaintop removal mining.

It is one of the most dramatic human assaults on the natural landscape imaginable. In so-called “mountaintop removal mining,” or “MTR”, companies clear away forests near the tops of mountain peaks, and then use explosives and heavy machinery to literally remove the mountain’s cap and expose and harvest the coal beneath it. As opposed to underground coal mining, where the chief toll is to human health, you might think of MTR as coal mining at high altitude—where the chief toll is to the environment. What was once mountain, now blasted off, becomes “valley fill”: tumbling down into forests below, and frequently choking streams with dust and rock.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists detest MTR, and have been outraged to watch it gain momentum thanks to regulatory policy changes made by the Bush administration. In fact, greens aren’t very happy with the Obama administration’s environmental regulators on this topic, either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently granted a permit for another mountaintop mine in West Virginia, arguing that the environmental impacts of the project would be adequately mitigated.

But now, a group of prominent environmental scientists are lending their expertise to the case against MTR and, further, are questioning the very idea that mitigation of its damaging impacts is possible—or in other words, whether there is any such thing as a “mild” or “safe” mountaintop removal. In a recent “Policy Forum” article in the journal Science, a team of twelve environmental researchers survey MTR’s many nasty effects, which range from the destruction of ecosystems and the attendant reduction in biodiversity and species endangerment, to stream pollution, fish deformation, the befouling and dangerous pollution of human drinking systems, the increased risk of flooding, and so forth. Then, at the end of the paper, the scientists step beyond the mere “facts” of the case to denounce MTR in uncompromising terms, calling for policy changes to prevent its further use. What started out as pure science became, for these researchers, a clarion call to action:

Clearly, current attempts to regulate MTM/VF [“mountaintop removal mining with valley fills”] practices are inadequate. Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for losses. Considering environmental impacts of MTM/VF, in combination with evidence that the health of people living in surface-mining regions of the central Appalachians is compromised by mining activities, we conclude that MTM/VF permits should not be granted unless new methods can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems. Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science. The United States should take leadership on these issues, particularly since surface mining in many developing countries is expected to grow extensively.

Such outspokenness is hardly typical, even for a “Policy Forum” in Science. In general, the standard scientific mode is to provide factual analysis, and then to step back and let policymakers process its implications and proceed, on that basis, to action. We report, you decide. Anything else, it has long been thought, means crossing over into the dreaded realm of “advocacy” and undermining a scientist’s claim to the coveted mantle of objectivity.

And yet there can be little doubt that, in part because it is so outspoken and so direct, the Science paper has had a major media impact. Indeed, the paper has put the Obama EPA in the hot seat: On the one hand, the agency seemed to embrace the latest findings (for how could it argue with the best available science?); on the other, it had just let another MTR permit go through. It suddenly seemed caught in an embarrassing contradiction.

Granted, there were also predictable swipes at the outspoken scientists from the right wing. An American Spectator writer even gloried in this YouTube clip of an MTR explosion. (Yay, destruction!) Scientific outspokenness will always trigger brush-back pitches from those adversely affected by it—that’s an unavoidable consequence of being out in the public arena.

But to me, the most intriguing question is this: How did the 12 environmental scientists on the Science paper managed to achieve such an impact? Did they plan for it, or was it just fortuitous?

So I called up Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the article’s lead author. I was something like her 30th media interview on the topic, but unlike other journalists, I didn’t want to ask about either the policy or the science of MTR. Rather, I inquired about the communication strategy that had been employed to disseminate news about her paper. And thus unfolded a striking story of a group of scientists, with extremely important research in their hands, doing everything pretty much right to ensure its maximal impact.

As Palmer explained, the project out started as pure science. Her team of researchers began by synthesizing a wide array of data from different scientific fields on the consequences of MTR, in a more thorough way than had ever been done before—a process that consumed many months in the peer review process. But as the truly alarming results started to manifest, members of the scientists’ group soon coalesced around a strong, unanimous position about what they were finding. “Rather than just reporting the science,” says Palmer, “we all agreed that the consequences were so huge, we were very comfortable saying, ‘This just has to stop.’”

Resolved upon its message, the team then sought to disseminate it. They booked the National Press Club, bringing along 6 of the most media-savvy members of the 12-scientist group to make the case. And their message, as in the paper, laid out plainly the policy changes they felt needed to happen on the basis of their work, and upbraided the current administration for ignoring science.

“What’s significant about this article,” Palmer remarks, is “the overwhelming nature of the findings, the demonstration for the first time really clearly the cumulative impacts—but also, scientists making a policy statement. It’s not that common.”

And then came fortuity: Almost simultaneous with the paper’s release, the EPA permitted another MTR project, as mentioned before. That gave journalists double the angle they might have had otherwise, and boom: The result was overwhelming press attention to the case, made by scientists, for why this destructive procedure must end. Scientists made a very positive media splash, and one whose policy effects are likely to long reverberate.

“We’re at a point now where we really can’t afford not to speak up,” Palmer concludes of her efforts. “We’ve got too much at stake.”

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”


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