The current pandemic has underscored the necessity and challenges of effectively communicating science and risk to the public. Chaired by Drs. Lauren Walker and Andrea R. Hindman, the session titled “Honor Thy Stakeholders: How Toxicologists Can Better Incorporate Stakeholders into Research, Communication, and Translation” shared real-world experiences, including novel and improved stakeholder engagement practices, that scientists can add to their research “tool kits.” Tackling the challenges of bias and misinformation—while also supporting just, inclusive, and accessible research solutions—begins with thoughtful engagement with stakeholders. This session’s speakers shared their personal research experiences, addressing common challenges as well as recommendations for successful stakeholder engagement. Their perspectives can be readily summarized in a few key points:
Research Efforts and Community Goals Are Interdependent
Research can provide valuable data to support positive change in a community. Community organizers often seek scientists’ expertise in evidence-based decision-making to support their goals. In their presentations, Dr. Jacklyn Skye Kelty and Kathryn Rodgers highlighted real-world service project models of authentic and productive community-researcher relationship building. Dr. Kelty reminded attendees that researchers must establish themselves as trustworthy and approachable and as a collaborative partner within communities. Ms. Rodgers emphasized that being willing to show up at community events, local meetings, and conferences is a good starting point for building relationships and trust with community stakeholders. As Ms. Rodgers stated, “… sometimes we as scientists … don’t know who to share our science with. Our stakeholders can tell us.” Further, being upfront about personal capabilities and limitations as a scientist, as well as addressing real or perceived power imbalances, can help to maintain healthy respect between parties in a research collaboration.
Include Stakeholders in Strategic Planning
Successful stakeholder partnerships celebrate diversity of perspectives and strive to understand stakeholders’ personal experiences and where they work and play. In his presentation, Dr. Andrew Maier discussed the importance of “being humble in your science.” Available data can offer a lot of uncertainty, and it is important to be transparent in communicating what you do and do not know as a researcher. By employing these key inclusive communication components, researchers can make themselves more accessible and approachable to their stakeholders, sowing more trust.
Develop A Shared and Transparent Vision
When interacting with stakeholders, it is critical be in sync with shared objectives and goals and acknowledge how and why your goals may be different. In their talks, Drs. Christine Curran and Sabine Lange underscored the importance of listening to your stakeholders. Dr. Curran encouraged attendees to briefly set aside their “advanced degree cap” and ask their stakeholders important questions like, “What is the most important part of this project for you?” and “What questions do you have?” It also is important, she noted, to consider the unique and valuable knowledge and skills that stakeholders can bring to the table. Dr. Lange added that engagement efforts are most successful when researchers thoroughly prepare for stakeholder meetings, use accessible and jargon-free language, and—importantly—balance evidence delivery with empathy for your audience. By meeting stakeholders on equal footing, resilient communication channels are formed between researchers and communities.
To conclude, regular research endeavors should incorporate transparent and respectful engagement practices to foster both science communication and meaningful research at all career levels. Faculty members teaching toxicology and/or health-related courses can consider incorporating service-learning projects like those showcased in this session that work with community partners. The first thing a “new-to-community-research” scientist should do is investigate the community, connect with neighbors, and find out what is important to the community members. Honoring the lived-experience and welcoming the contributions of the people who our research can impact combats the polarizing state of science and toxicology as we know it today. Finally, improved incorporation of stakeholders into research, communication, and translation as partners holistically accomplishes the SOT mission to create a safer and healthier world by advancing the science and increasing the impact of toxicology.
A recorded version of this session is available to 2022 Annual Meeting registrants until July 31, 2022, through the 2022 SOT Event App and Online Planner.