Project

Science, values and chemicals policy

Goal: We are examining the relationship between the values held by scientific experts, their disciplinary identities and the evidence-based policies they recommend and explore how embracing the diversity of values among experts can be used to strengthen the democratic process.

Methods: Qualitative Data Analysis, Developing tools for multi-criteria decision analysis

Date: 31 December 2017

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Project log

Gunilla Oberg
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New publication:
Vazquez, M., McIlroy-Young, B., Giang, A., Steel, D., & Öberg, G. (2021). Exploring scientists’ values by analyzing how they frame nature and uncertainty. Risk analysis, (under production). doi:10.1111/risa.13701
 
Gunilla Oberg
added a project goal
We are examining the relationship between the values held by scientific experts, their disciplinary identities and the evidence-based policies they recommend and explore how embracing the diversity of values among experts can be used to strengthen the democratic process.
 
Gunilla Oberg
added a research item
Many decisions in today’s society rely heavily on science advice. However, providing advice to decision-makers on topics in environmental toxicology and chemistry is not a trivial task as there are many contested issues. How scientists should appropriately behave when providing policy-relevant information has been intensely studied and debated (Sarewitz 2004, Lövbrand and Öberg 2005, Lackey 2007, Nelson and Vucetich 2009, Steel, Gonnerman et al. 2017, Steel, Gonnerman et al. 2018). To investigate how to best support its members to that end, SETAC invited its membership to participate in a survey about their views of the role of science in policy-making and how they might handle scientific controversies. The survey, which was created by a task force within SETAC Europe, in close cooperation with the Science and Risk Communication IG and the Egesta Lab at the University of British Columbia , Canada, was launched on 8 May 2019, and remained open until 31 July 2019. The results will be used to inform the design of workshops, courses and other educational initiatives related to science-based risk communication for the benefit of the SETAC community. The broader aim is to contribute to the SETAC Europe strategic goal of supporting science-based risk communication.
Gunilla Oberg
added a research item
In the past few decades, there has been a dramatic increase in scientific publications dealing with contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) and the escalating publication rate makes it close to impossible for individual researchers to get an overview of the field. Assuring the relevance and quality of the research conducted in any research field is a crucially important task. The rapidly increasing publication rates imply that review papers will play a progressively more central role to that end. The aim of the present paper is to critically assess whether reviews dealing with contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) are effective vehicles for a healthy dialogue about methodological weaknesses, uncertainties, research gaps and the future direction of the field. We carried out a tiered content-analysis of CEC review papers. Relevant papers were identified through searches in Web of Science (Clarivate), leading to the identification of 6391 original research papers of which 193 are review papers. We find that the majority of CEC reviews are written as if they are comprehensive, even though this clearly is not the case. A minority (~20%) take a critical-analytical approach to the reviewing task and identify weaknesses and research gaps. The following widespread tendencies in CEC research papers are commonly noted as concerning: to equate removal of CECs to ‘decreased concentrations in the effluent’; to focus on parent substances and not concern oneself with degradation products; to focus on most commonly studied substances rather than those of most concern; to not deal with the corollary of our inability to detect or assess the risk for all substances, and to give insufficient attention to uncertainties and the unknown. Several critical-analytical reviews are among the highest cited, which suggests that they have the potential to function as effective vehicles for a healthy dialogue on these topics. On the other hand, it would appear that the concerns expressed in these reviews have a limited impact, as the same concerns are repeated over time. This might be due to a tendency among review authors to express their concerns implicitly, instead of clearly spelling them out. Our study suggests that CEC reviews presently fail to provide adequate and reliable guidance regarding the relevance and quality of research in the field. We argue that the overwhelming number of publications in combination with a lack of quality criteria for review papers are reasons to this failure: it is well documented that choices made during the reviewing process have a major impact on the outcome of a review. These choices include: search engine; the criteria used to include or exclude papers; the criteria used to assess the quality of the data generated in the research papers included; the criteria used for the choice of substances/ organisms/ technologies reported on. The lack of transparent procedures makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to assess the quality of the findings presented or to put those findings in context. In this light, it is noteworthy that criteria for a good review paper are rarely spelled out by peer-reviewed journals or included in instructions on scientific writing. The dramatic increase in publications is a challenge for the entire research community, particularly for research fields that are expected to provide policy-relevant data. We argue that only when peer-reviewed journals start specifying quality criteria for review papers, can such papers be relied upon to provide adequate and strategic guidance on the development of CEC research. We anticipate that our findings and conclusions are valid for many other research fields.
Gunilla Oberg
added 6 research items
The need for better nutrient management has spurred efforts towards more comprehensive recycling of nutrients contained in human excreta to agriculture. Research in this direction has intensified throughout the past years, continuously unfolding new knowledge and technologies. The present review aspires to provide a systematic synthesis of the field by providing an accessible overview of terminology, recovery pathways and treatment options, and products rendered by treatment. Our synthesis suggests that, rather than focusing on a specific recovery pathway or product and on a limited set of nutrients, there is scope for exploring how to maximize nutrient recovery by combining individual pathways and products and including a broader range of nutrients. To this end, finding ways to more effectively share and consolidate knowledge and information on recovery pathways and products would be beneficial. The present review aims to provide a template that aims to facilitate designing human excreta management for maximum nutrient recovery, and that can serve as foundation for organizing and categorizing information for more effective sharing and consolidation.
Gunilla Oberg
added 7 research items
The aim of the present study was to describe and analyse the process of formulating the acidification theory in the Swedish research community. The empirical material was limited to articles written by Swedish researchers during the period 1950-1989 and published in international scientific journals utilizing a peer-review system. A model was developed to represent what Swedish researchers have regarded as the core of the acidification theory. Guided by the developed model, a qualitative content analysis of the scientific articles was conducted; i.e., we examined how central components and causal relationships of the theory have been explained and discussed. It should be emphasized that the present article describes an investigation of science itself (i.e., science in action) and is not an up-to-date review of acidification research. Our analysis revealed that some parts of the chain of evidence underlying the acidification theory were accepted before they were scrutinized by the scientific community and that the acidification complex was not conceptualized in accordance with the conceptualization of its various components. Actually, the acidification problem as a whole (i.e., the sum of all of its components) was not treated as a scientific theory that needed to be evaluated. This strongly indicates that the conceptualization was guided by factors that are generally, within the scientific community, considered to be external to the research process. There is no evidence that Swedish acidification research has adhered less stringently to scientific norms than environmental research in general has. Indeed, it is likely that such hidden patterns normally influence the conceptualization of science and we, therefore, conclude that the influence of factors that are not strictly a part of the research process must be further elucidated if the prerequisites and implications of research are to be clarified.
Management by objectives (MBO) is a technique for integrating ecological concerns into national political and administrative structures. Politicians determine environmental objectives and interim targets to be implemented and assessed by civil servants in national, regional, and local contexts. Well-developed organizational communication is a prerequisite for MBO. However, communication-related obstacles can arise when using MBO in public environmental management. We examine communicative aspects of environmental MBO, looking specifically at the implementation, administration, and assessment of Swedish environmental quality objectives. Our argument is illustrated by quotations from individual and focus group interviews. We conclude that communicative problems may arise, because different actors interpret messages from different perspectives, depending on their agendas, prior knowledge and experience, and positions in the administrative system. It is crucial to recognize the dialogic aspects of communication, by involving the receiver of a message in a process of response. In addition, the different time frames underlying different arguments could contribute to misunderstandings between actors involved in handling environmental issues. In assessing the achievement of environmental objectives, indicators are used as communicative tools. It is important to investigate whether and how these indicators contribute to the de- and recontextualization of environmental objectives.
Gunilla Oberg
added an update
Project goal
We are examining the relationship between the values held by scientific experts, their disciplinary identities and the evidence-based policies they recommend and explore how embracing the diversity of values among experts can be used to strengthen the democratic process.
Background and motivation
Controversies surrounding wastewater planning often become highly contentious, commonly leading to a polarization of positions across experts and an impasse from the point of view of policy development. Victoria, the Capital of British Columbia, Canada is a classic examples in which conflict and debate regarding how to manage municipal sewage has been ongoing for decades. These situations are not unique in that wastewater policy leans heavily on judgments made by scientific and technical experts. Yet, an evidence-based consensus is seldom reached as experts disagree about what solution poses the smallest risk to humans and the environment while maximizing benefits. We suggest that this in part is due to practitioners of a scientific discipline do not merely study a specific domain of phenomena, but often care deeply, in a strongly value-laden way, about the particular phenomena they study. These values enter into the evidence-based policies they recommend. Even so, in wastewater policymaking it is assumed that a science-based consensus is possible and desirable, and when scientific controversies erupt, governments generally respond by advocating for more research. We propose that when a decision is made, it is not because a science-based consensus has been reached but because certain perspectives have been excluded through a power play among expert groups, as has been observed in other contexts. Framing wastewater as a technical problem hides social aspects such as the fact that all solutions have unequal distribution of risks and benefits.
The impacts of value perspectives on expert judgment are likely unavoidable, in which case the question is not how to eliminate them but how to effectively manage values to promote better science and policy decisions.