25 Jan 2024

Reflections on Multistakeholder Collaboration at SETAC

Tamar Schlekat, STEAC Global Scientific Affairs Director, North America Executive Director

2024 marks the 45th anniversary of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), which is a great occasion to ponder on the Society and its accomplishments. SETAC was established in 1979 due to the desire of scientists from the private, public and government sectors to work collaboratively to identify solutions to environmental challenges. This came amidst a public outcry in the United States for regulatory protection of the environment from the unmanaged use of chemicals. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Currently, public concern and economic factors are putting political pressure on how best to address the critical issues of our time, including climate change, impacts to biodiversity, environmental justice, inclusion of indigenous values, exposures to known and uncharacterized stressors, and more. Thus, this is indeed the perfect time to reflect on the creation of SETAC, its current societal value, and ways in which we can increase SETAC's impact.

As we contemplate the impetus for creating SETAC and the value it continues to bring to society, it is important to note that throughout SETAC's dynamic existence, one constant has been to mitigate the biases of the day while working to advance environmental quality. SETAC has always insisted on its foundational principle of including a balanced perspective when establishing multi- and transdisciplinary groups tasked with solving some of the most confounding environmental problems. It is clear that the multisectorial approach on which SETAC founded its brand unquestionably yields positive outcomes.

As stated in its articles of incorporation, SETAC was established to “provide a forum for communication among professionals in government, business, academia, and other segments of the society involved in the use, protection, and management of the environment and its protection.” Richard E. Tucker, who first conceived of SETAC, later stated to SETAC historians that “It has been my experience that when communication occurs freely, many differences can be resolved for the benefit of all.” That premise is still reflected in SETAC principles, and in fact, SETAC's success can be attributed to how tightly these principles have been guarded and how closely they have been applied. This is best demonstrated in how these standards of collaboration have been utilized to yield real-world results in developing methods and approaches in areas as diverse as risk assessment, environmental quality criteria for water, sediment and soil, and life cycle assessment.

It has been my experience that when communication occurs freely, many differences can be resolved for the benefit of all. ~R.E. Tucker

SETAC programs welcome objective, factual, science-based input from individuals from different disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, ecology and toxicology) and sectors (e.g., association, academic, business, government and intergovernmental organizations). This is consistent with SETAC's founding principles and embraces our values of transparency, equity, diversity, inclusion and civil discourse. As such, all views are recognized and valued. This broad outlook is what sets SETAC apart from other associations, whether academic, for public good, or otherwise. From the start, SETAC was intentionally developed as a home for all professionals interested in environmental issues to work collaboratively. SETAC's purpose was and remains to advance the field so that the most relevant and reliable information guides environmental decision-making.

Bias often gets in the way of finding common ground and broadly beneficial solutions. It is understood that we all hold biases, whether conscious or unconscious, and that it is imperative that we acknowledge, disclose and collectively guard against them to allow for transparent collaborative discussions to reach workable solutions. It is further understood that we all have special interests, such as those related to our work affiliation, scientific viewpoint, politics, ideology, or some other agenda and motivation. Often, when those go unchecked, by us and others working with us, they may develop into conflicts of interest. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that instances of unchecked conflicts of interest are evident in all sectors of the field of environmental science. Some are motivated by financial, professional or political gain and can result in ethically dubious practices, like deliberate data manipulation. Other conflicts seem benign on the surface and come from what one might term a “pure” place, but they can have an equally detrimental effect on science by manifesting in confirmation bias or unsubstantiated halo or horn effects. Mitigating for conflicts of interest is therefore imperative in all that we do. Since we all have biases and special interests, the only way to mitigate for them is through embracing transparency, diversity, inclusion, equity and civil discourse (SETAC values). SETAC's long track record of advancing environmental assessment approaches to inform management decisions through multistakeholder Pellston Workshops® bears witness to this.

SETAC programs and work processes deliberately ensure that participants declare potential conflicts of interest to allow all participants to collaboratively guard against biases and work towards science-based consensus. Where there is clear potential for gain, whether financial, political, or influence and status, SETAC policies dictate that the individual recuse themselves from participation. However, the mere existence of a potential conflict of interest does not preclude participation in SETAC programs when it is declared appropriately. Furthermore, workgroups are intentionally organized to include multiple sectors. Thus, it is expected that potential conflict of interest disclosures of participants will remind all to consider multiple viewpoints with different lenses and thus reach a more robust conclusion. At SETAC, all are welcome to contribute as it is understood that agreement can be achieved through transparency and equity, and moreover, progress can only be made with the collaboration of all stakeholders.

Author's contact: tamar.schlekat@setac.org