A Brick Wall of Reality on One Side and the Abyss of Catastrophe on the Other

November 15, 2017

Sigma Xi Immediate Past President Tee L. Guidotti made the following remarks during a banquet at the Student Research Conference on November 11 in Raleigh, North Carolina, about the current worldwide environmental situation and Sigma Xi’s role in it. His remarks were in light of the Society's Symposium on Atmospheric Chemistry, Climate, and Health, which was held the previous day. Guidotti is an international consultant on health, safety, and environment management and sustainability. 

Tee GuidottiWelcome to the Sigma Xi Student Research Conference banquet! This is one of our favorite events at Sigma Xi because it has symbolic significance: it is where senior and established scientists honor new scientists who represent the future of the scientific enterprise. 

I would like to spend a few minutes relating the Symposium on Atmospheric Chemistry, Climate, and Health that took place yesterday to the conference we had today and to reflect on what putting the two together represents. 

Atmospheric science is one of the great areas of scientific achievement of the 20th and 21st centuries. It represents a case study of the diversity, complexity, and success of interdisciplinary scientific research. Let’s take a look at the whole spectrum of air research and health, from terra (planetary) to nano:

Climate change is an old, old area of investigation now with existential relevance and perhaps the clearest example of how society wants us to dance our political and social dance as if we had a whole dance floor to ourselves while in reality we have a brick wall of reality on one side and the abyss of catastrophe on the other. How we handle climate change is critical because whatever we do, climate change will handle us. But if we manage our way through climate change, we will have a model for solving some of the great, seemingly intractable problems of humankind. 

At times, it seems hopeless. However, we have precedents for success in managing atmospheric issues on a global scale: We heard in detail about the success of international cooperation in stopping and beginning to reverse stratospheric ozone depletion. We are also making some progress on organic compounds that are not readily broken down by natural processes and that accumulate and move around in the environment, usually concentrating in northern latitudes. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) migrate not only by air currents but through complicated atmospheric processes involving temperature and particulate matter. We are making reasonable progress through the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in reducing long-range transport of POPs. I could also add the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste [and Their Disposal], which has greatly alleviated a difficult intercontinental problem and shows again that international agreements can actually work. 

On the national level, there is another highly relevant success story, and that is our own country’s success in the 1980s in reversing acid deposition and ecosystem change, by controlling acid-forming emissions through pollution controls. Hardly anybody talks about this anymore, precisely because it was a huge success story. Its success was mirrored at the same time in Europe, which shows that concerted action works consistently, not just once in a while. 

On the local level, in cities and urban regions, “ambient air quality” is the technical term for community-level air pollution. Here our success has been spotty and reflects issues of social justice. We are doing better in rich countries but poor countries are suffering mightily as a result of rapid economic development, as we see in Delhi and Beijing even as I speak. Even in rich countries, local air pollution and its effect on our families has become a question of where you live and how close to a freeway you are – or where a child’s parents have made their home. 

On the local level, in towns and neighborhoods, there are also often issues of individual air pollutants, or what we call “air toxics,” from a point source. The one that is coming to preoccupy us most at the moment is benzene, since we now know that health effects can occur at levels well below current standards. Here efforts to control emissions are almost always fought hard and delayed, because those who own or operate the source get the benefit but offload all the harm and cost to the surrounding community. This is called “externalization of costs” and it underlies almost all environmental problems and many other social problems.

In the hyperlocal environment of buildings and shelter, we see indoor  air quality issues again stratified between developing countries, where the big problem is smoke from biomass burned for heating and cooking causing serious respiratory disease. In rich countries, on the other hand, we worry about “sick building syndrome” and about the indoor air in our houses, which unlike outdoor air pollution is essentially unregulated because nobody wants the government in their home. 

Then there is the workplace, a built environment where occupational airborne hazards remain common and still poorly controlled. In the workplace, we are continually introducing new potential hazards, such as nanomaterials, but we still haven’t adequately controlled ancient hazards such as silica (quartz rock) dust, over which there is a big battle going on right now.

This is a hugely diverse agenda but atmospheric change at all these levels has specific drivers in common: they are all driven by changes in technology, in the economy, and energy use, all of which dictate our policies on land use, transportation, and the economics of fuels.

So atmospheric change, so diverse and so seemingly technically dense, is actually a good example of what’s called a “wicked problem.” Its problems, taken separately or taken together, are horrendously complicated, sociotechnical issues with no technical solution. The social and technical components are intertwined in ways so complicated that the path to a solution has to be stepwise, with tandem progress on both the technical and sociopolitical fronts.

Sigma Xi's Role

Sigma Xi has a role in these sociotechnical problems. The mission of Sigma Xi, as I see it, is threefold: 1) to celebrate excellence in research, 2) to improve the scientific enterprise, and 3) to advance science in the service of society. Sigma Xi is multidisciplinary and promotes interdisciplinary thinking, which is critically necessary to inform policy for society. First, though, you have to understand the problem, and that is where scientific research excellence comes in.

Thus, although Sigma Xi is not primarily a policy shop, it has a role to play in science policy. It played that role for over a century, playing a central role in preparation for both World Wars, the formation of the National Science Foundation, and issuing statements on a variety of technical issues and issues of science management. Then we kind of went silent, preoccupied with internal issues, until the March for Science woke us up again. Sigma Xi was right there in the middle again, and although some members were uncomfortable with us stating an opinion on their behalf, the overwhelming majority welcomed our new voice, especially on issues of concern to the scientific enterprise. I don’t think we have to have an opinion on everything but I do think that Sigma Xi has to be vocal on issues of the integrity of science, support for research, and public understanding of science.  

Support for the research enterprise is not just about technological progress and marketable products. More than any other society in history, science and technology are at the intellectual and moral core of our culture. We, more than other cultures in history, value most what we can see and touch, what we can confirm, and what we can do with what we know. 

This is why the United Nations has recognized a “right to science,” which includes not only access to information but a right of peoples to participate in research, because science is global and if you don’t do it, it is hard to know enough to use it.

Sigma Xi is a defender of this right and that’s why we have a voice on issues beyond scientific excellence.

Science is our cultural heritage. It is a way of knowing almost unique to our society and it really is our legacy to civilization.

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. www.sigmaxi.org. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety