Scientists must get into ‘the fray’

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about a clean air symposium held at the University of Utah on Oct. 3, 2019.

Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who has inspired a global youth climate awareness movement, told U.S. lawmakers not to listen to her when she says that rising temperatures threaten global catastrophe, but to “listen to the scientists.”

So what will you say, asked Dr. George Thurston—a leading scholar on the health effects of air pollution—of Utah health professionals and scientists who attended the symposium “The Air We Breathe: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Air Quality” at the University of Utah on Oct. 3.

“We’re on the spot. We’ve got to get involved,” said Thurston, director of the Program in Exposure Assessment and Human Health Effects at New York University School of Medicine and the keynote speaker of the day-long symposium. “It’s a crime to have a platform—and people will listen—and not to say anything.”

The Wasatch Front has some of the worst air quality in the nation, both for spikes of fine particles of pollution that foul the air during the winter and for the buildup of ozone in the summer. The dangerous levels of pollution can contribute to respiratory problems like asthma, lung and cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and premature death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and studies from the U.

“We’re here because air pollution is a very complex problem. It really fits the bill as one of the grand challenges of our time,” Dr. Mike Good, U senior vice president for health sciences, told the symposium audience.

The U is already a leader in researching the health impacts of Utah’s air pollution. Good said the symposium was meant to build on what’s happening and to find ways for researchers to collaborate on future research, policy development and public outreach.

“We are solving this problem not only for the university, but for our entire community, for our entire state,” Good said.

Thurston encouraged the audience to both work across disciplines and to speak out about their findings to policymakers and the public. He used results from his own work to show the value of seeking multidisciplinary collaborations. In a study published this year in the journal Circulation, a team of collaborators combined data on more than 500,000 people’s diets with their exposure to dirty air. It found for the first time that individuals who follow a Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of death from cardiovascular disease related to long-term exposure to air pollution.

A sweeping study called The Human Project aims to follow 10,000 New Yorkers for 20 years to track in real time their physical health, behavior patterns, mental health, exposure to pollutants and other measurables. Researchers from environmental medicine, economics, psychology, neuro-economics, environmental engineering and data analysis designed the project.

“You really need to get a good team of people together if you’re going to get some of these insights,” said Thurston, who is a member of the Human Project research team.

He offered some ideas on how to encourage collaborations, including find funders willing to back experimental efforts; hold regular inter-disciplinary research seminars; have faculty from various disciplines work together on grant applications; and require interdisciplinary research as a condition of promotion.

Science, Thurston concluded, is integral to solving society’s complex problems, and scientists need to help policymakers understand the results to improve public health. While many scientists may be inclined to publish their results and leave policymakers to interpret them on their own, he said that is a mistake.

“If you don’t get involved, then they’re going to take your research and they’re going to twist it,” Thurston warned, noting that his own research has been misinterpreted. “You need to get involved and say, ‘This is what my science says.’ ”

Thurston acknowledged that scientists may be accused of partisan advocacy. But he suggested they can avoid that impression by focusing on civic engagement and explaining their work to lawmakers and their staffs, advocacy groups and the public.

“Scientists tend to not want to get into the fray,” he said. But when it comes to scientific research, “we have to take more leadership on how it’s used.”