Dr. Thomas A. Burke is the former Science Advisor and deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The interview was conducted on January 19th, 2017.
HPR: Since you assumed office, what have been the biggest cultural or technological changes that have affected the EPA’s work?
TAB: I assumed the office a little over two years ago. First of all, EPA has always been a science agency and the decisions that EPA makes are based in science, whether it’s air pollution, control, or drinking water protection. There’s a rich tradition in science, but I think it’s a very interesting time in the field of environmental science. I’m very happy to have been there during a time when, one, the importance of the science and the integration of the science into all of the programs in the region has accelerated and been tremendous.
But also, there’s been a recognition that the science is changing, that the challenges we have now, which are very big challenges, of water resource protection, of climate, are scientific challenges that go beyond the little, narrow lanes of air, water, waste and really integrate throughout the entire EPA. I’m very happy to have been part of that transition to a real systems look at environmental protection and a true integration of many different branches of science into what we do.
HPR: What factors would you say account for that enhanced recognition of the importance of the integration of science?
TAB: The challenges we face. If you go back historically to issues facing the country environmentally, they were somewhat focused. We have our origins in concerns about pesticides and impact on the ecology and the predatory birds and exposure to people, and so pesticide control made good sense in and of itself. We had water pollution problems with discharges into rivers, but now we have problems of water scarcity, water resource management, agriculture impacting water resources, in addition to having challenges within all of our cities (how do we manage waste?) and seeing the interconnections, connecting the dots of environmental science. So it’s really been two things – the evolution of the field to see the importance of these different components, but also the advancement of our recognition of problems where we realize that these are not simple solutions anymore.
It’s not regulating one specific content anymore, or any one specific compartment in the environment, but we have to understand the ecology of the problem in terms of the broader impact. We also have to be aware of the social impact of environmental decisions, so economics and social sciences have really come to the fore. Then there’s always that absolutely core mission that we have, which is the protection of public health. It’s not a simple thing. So, in addition to being worried about pollution, we have to understand that communities have certain vulnerabilities and there are populations who are at highest risk. If you look at the example of Flint, Michigan, it was, unfortunately, a perfect storm of vulnerabilities. There was a vulnerable community, an aging housing infrastructure, financial challenges, source water that was unprotected, and mismanagement of the treatment of the water. That’s not just a one-science solution. That’s really understanding the broader perspective of the science.
HPR: What would you identify as your biggest accomplishment during your time at the EPA in order to address those challenges and protect vulnerable communities?
TAB: It’s really an accomplishment of the entire agency and a real tribute to Administrator Gina McCarthy. I think that has been our recognition and our emphasis on protecting public health. It’s why we do what we do, and it’s connecting the dots to do the best we can to protect the health of the public, whether that be with a new ozone rule, whether that be the lens that we look at through our actions on clean power and reducing emissions, or whether that be understanding the challenges to our water resources. The public health mission, I think, rose to the fore, became very much more of a scientific culture.
With that comes a new and outstanding relationship with the Centers for Disease Control, the public health community. What I’m most proud of as a public health person, from a great school of public health, Johns Hopkins, is that we established strong new partnerships with the American Public Health Association, with the National Association of County Health Officials, with the Association of State Health Officials. It’s a bond with the public health community that will only strengthen our ability to do environmental protection, particularly in an era where perhaps we’re entering a new time when there will be more emphasis on state and local challenges and state and local responsibilities to manage the environment.
HPR: How has concurrently serving in two high-level positions in the EPA shaped your career, as well as your ability to forge those partnerships with the public health sector?
TAB: That’s a great question. I served as a Science Advisor, and I also served as the lead person for Research and Development. I had enormous management responsibility for the laboratory complex of the EPA and the conduct of research and funding of research, and an incredible group of 1,500 scientists who worked on really not just America’s but the world’s most pressing environmental problems, so I’ve been a research manager. But as the Science Advisor, I had a wonderful opportunity to be the Science Advisor to Administrator McCarthy, to represent the agency in White House Committees—the Committee on Science, for instance—and other committees under the President’s Science Advisor to make sure that the environmental perspectives were there are on big picture issues, like Zika.
It was an incredible opportunity and incredible challenge but a wonderful continuum of being a researcher, heading the research, and being a translator and the representative of science. Although it’s a tough job—there’s probably no more challenging place on earth to do environmental science than the US Environmental Protection Agency—serving as Science Advisor was a tremendous opportunity to make sure we had that continuity of message, I got to work with the regions and the programs and we built in a great partnership with the folks throughout the agency so that we could meet their science needs.
HPR: Do you think that your perspective on environmental science or public health changed at all over the course of your time in the EPA?
TAB: Absolutely. It was tremendous. Even at a pretty late stage of my career, a very senior part of my career, it was an incredible learning experience. Now, I have been a professor and an associate dean. I’ve also been a deputy health commissioner for the state of New Jersey. I headed up the science branch of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. I have had a number of roles in environmental science and environmental protection in my career, but the greatest challenge by far was heading up Research and Development and being the Science Advisor because the science is so important to the national decision-making on things. We are the backstop for emergencies as well as emerging problems, so virtually every major national issue in Environmental Protection, from the Gold King mines to the emergence of the fluoridated compounds in the wells in Upstate New York, are things that are very challenging scientific and policy issues.
My perspective on the importance of getting the science right, of making sure it’s credible, it’s transparent, and it’s well peer-reviewed, my respect for that and my recognition of the necessity for that in order to have trust in the science has really been eye-opening. I think I’ll be a better professor; I’ll be a better teacher because of the incredible rigor of the science and the constant questioning and transparency and inclusion in the review process that comes with being part of the Environmental Protection Agency.
HPR: What will you take back with you from your experience working at the national level when you return as a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health?
TAB: First of all, in a way that people at schools can understand, I just finished the best postdoc in the world: not just work with world-class scientists, but to really face the challenges along with the top-level people in all branches of Environmental Protection in this country. To apply that science, to really make a difference in communities and in people’s lives, takes a skill set that we didn’t learn in school, and perhaps we’re not training professionals for tomorrow in quite the range of disciplines that we need to.
A lot of science is somewhat narrow in its approach. Research grants are driven by experiments and driven by data, but I think it’s incumbent upon scientists, particularly environmental scientists in the future, to be able to communicate, explain, and translate their work to understand the application of their work so that it’s more than just scientific journal publications and the accolades that come with being an academic scientist. True success in science is making change through science, and that is what EPA is all about.
HPR: You spent years in these two positions that you yourself have described as vital to the interests of the environment and quite intense in the nature of the work. What is it like to be done with this chapter of public service in your life?
TAB: I tried to think about that. This is my first real day. I am still [with the EPA] until noon tomorrow, but I’m home today on leave. Still, I was told to be prepared if there’s an emergency, right up until the final minute. So there is this level of tension and demand that is unprecedented for, I think, most scientists, and it’s an incredible privilege. There was also the access and the inclusion in White House decision-making that was just unprecedented. It’s incredible. I really wondered: what will it be like to go back to my old faculty office and just sit there in my endowed chair? Maybe it’s a quiet day and I just talk to students. It’s wonderful.
My heart is filled with the good relationships that I’ve built, with the successes that we had, the improved recognition of public health, and the connection of the various disciplines of science and the progress that this administration made. This president’s commitment to environmental protection: it was just a wonderful experience. As much as it’s emotional, and it will be a tough decompression, I have just such a wonderful feeling of satisfaction and confidence that [the Office of Research and Development] and the science of EPA will continue to really be a guiding light for decisions in the future. Because science is not partisan, and the data that is so important to drive our decisions about protecting Public Health will always be needed. The excellence at EPA will prevail.
HPR: Thank you for taking some time, especially as you finish up your last few days in office, to speak to me and to speak to our readers.
TAB: One more thing I have to tell you about going back to school: I can’t wait to not wear ties and just put my jeans and desert boots back on.
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