Public Lab Research note

On the need to answer multiple questions at once in the US Gulf Coast

by eustatic | December 17, 2020 18:22 17 Dec 18:22 | #25288 | #25288

Just a response to the Air Quality manuals asking researchers to pick "one question," and problems raised during the "What's in your Air-ea" Public Lab session.

In the US Gulf Coast, the agencies are actively opposed to air monitoring. Communities are usually concerned with the costs to their health --sick kids, cancer treatments, etc., and want a government agency to protect them. There generally is no such agency or representative that will act. The primary audience must be the courts, because evidence can be presented to a court, evidence that, normally, the agency can willfully obstruct. But this is a frustrating thing for communities, who won't like to hear that a small problem will take 6 years to litigate--and even then, the executive branch, even under a judge's order, can delay and obstruct any decision.

So much of this has nothing to do with the air monitoring project, but I think people should realize that communities will usually or always want to use scientific tools to answer many questions. What people seek is dignity, and political representation. Science is but one tool toward this end.

The philanthropic community is, generally, not equipped to fund citizen science projects to the needs of communities in the USA who lack representation. So, it is important to pick one question, for the grantmaker. The lack of scientific capacity is quite predictable, since often the government is actively ignoring the observations of citizens, but it's very difficult to prove, to a funder, who is of a different social class, and often lives in a place with a different kind of government, the lack of work that the government is engaged in.

The government has the legal authority to answer community problems, but it is a agent against such investigations. The government could find the capacity to investigate the array of issues, but this is seen as against institutional norms--to hire more investigators to enforce rules and regulations. We saw this in Louisiana, where the oil spill investigation department increased staff for the BP Disaster, but laid off 50% of employees once the settlement with BP came in.

In this kind of situation, where communities seek answers to many questions, but organizations are limited to one aspect of one investigation by the philanthropic community, what happens is that non-profit organizations conducting community science inevitably become more political advocacy organizations, and drop the science, or stop communicating it. Witness LA Bucket Brigade and Air Alliance Houston--organizations that do conduct intensive community science projects, but, over time, turn to political advocacy organizations. As Broderick Bagert, of Together Louisiana, has said, "Until you can cause political pain, 2+2 can equal 5. The science does not matter."

If you are a scientist on the Gulf Coast, doing independent research or acting in concert with an advocacy group, you will likely be asked to solve an immense political problem. Community Air Quality manuals are written to ensure that a particular scientific endeavor has a clear objective, and you will continually hear what you learned in undergrad, that a specific question must have a specific study design.

However, in sacrificed communities, where people are actively dying of air pollution, the community will ask you to provide many answers to many questions. There is a fundamental tension between what you hear from the authors of air quality manuals, who are not situated in the Gulf Coast, and Gulf Coast community requests for actionable information. We shouldn't get too disappointed that we cannot perform as each and all expect, but must do all that what we can.

Additionally, if you are in Houston, Texas, or St James Parish, Louisiana, and you begin to find that the air is actually quite harmful, and there's nothing to be done about it, you are then faced with the question of how to help, how to mitigate the impact, even if you are part of an organization that is opposed to said impact. It is immensely difficult, even nauseating, to find pollution, then tell a community, "we cannot help you."

But the non-profit model of working from siloed grants is set up to lead to this situation. The agency who can help has already been targeted to avoid these very observations. This is why other organizations, like Louisiana Environmental Action Network, who begin community science projects later turn into direct-relief organizations, rather than continue with a citizen science endeavor. The philanthropic community in the USA is currently uniquely terrible at sustaining non-profit, independent community science in the face of observations that will, predictably, change the nature of the most urgent questions.


Hi Scott, thank you for posting this. I think this is one of the most important things that could be said about the practice of crafting a community air study and documenting it in the form of a manual.

The most effective documentation I've come across in the course of working on the bucket project is Air Alliance Houston's Community Air Quality Toolkit, which is actually not an air monitoring guide at all (in the sense of doing a "study" or a "monitoring project") but a walkthrough of how to put pressure on local government officials who should be taking the initiative, but aren't. The fact that AAH felt they needed to put together such an exhaustive document about how to put pressure on local government officials really speaks to itself. It's an incredible guide.

I don't live in a fenceline community and much of what I've done for this project is simply collect resources that others have created and which already existed. My sense -- and again, I don't know much, so take it with a grain of salt -- is that the purpose of the "scientific study" approach is as much about helping people feel comfortable getting started as it is about anything else. That's certainly the gist of the TERC manuals I've been posting. They are very "academic" in their orientation, but they were also drafted in collaboration with organizers who understood that the data problem was a political one, not a scientific one. But yeah, it's certainly a tension.

I really only found one manual, in the course of working on this project, that envisioned what they were doing as a strictly scientific project rather than a political one, and that project was completed in a well-resourced community that was not at the time suffering any direct chemical threat. I respect that approach, but I don't get the sense that it's a feasible one for most people, for all of the reasons you outline above.

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@bhamster - great dialogue continued from the Dec 2020 Air Quality Research Area Review public event.

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I really value you both sharing your lived experiences in navigating these challenging processes, action areas, and advocacy pathways around community air quality monitoring and related efforts. That extra bit of information about the Air Alliance Houston Community Air Quality Toolkit and how it differs from other guides you've reviewed during your Fellowship @kgradow1 is eye opening. Perhaps you could make a note of that on the original thread too? @eustatic thanks for acknowledging the larger systemic issues at play here. Resonating with your comments around identifying the scale in which one may want to contribute to the cause(s) -- and at the same time how it can easily become overshadowed by the realities on the ground and how funding plays out.

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