Science Wednesday: Celebrating the Past, Traversing the Path Forward

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By Paul T. Anastas, Ph.D.

Last week, EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) convened a gathering of its own living history, bringing eight former Assistant Administrators together to help celebrate 40 years of EPA research.

EPA Assistant Administrators for the Office of Research and Development (left to right): Erich W. Bretthauer, Vaun A. Newill, Stephen J. Gage, Norine E. Noonan, Robert J. Huggett, Paul T. Anastas (current), Bernard D. Goldstein, George Gray, J.Paul Gilman

EPA Assistant Administrators for the Office of Research and Development (left to right): Erich W. Bretthauer, Vaun A. Newill, Stephen J. Gage, Norine E. Noonan, Robert J. Huggett, Paul T. Anastas (current), Bernard D. Goldstein, George Gray, J.Paul Gilman

The esteemed guests sat before an audience of colleagues and old friends to discuss their experiences at the helm of ORD, share the highlights of their tenure, and offer insights into the next 40 years of science at EPA.

Before becoming an ORD Assistant Administrator, I taught courses covering a range of history-shaping environmental events.  I delved into case studies of Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and more recent tragedies such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and hurricane Katrina. It was an honor to sit among those who not only lived through these extraordinary events, but were tasked with the challenge of bringing EPA’s scientific assets to bear in response.

In responding to today’s environmental challenges, such as the oil spill tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, I have had the good fortune to tap into this group’s unparalleled experience. I’ve consulted with more than a few of them directly and have been able to rely on the research infrastructure they created.

A strong argument can be made that no one has had more impact on EPA’s impressive research legacy than these eight individuals. Often, they were faced with blank slates and no models to follow. But they still saw potential where others saw none. They lived in a world that wasn’t characterizing waste sites, wasn’t assessing risks, didn’t understand pollution prevention, wasn’t using science in decision making…and they saw huge potential.

We can and must learn from the past so that we can continue to build, create and live in the future. It was particularly exciting to hear encouraging words from several of the former leaders regarding the Path Forward, our plans to implement an EPA research strategy focused on the science and innovation for a sustainable future. With their support, I feel even more confident that EPA research is moving in the right direction.

Bringing together the former Assistant Administrators was a milestone event that represents what will surely be a continued collaboration. I am privileged to be a rookie member of their team and, though they’ve moved on to other pursuits, was so proud to welcome them home.

About the Author: Prior to becoming the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Paul T. Anastas was the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at Yale University.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.