March for Science matters for Michigan

In Washington and around the country on Saturday, scientists and concerned citizens will march to defend science and champion its role at the heart of sound public policy.

As the event website puts it, "The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest."

There are 14 satellite marches planned in Michigan. Click here to find one near you.

The marches come as many members of Congress and top federal officials-including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency-dismiss basic climate science. And they take place on Earth Day, which is appropriate, because we can't protect life on the planet without the tools science provides to understand our world and develop solutions to environmental problems.

Good science is fundamental to our work at the Michigan Environmental Council. Time and again, MEC has partnered with university researchers and others to inject the latest science into debates at the state Capitol about policies that affect public health and our natural resources.

As we look forward to this weekend's demonstrations, here are five examples of how science has played or is playing a central role in safeguarding the health of Michigan families and protecting the wild places and natural communities we have a responsibility to care for.

1. Dr. Mona's simple experiment

There was nothing fancy about Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha's experiment that proved Flint residents were being poisoned by lead-tainted water, but it was good science that had a huge impact. As we wrote in a piece about why MEC chose her as the recipient of our 2016 Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award, "Hanna-Attisha ran a simple before-and-after analysis of hospital records, which revealed that children's blood lead levels had doubled-or tripled, in some parts of the city-following the drinking water switch. She called a press conference to announce her findings, but state officials immediately tried to discredit her announcement in the media as ‘irresponsible' and ‘near hysteria.' A week later, they acknowledged that Hanna-Attisha's findings were accurate-that, in the middle of the Great Lakes, an entire city's drinking water had been poisoned."

Fittingly, Hanna-Attisha has been named honorary co-chair of the March for Science.

2. Michigan scientists stand up for biodiversity

In the past two legislative sessions, MEC and allies have beaten back proposals that would have prohibited state agencies from designating land to protect biological diversity, even though science tells us diverse ecosystems are more productive and more resilient in the face of disaster and disease.

A key factor in those victories was a letter to the governor from 133 Ph.D.-level scientists representing 13 Michigan universities that urged him to veto Senate Bill 78, which he later did. Being able to point to such strong opposition from so many distinguished scientists gave MEC and our partners an edge in our efforts to block the bill.

"Policies like SB 78 foster the feeling among scientists that we need to speak up more," Bradley Cardinale, a University of Michigan ecologist and signer of the letter, told Michigan Distilled. "SB 78 is so scientifically illiterate and ill-informed that we had no choice but to tell Governor Snyder that this is a terrible idea for Michigan."

While we've been successful so far, this fight isn't over. Similar legislation was just reintroduced on Wednesday.

3. A science-based victory for clean air

A year ago MEC achieved a major victory for clean air when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officially dropped its plan to deregulate air emissions of some 500 toxic chemicals. At the core of our five-year opposition to the state's plan was its failure to follow basic scientific principles.

For example, the proposal would have allowed polluters to emit any amount of some 250 chemicals that have not been linked to cancer but are known to be somewhat toxic. Doing so would have ignored the basic formula that a chemical's human health impact is the product of both its toxicity and the quantity emitted. The plan also called for deregulating another 250 chemicals that have not been tested for their health impacts and therefore could cause cancer. We argued that basic scientific research on the impacts of these chemicals was needed before the state could even consider deregulating them.

We also borrowed an apt metaphor from the language of scientific experimentation throughout our campaign: Michigan residents are not guinea pigs.

4. Weaving science into contamination cleanup guidelines

For the past year or so, MEC Policy Director James Clift has been among the stakeholders working with the DEQ to update the criteria the state uses to guide cleanups of contaminated sites. The update is long-overdue. Even though there's a steady stream of research into the health impacts of chemicals on the list of contaminants, the cleanup criteria for some of them have not been updated in more than 20 years.

A toxic pollution plume in Ann Arbor highlighted the need for updating the criteria. The state issued emergency rules last fall that lowered the allowable level of dioxane in drinking water from 85 to just 7.2 parts per billion, reflecting growing scientific evidence of how harmful the chemical can be to human health.

MEC has been working to make sure the state's cleanup criteria reflect the latest science on these chemicals so that all Michigan residents have safe drinking water and healthy communities. We've also called on the state to change the process it uses for updating the cleanup criteria so that emerging science is seamlessly incorporated into the guidelines.

"We don't want to wait 25 years again to update them the next time," James told WKAR's Current State radio show. "We think the process should include some streamlined method to make sure when new science emerges, new studies come out, that those can quickly be incorporated into agency decision-making to make sure we continue to protect the public and don't kind of get behind the science like we are today."

5. Advancing clean tech

As we've written here before, renewable power is growing fast, creating a ton of jobs and setting all kinds of records. One big reason for all that growth: Renewables are now the cheapest power source. In Michigan, the latest contracts for wind power are coming in at half what it cost in 2008. Meanwhile, electric vehicles and energy storage are also becoming more and more affordable.

We owe that increasing affordability in large part to science and engineering. It seems like every few weeks we see another story about a breakthrough technology that could significantly expand the market and slash the cost of clean tech. (Perovskites, anyone?) Michigan scientists, including researchers at UM and MSU, are getting in on the act.

We need more of this kind of innovation to keep driving down the cost of renewable energy, improve energy storage and expand adoption of electric vehicles, not to mention developing energy-saving building materials, more efficient home appliances and lighting, and all the other pieces of our clean energy future.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is trying to slash funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a principal hub for clean energy research in the U.S. As one employee of the office told the Washington Post, "These are individuals we have in labs throughout the country, and when our funding gets cut, those are postdocs and graduate students and researchers that are goneThey're doing the research. And they won't have jobs. And we won't be competitive."

That's reason enough to march.


Photo courtesy USDA via Flickr.

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