Learning and Teaching Precaution
[Rachel's Introduction: "It is the work of the next ten years to transform teaching precaution from mention in the text to the foundation of our thinking."]
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By Madeleine Kangsen Scammell
My father, who had the IQ to make such claims, once told me that genius is found in the obvious. This made me feel better when a family friend said, as I explained the findings of my dissertation research, "Well, that seems kind of obvious, don't you think?" She caught me off guard. Obvious findings are not exactly the stuff scientific credentials are made of, but she was right. My findings made sense. They highlighted issues that a layperson might consider "obvious" but are rarely discussed among environmental health scientists. In fact, by virtue of their absence in scholarly texts, one might believe them to be unimportant.

We sometimes mistake obvious for simple, and therefore unworthy of rigorous consideration by great minds, kind of like the precautionary principle. I actually think it will take many great minds to realize this particular, perhaps obvious, big idea.

Personally, it is hard but not impossible to imagine life without the precautionary principle. I was in my early twenties when I began working at the Loka Institute where I met Carolyn Raffensperger, who would become our board chair, and Joel Tickner, who was a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. When they began planning the Wingspread conference in 1997, I knew something big was happening but I had no idea Wingspread participants would write a chapter of my own history.

As a college undergraduate I was attracted by Loka's mission to "democratize science and technology" because I understood lay access to scientific expertise and resources was unequal among communities in the US. From my own experience I understood that research agendas were driven by people with specialized knowledge and decision-making power. Democratizing science and technology was as important to me as making education and healthcare accessible to all.

What I did not appreciate at the time of the Wingspread conference was that decisions affecting environmental health policies and standards are not as deeply rooted in science as I would have liked to believe. And that in the face of inconclusive science, pressing economic and political considerations often outweigh concerns regarding environmental health outcomes. Since I had no reason to believe otherwise, I watched Wingspread unfold not as an active participant, but as a naive supporter.

After five years at the Loka Institute I decided to move on, with no plans for exactly where. It was a strange series of events that landed me in the office of David Ozonoff at the Boston University School of Public Health. Someone suggested I talk with him about the graduate program in environmental health, and I recognized his name among the Wingspread participants. Probably with no effort on his part, Dr. Ozonoff convinced me to apply to the doctoral program.

In 2001, a few months into my career as a graduate student, I joined Dave and Prof. Dick Clapp at the International Summit on Science and the Precautionary Principle at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Studying environmental health, I began to understand what had attracted Carolyn and Joel to the precautionary principle in the first place. The textbook that was used in my environmental health course, for example, did not mention the precautionary principle nor did it discuss the need for creative decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty. I began, finally, to understand the need for the movement toward precautionary decisions. At the Lowell conference were many familiar faces, including Carolyn's and Joel's, as well as new faces and names that would become familiar over the coming years. The more I began to participate in discussions about precaution, no longer watching from the sidelines, the more I was challenged. The precautionary principle is anything but simple.

My biggest challenge is making the precautionary principle more than a sentiment, and realizing it in my work. The difference between now and ten or even five years ago is that it isn't just a small group of people grappling with this challenge. The precautionary principle is a topic at the meetings of professional societies, including the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. At the same time communities around the country are putting the principle to practice.

Now, as a teacher of environmental health, I use a new textbook, written by my own colleague in the Environmental Health department, Nancy Maxwell. A section is devoted to the precautionary principle and democratic science. Now when students learn about chemicals policies and evidence-based standards, they have a name for what has been missing and examples of what it looks like. They get it, too. Precaution isn't simple, but it is valued. It is the work of the next ten years to transform teaching precaution from mention in the text to the foundation of our thinking.

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