Changing the climate: How one Charlottesville foundation has altered how we talk about research

Biologist Pete Myers is the founder of Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit foundation that has helped change the way scientific research is reported in the media. Photo: Elli Williams Biologist Pete Myers is the founder of Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit foundation that has helped change the way scientific research is reported in the media. Photo: Elli Williams

It’s just after 6am Eastern Standard Time on a Wednesday in early December, and about a dozen journalists, environmental scientists, and educators from four time zones are popping in and out of an AOL chat room.

There’s some small talk about the weather in Bozeman, Montana and Montevideo, Uruguay, but mostly, people are trawling the Web in search of stories, chiming in only to check a geographical zone or news publication off the list. They’re this morning’s research team for Environmental Health News and its partner site, The Daily Climate, part of a Charlottesville-based nonprofit dedicated to monitoring the health of the planet and its occupants, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“Time to throttle back on the climate posts, friends,” says Daily Climate editor-in-chief Douglas Fischer at 8:30, half an hour before the morning deadline. “No more tipping point stories, pls. Likewise, I’ve got plenty of ‘2C limit not enough’ pieces.”

Since it was founded a decade ago by biologist John Peterson Myers, an Albemarle County resident for 23 years, Environmental Health Sciences—parent organization to EHN and The Daily Climate—has become a trusted source for journalists and an online water cooler for scientists across a wide a range of research fields. It’s also made the mild-mannered Myers a power player in a fight to save good science during an era when environmental issues have become more complex and more charged with controversy than ever.

“My first environmental stories were in the early 1980s, and we didn’t really know what we were doing back then,” said EHN’s editor-in-chief Marla Cone, who left a three-decade career in print media—including 18 years as senior environmental reporter at the L.A. Times—to lead Myers’ news team in 2008. “Hazardous waste was being dumped all over the place. We were putting out fires, writing about the major things that were really obvious to us.”

The focus now is on a whole new array of problems that are less visible and not so easy to understand, but have far greater damage potential. Then it was the Exxon Valdez. Now it’s a warming planet, an endangered water supply, a slow buildup of industrial chemicals with the power to affect generations of human health.

Among the scientists who have accelerated our understanding of those threats, Myers is an anomaly. He left field biology early in his career to take up positions at nonprofits dedicated to environmental causes, but found himself butting up against a communication barrier.

“What shocked me constantly was the disconnect between what the science was saying and what was being reported on, and how that was affecting public policy,” he said.

Reporters needed research. Researchers needed a megaphone. Both needed to understand how to talk to each other—and talk around the forces of anti-science aiming to tear down work that threatened industry.

Myers realized that for the science to speak for itself, it needed a translator.

A man, a plan

Pete Myers is a prominent figure in the field of endocrine disruptor research, and his work on the front lines of science communication often puts him in conversation with leaders around the world; when we sat down with him, he was days away from a series of meetings with Prince Charles in London on the future of sustainable agriculture.

Weather permitting, Pete Myers can often be found working in his open-air office outside his home in White Hall, where he’s lived for 23 years. Photo courtesy Pete Myers.
Weather permitting, Pete Myers can often be found working in his open-air office outside his home in White Hall, where he’s lived for 23 years. Photo courtesy Pete Myers.

But the tall, bespectacled biologist tends to keep a low profile locally. When he’s home—and weather permitting—you’re most likely to find him working on a raised platform in the woods behind his house in White Hall, or running the trail to Blue Hole in Sugar Hollow.

For years after he got his doctorate at UC Berkeley, Myers bounced back and forth between the southern tip of South America and Barrow, Alaska, following the migratory paths of shorebirds. Ornithology was a window on a planet in trouble, and as he watched populations plummet and habitats near the poles deteriorate, he started to feel like a rubber-necker watching a slow-motion car wreck.

“I thought, ‘I can’t spend my time on things that won’t make a difference in the long run,’” he said.

In 1986, he left a well-funded tenured position and turned to the nonprofit world. For three years, he was senior vice president for science at the National Audubon Society. Then, in 1990, he came to Charlottesville to lead the W. Alton Jones Foundation, a charitable nonprofit that steered money to environmental protection efforts. As the Foundation’s director, he spent a lot of time chewing over the problem of how to communicate its causes to the rest of the world via the media.

Myers had been on the job less than year when he organized a dinner at the Smithsonian to solicit advice from prominent Washingtonians on how best to invest in environmental protection. Al Gore was there. So was the late Republican Pennsylvania Senator H. John Heinz III.

“It was a very bipartisan time,” said Myers, with people from both sides of the aisle weighing in. At the end of the night, he found himself face to face with Tim Wirth, the former Colorado senator who now sits on the board of the United Nations Foundation. The commanding Wirth—he’s 6’5″—pointed directly at Myers.

“He says, ‘Pete? Focus groups.’ I didn’t know what a focus group was, but I said, ‘O.K.’”

The months that followed were something of a revelation.

Myers watched from behind one-way glass as facilitators talked to groups of average Americans, looking for a way to reframe the debate over logging in the Pacific Northwest as something other than “jobs versus owls.” The three experts he hired—consultants who just two years later were serving as top White House advisors, including Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers—were soliciting responses to key terms, like “virgin forest.”

What the volunteers said made his jaw drop. The language scientists like him took for granted was lost on them.

“We were talking about biodiversity, and one woman said, ‘Don’t they spray that out of trucks?’” Pete Myers remembered. “I’m watching this and I’m going, Oh my God. Our ability to communicate vital scientific concepts is so limited. No wonder we’re losing.”

After arriving in Charlottesville, Myers became absorbed by (and retrained himself to study) an emerging environmental issue: the proliferation of endocrine disruptors, synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones and could, scientists posited, wreak havoc on human development. In 1996, Myers and two colleagues—Theo Colborne, credited with discovering the special toxicity of endocrine disruptors, and Boston Globe reporter Dianne Dumanoski—published Our Stolen Future, a book about the new field of research with a forward by Al Gore. In the wake of the book’s launch, Myers started compiling relevant research on environmental toxins on a website, summarizing new epidemiological studies in newsy, readable writeups. Before long he had pages and pages of entries, and reporters started calling him as a source. Maintaining the site became his night job.

And then it became his day job. The Jones Foundation dissolved in 2001, its endowment divided among three new charitable nonprofits, none of which needed a scientist at the helm. The next year, Myers launched Environmental Health Sciences with $60,000 in start-up grant funds. His main effort was EHN, a carefully curated aggregation site that highlighted recently released scientific studies and pulled news stories from all over the Web and the world about environmental topics.

For six years, he was essentially a one-man show, a solo social entrepreneur working to build a nonprofit news service from scratch. When he traveled to global conferences, his colleagues would find him up at all hours, working to meet his daily East Coast deadlines.

“I was kind of a fanatic,” he said.

He was, day by day, building toward the goal of closing the gap between the lab and the layman.

There’s a vast amount of money and brainpower invested in scientific research, Myers said, just as there is in the privately owned global communication network. “Normally, they don’t meet very well,” he said. “We play electronic jiu-jitsu with those two. We make the two cultures meet.”

Lost in translation

Science, by definition, is uncertain, said Myers, “and scientists always insist that you acknowledge that.” When it comes to the kind of research that has consumed him for two decades—investigating the man-made compounds with potentially dangerous effects—there’s usually somebody who stands to benefit from making the uncertainty the story. That may help explain why scientific research, which once occupied a narrow media niche, now commands the focus of multinational corporations.

“It’s a process that happens across disciplines,” Myers said. “There’s serious money being spent trying to create circumstances where policymakers say, ‘Once you scientists agree, come back and talk to me.’ So they don’t have to win the argument. They just have to create the semblance of scientific disagreement.”

That’s exactly what happened during the early years of endocrine disruptor research, and Myers had a front row seat. So did University of Missouri reproductive biologist Fred vom Saal.

Around the time Myers was getting ready to publish Our Stolen Future, vom Saal and some of his colleagues discovered something unusual about one particular chemical compound: Bisphenol A, a widespread plastics additive that can mimic estrogen in mammals.

BPA had unusual powers. Unlike natural estrogen, it was able to bypass binding proteins in the blood. That meant even in low doses, far more BPA than scientists thought possible was getting past a natural barrier and into cells, where researchers were concerned it could do serious damage, from spiking cholesterol to causing cancer.

In 1995, vom Saal presented the findings at a National Academy of Sciences meeting in Washington, D.C. When he got back to Missouri, his phone started ringing.

“I got calls from executives of Dow, DuPont, Shell, General Electric—all these major producers of BPA,” he said. “They were very aggressive, very threatening. I hung up on them, and I thought, ‘What the hell have I done? What is this stuff?’”

Endocrinologist Fred vom Saal has studied the effects of Bispenol A (BPA) since the 1990s. His work was heavily criticized by industry scientists, but further research has helped “mainstream” concerns over the plastics additive’s possible harmful effects on people. Photo: L.G. Patterson, Heinz Family Foundation
Endocrinologist Fred vom Saal has studied the effects of Bispenol A (BPA) since the 1990s. His work was heavily criticized by industry scientists, but further research has helped “mainstream” concerns over the plastics additive’s possible harmful effects on people. Photo: L.G. Patterson, Heinz Family Foundation

What he’d done was label as toxic a chemical worth billions. Since 1957, BPA had been used in the linings of food and drink cans and in the hard, clear plastics of baby bottles, water bottles, food storage containers, and countless other products, and it had a tendency to leach out, get consumed, and then stick around. It was everywhere, and, it turned out, in nearly everyone—subsequent studies have shown that more than 90 percent of Americans have detectable amounts in their bodies.

Vom Saal’s work was slammed by researchers funded by industry groups like the American Chemistry Council. Controversy became the star player in each new story about BPA and its potential hazards, and for years, it dominated his career. Vom Saal didn’t set out to be a crusader for a cause, but he has come to embrace that role.

“I view it as an obligation,” he said. “If you’re going to do something that has tremendous health impacts and then you’re going to cede to the corporations that are only interested in profits…then why are you doing it?”

Myers hit on a formal way to channel that energy when he helped organize an advisory board of prominent scientists working in the realm of environmental health. They keep an ear to the ground, and meet regularly under the auspices of Myers’ organization to discuss embargoed studies that haven’t yet hit major journals.

It’s a leap of faith for the researchers involved; publicly discussing work before it’s published is rare. But it works, said vom Saal.

“We’ve seen it evolve over time from this totally chaotic process of an article coming out and people who don’t know anything about it being interviewed, to now, when we see journalists calling up people who are knowledgeable, and who can talk about the science,” he said.

As Myers’ organization grew, he saw the need to extend the same council-of-peers approach to another field where scientific consensus was being shouted down: climate change. Few understood that need better than Michael Mann.

Michael Mann, the former UVA climatologist targeted for investigation by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, now sits on one of two panels organized by Myers’ foundation to review and help promote a better understanding of new environmental health research. Photo: Penn State University
Michael Mann, the former UVA climatologist targeted for investigation by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, now sits on one of two panels organized by Myers’ foundation to review and help promote a better understanding of new environmental health research. Photo: Penn State University

In 1999, the climatologist and former UVA professor published the paper that included the so-called “hockey stick graph” indicating rapid global temperature rise in the last century. It was one of the single most influential findings in climate research in recent years, and played heavily in a particularly important 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report laid the groundwork for much of the global policy on climate change that has been developed since.

Mann’s work was targeted for investigation by right-wing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in 2009 after climate change critics hacked Mann’s e-mail and published messages sent among members of an international research team. Hackers called the e-mails evidence of a data-manipulation conspiracy. Mann and scores of others have said it’s evidence of nothing more than scientific debate.

“Climategate” didn’t alter the scientific consensus that Earth’s temperature is rising, nor did it torpedo Mann’s career; he’s currently director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. But it did drive home for him the sense that researchers have an obligation to stand together in defense of their work.

“We’re probably far more interested in making sure the scientific message gets out to the public than we are in our personal publication records,” Mann said of the team of scientists that makes up the climate panel. “We’re all folks who are really focused on the bigger picture. Our own independent research efforts pale in comparison to the importance of the larger scientific conversation.”

The experiences of scientists whose work has come under attack in the past—those who have “been through media hell,” as Myers puts it—have helped EHS’s mission in another way.

Each year, the organization recruits 10 young PhDs—toxicologists, epidemiologists, chemists, neuroscientists—to join its Science Fellows program, a partnership with the Bethesda, Maryland-based Science Communications Network. At an intensive workshop in Washington, D.C., they meet with experienced researchers, journalists, and communications experts to learn how to be better ambassadors of their work.

Vom Saal is on the selection committee that picks each year’s fellows from a pool of applicants. He learned just how vital the training can be 15 years ago when he went through it himself.

“When you’re talking to a colleague who’s a specialist in your field—which is what most of us are doing most of the time—you’re going to use a special vocabulary,” vom Saal said. The fellowship program helps young scientists find new, more accessible ways of explaining what they do.

“For some scientists, it’s anathema to them that you might try to simplify something using an analogy or describe something in a way that doesn’t fully embrace the complexities of the science,” said Mann. “Yet when we’re communicating to the public, we have to simplify things. It’s an art as much as it is a science.”

And it’s an art that can be taught. Nearly 50 researchers have gone through the program, and now make up a long, diverse list of experts listed on EHS’s website as media sources who can speak on dozens of topics, from cancer to climate. They know what they’re talking about, and they know how to say it.

Jennifer Wolstenholme is a post doc in UVA researcher Emilie Rissman’s behavioral neuroendocrinolgy lab. Wolstenholme went through the fellows program last year, the same year the Rissman lab published one of the most significant findings about BPA to date: that even at the doses humans are exposed to, it caused behavioral changes in mice three generations after initial exposure. It was the first time anyone had shown transgenerational impacts from the chemical, making it a major mainstreaming moment for research that some at the fringes of the scientific community had been fighting tooth and nail since the mid 1990s.

When the reporters started calling, It was Wolstenholme who talked to them. The story ended up in The New York Times and on Dateline NBC.

“The best tips I’d been given were to be conversational. How would you explain it to your mom, or your friend? And don’t be afraid to say this is a first step,” Wolstenholme said. “I was armed.”

Moving the story

The advisory panels and the fellows program were both inside-out approaches to breaching the science communication barrier, but for the last six years, it’s Myers’ news site—an outside-in endeavor—that is the more visible face of EHS.

In 2007, as big funders started stepping up to the plate, Myers began exploring the idea of expanding what was almost exclusively an aggregation service to a full-fledged foundation-supported news outlet with original reporting. It was a tough time for everyone in media. Newspapers were cutting to the bone. Experienced journalists, including career environmental reporters, were getting laid off. But over the next year, mainstream media’s loss became Myers’ gain. Besides Marla Cone, he also recruited longtime CNN science desk chief Peter Dykstra as publisher. Experienced reporters from publications around the country followed.

From the start, said Cone, their involvement was contingent on complete editorial independence. The topics, the stories they pulled to fill the front page every day, the enterprise pieces—she had to have control.

“We’re not some voice of various interest groups, and certainly not of the environmental movement,” Cone said.

Myers wanted it that way, and he’s stepped back from his brainchild editorially. He knew that for EHN to occupy the territory abandoned by big dailies, there had to be a firewall keeping him, the scientist-advocate, away from the news team.

Today, EHS’s budget is at $2 million—largely supported by major foundation grants—and Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate see 25 million page views per year. A team of 36 people work for its two publications, five of them current or former members of the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists —an organization with roots in Charlottesville, as it happens, and one which got a founding grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. In the last year, the two sites have run 202 original stories—reports on new research, photo essays from far corners of the world, enterprise pieces examining environmental impacts from industry and developing complications from a shifting climate. They’re published with a creative commons license, giving news outlets around the world permission to run them, free of charge—and they do, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Scientific American.

To get a sense of EHN’s authoritative position in the field of environmental reporting, look no further than its most recent original news story, which details yet-unpublished research by the EPA that revealed that more than a third of U.S. water utilities have traces of 18 unregulated chemicals, including perflourinated compounds, endocrine disruptors that previous studies have linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Stories like that one drive home just how far Myers has managed to push his mission. It’s not just about watching his own research field grow, though that too has been remarkable: The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization issued a joint report earlier this year calling for more research into what they called the “strong likelihood” that compounds like BPA play a role in the proliferation of a range of illnesses; closer to home, “I can go into WalMart and see the consolidation of our collective effort in a BPA-free bottle,” Myers said.

The bigger victory is the creation of a communications structure that both protects scientific debate and makes it more accessible to the public. Those who have watched Myers build EHS and the collaborative network of scientists that support it say he hit on the right formula.

“It has changed the nature of the dialogue out there,” said vom Saal. “You’re not getting a he-said, she-said approach any more. You’re getting knowledgeable scientists talking about pros and cons in a very neutral way. The consequence is that we’re hearing from people in the chemical industry saying, ‘What the heck happened? We were controlling the message, and we’re not any more.’ It’s been absolutely profound.”

Researchers and reporters agree that it’s come at a critical time. The science underpinning what we know about the environment is more complex. Even as policy begins to accept the realities of a changing climate, the seas are rising. Even as governments ban BPA, new unregulated toxins are finding their way to market.

Now, vom Saal said, the questions are about the future: “How do you change direction from what has led us to this kind of terrifying situation we’re in right now?”

The answer, said Myers, is always greater understanding.

“The most important thing is to get all these basic scientists asking questions,” he said.

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