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Address to Annual EPA Science Forum - Washington, D.C.

[Note: EPA’s third Annual Agency-wide Science Forum, held to showcase the Agency’s scientific accomplishments, demonstrate EPA's commitment to quality science, and highlight the impact of science in EPA decision-making, had as its overarching theme, “Healthy Communities and Ecosystems.”]

Good afternoon and welcome to the EPA Science Forum. We are here to celebrate the cutting-edge science and research that has come to characterize the United States Environmental Protection Agency. I am honored to be with such a large group of distinguished scientists.

I feel privileged to work with you and want to express my admiration and appreciation for your commitment to the Agency. Your work and personal passion to protect our environment and help people to live healthier and longer lives is very evident to me.

Last week I had a rare opportunity. It was a treat really, and it almost seemed indulgent. I invited 15 distinguished scientists to join me in a free-form discussion about the importance of science, the use of science, and the future of science at EPA.

These scientists were respected academics. Many of them directed the research efforts at corporations and laboratories. One was a Nobel laureate. Many were research fellows and distinguished professors. All of them, in one role or another, advised the work of the Agency.

I posed two questions to the group: first, what are the critical scientific issues that we should be focused on as an agency, and, second, how can we use science better?

We spent the better part of a day talking in an open and engaging way about these and other issues. We talked about genomics, molecular biology and chemical climatology. We talked at length about disease registries, risk assessment and computational toxicology.

It was just delightful to have a chance to sit and talk with people of their caliber and experience.

I will confess to you that we talked about the EPA Science Forum. At the end of our conversation I asked them what I should say to you today. And, with the candor that really characterized the entire day of discussion, each of them, one by one, offered up ideas that, in part, can be described by four themes:

First, one of them, in a very colorful way, said, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” reflecting the fact that in 34 years this Agency has become one of the most respected bodies within the scientific community worldwide. It is a privilege to sit at international conferences with a sign in front of you that says the United States of America. The work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is respected around the world.

We talked about how many of you in the audience today have been with the EPA for a long time. Many of you joined the agency in the first few years of its existence. I’m told that over the course of the next five to seven years, approximately 35 percent of the Agency’s science resources will move on to other endeavors.

This transition presents a serious challenge. We must make certain that the next generation of scientists continue the scientific tradition that many of you have pioneered.

The second broad theme was the importance of social science, as well as communication, in all that we do. Science and communication should be integrated disciplines. I recounted for this panel of scientists an experience I had the week before our meeting. I think you will find it interesting as well.

I visited a Superfund site in New Bedford, Massachusetts. We had about an hour to spare and so I decided to visit with people along the harbor. I met some delightful people. As I was walking along the bay I saw a fellow down by the shore fishing. He was standing right in front of a sign that said, “Don’t fish here.” I started a conversation with him to learn about the sociology of someone fishing right in front of a no fishing sign.

“What are you fishing for?’ I asked. In his New England accent he replied, “I’m fishing for Stripe-‘ahs’.” So I said, “Have you caught any Stripe-‘ahs’?” “Well, I haven’t caught any keep-‘ahs’ lately,” he replied. Knowing the history of the area and given my role as Administrator of the EPA, I said, “You know you’re not supposed to fish here. It is important that you limit your intake of fish from these polluted waters.” At which he replied, “I don’t catch many keep-‘ahs’ and so I guess you could say that limits my intake.”

This story is indicative of the importance of social science and communication in what we do. We need to understand human behavior better. We need to communicate better.

The third theme is something I’ve been observing for a while. The world is beginning to intuitively organize itself into networks. I find a computer metaphor helpful in this regard. We had mainframe computers when this agency started; we now have networked PCs. Similar to the way we communicate with computer networks, we solve environmental problems best by connecting multiple disciplines and finding a common language. Doing this well is the new frontier in productivity.

I subscribe to an environmental philosophy called Enlibra. One principle of Enlibra is that solutions transcend political boundaries. What are political boundaries? I have come to understand that just like there are boundaries between countries – the U.S. and Canada, or the U.S. and Mexico – and boundaries between states – Virginia and Maryland, or California and Nevada – there are boundaries between agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, or the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce. There are also boundaries between the Office of Air and Radiation and the Office of Water within the Environmental Protection Agency. There are even boundaries that separate cubicles in the same science building!

We accelerate environmental progress when we break down these barriers and solve environmental problems.

There are lots of different kinds of artificial, political and bureaucratic boundaries, and I believe that the 21st Century will be defined by our capacity to find solutions that transcend those boundaries.

Collaborative skills, for instance, will be a defining difference. We have learned to make the machines work together, but can we make the people work together? This is what I mean by the next frontier of productivity: human networks that work well together.

Finally, we spoke about new ideas and new ways to make environmental progress. I characterized what I call “old thinking” and “new thinking” as it applies to environmental protection.

There has always been a sense of tension that surrounds environmental issues. This tension occurs because environmental issues are very personal; they are fundamentally about our relationship with the earth. They speak to our values.

Sometimes these tensions are interpreted as being partisan interests. Well, in my judgment, they are not partisan interests as much as they are the difference between old and new thinking, between those who seek to protect the status quo they created, and those who seek a better way, a way that does more, faster and with less cost.

I believe that we have an opportunity through the course of the next 30 years to shape this Agency to be more collaborative and preventative. We’ve learned how to clean up pollution. Now we need to do better at preventing it.

We need to be informative. I believe this agency has the potential to become the premiere repository of scientific information and facts. In this role, we can be focused on the big questions of science, and we can leverage resources to get them answered.

Finally, we need to have the word “global” in front of almost everything we do. It is our responsibility, in my judgment, to use the convening power of the United States and the U.S. Environmental Protection to improve human health and protect the earth.

Yes, we have come a long way baby, but we have a lot more we can do and more we can do better. I leave you today with this challenge: to find your way to implement new and better ways of thinking. And I pledge to you that I will do my part to continue to strengthen science across the Agency now and in the future.

Thank you.