I wrote “Crossing the Imaginary Line” with the intention of initiating a dialog within our community about how we should pursue a shared goal of protecting public health and the environment.  I did not mean to suggest that a researcher should not venture from the safety and security of the lab.  However, after discussions with readers, I recognize that the editorial can easily be misunderstood.  This pains me because the responsibility of researchers to do the right thing is the thread running through the editorials that I have written over the past two years, as well as the touchstone of my career.  I certainly did not intend to advocate for inaction in the face of injustice.  Rather, I set out to start a conversation on a topic that is challenging and that I believe is worthy of much more discussion. 

To clarify my thoughts that were not well articulated in the editorial, I offer the following:

I do not question the need for researchers to play an active role in righting wrongs that are being committed; instead we need to consider carefully the most effective means of achieving successful outcomes.  In the editorial, I suggested that we first work within the existing system that is supposed to provide protection.  When regulators or policymakers do not respond, we can turn to professional advocates who make it their business to translate science into action.  For example, the Madrid Statement and the San Antonio Statement are cases in which hundreds of researchers spoke in unison about the dangers of the continued use of toxic chemicals in consumer and industrial products.  These syntheses of the scientific consensus were used by NGOs to pressure government agencies to ban chemicals that were affecting the health of hundreds of millions of people and contaminating wildlife worldwide.  The partnership between researchers and NGOs at the heart of this form of action has effectively protected the public from unsafe environmental practices countless times over the past 40 years.

I recognize that not every problem can be solved by a partnership between researchers and professionals.  There will be cases in which no qualified NGO is willing to take on a particular problem.   Sometimes a researcher has specific expertise or stature that is instrumental to a solution.  To be very clear, I hold each of the people that I mentioned as examples in the editorial in very high esteem for their courageous actions.  Rather than criticize these heroes, I aim to initiate a discussion about why they don’t receive more support from our community.  I want to pose questions that we might consider and act upon: Is there a way that professional societies or groups of researchers can endorse or provide a more formal mechanism of logistical support for those of us who need to take on these kinds of challenges?  What about the heroes who never made it into the media consciousness because their message didn’t gain enough traction?  Would they have been more successful if they had this kind of community support? 

I have learned a lot from the discussions that I have had with people who were confused by the editorial.  Reasonable people who share similar motivations may not agree on everything, but they can learn a lot by listening to each other.  I look forward to more dialog on ways in which we can achieve our shared goal of making the world a better place.

David Sedlak PhD
Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Science & Technology