In one episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) tries to pass a bill adding fluoride to the town’s water source. She’s opposed by a councilman/dentist who wants to continue making money off of the many cavities that occur in the town. As she discusses the debate, she realizes, “On my side, I have facts, science, and reason. All he has is fear-mongering. Oh my god, he’s gonna win.”
Many Americans have seen that when it comes to public policy, science doesn’t win out as often as it should. This issue was recently brought to the forefront with last month’s March for Science. NGOs are also working harder than ever to promote science-based policies. One such organization is the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a D.C. based group whose motto is “Science for a healthy planet and safer world.”
UCS was founded in 1969 with the goal of pushing the government to use science to address the problems facing society rather than to create weapons. Under the umbrella goal of a healthy planet, UCS works on issues like clean energy and transportation, nuclear power and weapons, climate change, and food/agricultural systems.
Science: Essential for Democracy
I recently spoke with Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in its Center for Science and Democracy. The Center for Science and Democracy focuses on the need for informed citizens in an effective democratic society by providing clear, accurate scientific information and countering misinformation. The Center’s goals are to ensure that scientists and citizens work together and get involved in the democratic process, thereby encouraging science-based policies.
Genna’s role with the Center for Science and Democracy involves researching areas where science is affected by corporate or political influences—in particular where public health is at stake. She works to ensure that the public is aware of the most accurate information and of the attempts by moneyed interests to obscure that information.
Protecting Public Health
One campaign that Genna has worked on recently is UCS’s work on added sugar. Genna and UCS have been striving to make dietary guidelines reflect the impact that excessive added sugars can have on health, and particularly on the health of children. The sugar industry has been striving at the same time to reduce the amount of clear information about the amount of added sugars in our foods and its effect on health.
Last year, UCS released a report called “Hooked for Life: How Weak Policies on Added Sugars Are Putting a Generation of Children at Risk.” The report, which Genna co-authored, provides details on the magnitude of the added sugar problem, the ways in which current policies are insufficient, and recommendations for more robust policies that fully take into account the science on added sugar. The report also describes tactics used by the food industry to keep children hooked on sugar and parents unaware of the impacts.
In addition to writing this report, Genna has worked with federal agencies like the FDA and USDA to try to promote healthier policies around sugar. This work has included a particular focus on the new Dietary Guidelines, set to be released in 2020. These guidelines will cover children from birth to age two for the first time. UCS worked with public health experts to send letters to these agencies, emphasizing the importance of creating the guidelines based on science, not on influence from the food industry.
As part of UCS’s mission is promoting collaboration between expert scientists and the general public, Genna also worked on organizing a citizen petition to the FDA. The petition urges the FDA to create a science-based limit on the amount of added sugar a product can have in order to include a nutrient content claim or health claim, like “heart healthy,” on the package.
Changing Administration, Changing Tactics
Since some of the work Genna does at UCS involves communicating with federal agencies, I asked if tactics for this work changed depending on the priorities of different administrations. These changes are something UCS pays close attention to. In January, Genna and the Center for Science and Democracy released a report on the level of scientific integrity displayed by the Obama administration, as well as what to expect going forward.
While there have certainly been setbacks for science and scientists since the beginning of this administration, Genna also sees positive changes—namely, the level of political involvement from the scientific community. “One thing that is really an interesting development since the beginning of the year is the way in which scientists are becoming more active in the community and in advocacy in general,” she said.
While currently this involvement is primarily to defend current progress, funding, and policies, hopefully the momentum will continue in the future, allowing the scientific community to have a positive, progressive influence on public policy.