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Mr. Sustainability Goes To Washington

ACS Meeting News: EPA R&D head sees technological innovation and a solutions approach as essential to the success of the agency’s mission

by Rudy M. Baum
April 26, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 17

Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN (Both)
Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN (Both)

Paul T. Anastas is a scientific evangelist. More specifically, he is a green chemistry and green engineering evangelist, which should not be surprising as he is generally regarded as one of the “fathers” of the green chemistry movement.

However, as the new assistant administrator in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research & Development (ORD) and EPA’s science adviser, Anastas is in a unique position to put his evangelism into practice. At the American Chemical Society national meeting in San Francisco last month, where he delivered a keynote address (C&EN, March 29, page 7), Anastas sat down with C&EN to discuss his role at EPA and the challenges he faces.

Anastas, who is also the Teresa & H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment at Yale University and director of Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering, was nominated to the EPA post in May 2009. His nomination was put on hold in the Senate for seven months over an issue unrelated to Anastas; he was confirmed on Dec. 24, 2009.

“It is a new day at EPA,” Anastas said. “EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson made it clear from our first conversation that science has an essential, central role in everything we do, every decision we make, how we go about pursuing our mission.”

Early in our discussion, Anastas referred to a speech Jackson had given in early March at the National Press Club in which she had said, “It’s time to put to rest the notion that economic growth and environmental protection are incompatible. It’s time to finally dismiss this false choice.”

“That is a recognition that environmental protection and good economics can work hand in hand,” Anastas observed. “For so long at EPA, we have been excellent at deeply understanding problems—the challenges in environmental health, human health—and quantifying, characterizing, and reviewing those problems. What’s happening now is that we’re complementing that understanding with a solutions orientation. Instead of just telling folks what’s wrong, we’re also saying, ‘Here’s how we are going to address those problems.’ ”

Anastas recently released a memorandum to the ORD staff entitled “The Path Forward” outlining his priorities for the office and the principles that would guide the office’s work. In the memo, he wrote: “My vision for the future of ORD includes a recognition that the goal of sustainability is our ‘true north,’ that scientific and technological innovation is essential to the success of our mission, that we need to couple our excellence in problem assessment with an equal excellence in solving problems, and that we must act with a sense of urgency.”

In our conversation, Anastas pointed to the true north reference. “That means that, yes, risk reduction is important and risk management is important, but all of these are part of the larger whole of sustainability. These are all tools in moving toward sustainable products, sustainable processes, and a sustainable society.”

ORD’s budget has been flat or declining for a number of years. The Obama Administration’s 2011 budget proposes $606 million for ORD, up $11 million, or 2%, from the 2010 budget. Anastas points out that R&D across EPA is slated to receive $846 million in 2011, essentially flat from 2010 after a 6% increase in 2010 compared with 2009.

The overriding challenge facing ORD, Anastas said, is the fundamental change in the nature of environmental problems. “The challenges we faced in 1970 were, in many ways, very obvious,” he said. Then, rivers caught fire and air was unfit to breathe. “Today, our environmental challenges are far more complex and far more subtle.” He points to endocrine disruption as one example. “The regulatory approaches we took in the ’70s were pretty direct,” he continued. “Here we need to start thinking in terms of systems because we have systems interacting with other systems. That type of systems thinking is not something scientists and engineers have traditionally been trained to do.”

To facilitate the transition to this type of thinking, Anastas said EPA has launched what he calls an “integrated transdisciplinary research” (ITR) effort in which scientific, social, and economic disciplines are incorporated “from the very beginning when you are defining what the problem is and how to approach it.”

When it is pointed out to Anastas that ITR represents a significant cultural change for ORD, he said his job is made easier because “the folks at ORD, like the folks at EPA generally, are unanimous in their belief and commitment to the mission of the agency. You know, you get 2,000 scientists together, and you can have 2,000 opinions on almost anything, except the commitment to the mission, which is to protect human health and the environment. Once you make the case in a compelling and convincing way that moving toward ITR helps accomplish the mission more effectively and more efficiently, then these extremely bright and capable folks find a way to move in that direction very quickly.”

Anastas also addressed the place of green chemistry and green engineering in ORD. He noted that ORD will work to advance green chemistry through traditional mechanisms such as grants. In addition, however, green chemistry and engineering will be considered fundamental to research funded by ORD, whether it is carried out internally or externally.

“If people are doing chemistry on environmental issues, then the chemistry they produce has to encompass the considerations of green chemistry and green engineering,” Anastas said. “Otherwise, we wind up causing as many problems as we’re curing. When our solutions to environmental problems cause more environmental problems, that’s not sustainable. So, if we’re doing chemistry, making new chemicals, inventing new chemical transformations, putting together new chemical processes, then, yes, the principles of green chemistry and green engineering are a baseline consideration in whether we would support that research.”

Reading Anastas’ “The Path Forward” memo, one senses a bit of impatience with an organization that has, perhaps, focused over time more on process than on results. The six principles Anastas listed that will guide ORD’s work are sustainability, solution-oriented, timeliness, responsiveness, relevance, and integrity. Under timeliness, he wrote: “While exact timeframes will differ based on the nature of the scientific challenges to be confronted, our work must be conducted with a sense of urgency. Our mission is too important to be delayed.”

As the conversation wound down, Anastas’ enthusiasm did not. He was preparing to give a keynote address to several hundred attendees at the ACS national meeting, and his thoughts were on the chemistry enterprise writ large. “What makes me the most excited about this opportunity,” he said, “is working with the broader scientific, chemistry, and engineering communities to change the equation, change the reality. Right now we are on an unsustainable trajectory. The data tell us that. The only way to get off that unsustainable trajectory is through science and technological innovation. It is going to be through innovations by chemists, molecular scientists, and engineers that we will change our current reality to make us more sustainable.

“I honestly believe we’re up to it,” he concluded. “The real question is, will we engage with the urgency that is necessary as a scientific community.”


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