Originally Broadcast Saturday, October 28, 2006
Mr. Morales: Good morning, and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Albert Morales, your host, and managing partner of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created the Center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about the Center by visiting us on the web at businessofgovernment.org.
The Business of Government Radio Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our special guest this morning is Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, and Science Advisor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Good morning, George.
Dr. Gray: Good morning.
Mr. Morales: And joining us in our conversation is Pete Boyer, director in IBM's federal consulting practice.
Good morning, Pete.
Mr. Boyer: Good morning.
Mr. Morales: George, perhaps you can start by giving us an overview of the EPA, and tell us a little bit about its mission and the types of programs at the Administration.
Dr. Gray: Sure. So EPA is 18,000 people across this country working together to advance the protection of human health and the environment. And we've got people here in Washington, D.C., of course, but we have people in 10 regions that we've divided the country into, out in offices and laboratories, really from coast to coast, top to bottom, across the country.
The agency is organized in many ways by the laws that we implement, so that we have an Office of Water, an Office of Air, and Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, and Toxic Substances, Pesticides. So they're responsible for implementing these laws that are protecting our health and our environment.
We also have an enforcement capability, folks who go out and catch people who are breaking the laws. Then we have these regions again. I mentioned the regions earlier. They're the folks who are really involved in a lot of day-to-day implementation of environmental policy out there at the state level and the local level.
And then finally, there is the Office of Research and Development, the group that I head.
Mr. Morales: Great. Can you tell us a little bit more about your office, the Office of Research and Development, otherwise known as ORD? How is it organized and how do you support the broader mission of the EPA?
Dr. Gray: ORD's job is to provide the scientific and technical support that the agency needs to address today's environmental challenges and to think about those for tomorrow. We're organized around what we call the risk assessment paradigm, and this is -- it was first articulated by the National Academy of Sciences more than 20 years ago. And the idea in this is that we try to understand and address potential threats to human health or the environment. We have to think about a hazard, what bad thing could happen with a particular kind of exposure, whether it's a microbe in your food or to a chemical that might be in the water.
Then we have to think about the dose response relationship; that is, how does the exposure translate into disease? We have to think about exposure. Is this something where people are going to be drinking that water all the time, or is this something where it's an exposure that will only happen in a few isolated kinds of circumstances?
And then we want to bring that all together to give us an idea of the size of the risk to help make decisions. And those decisions we call risk management. Somehow, we have to do something about that. So in ORD, we have laboratories that address each of those different bits of the risk assessment paradigm.
In Research Triangle Park, North Carolina primarily, we have a national exposure research laboratory, and those are the folks who think about the ways in which people could be exposed, the way in which pollutants move around in the environment, the way in which they're changed, and the way -- the different ways we can be exposed.
We have then have a center, National Center for Environmental Assessment; that's part of the group that brings everything together, that helps to organize and characterize risks to help make better decisions. We also have a group we call our National Risk Management Research Laboratory, and they're the ones -- they are a lot of our engineers who are thinking about solutions.
And I think that's a really important thing, both for ORD and for EPA, not to just be the ones who are saying this is a problem, this is a problem, look out, watch out, but to say we're coming up with solutions, we're finding ways to address these kinds of problems. And this ranges from work that we do in our risk management lab, where we're trying to find easy cost-effective ways for small water systems to meet our arsenic standard. It can be very difficult to remove this natural material. It's in the -- just in the ground; it's part of the geology of where you live, that can be in your water, and we're trying to find ways that you can do that in a cheap and cost-effective way for a very small water system.
So we're doing risk management work there, and a lot of that is engineering and technology. We also have some support offices; we have an Office of Science Policy that helps with our interactions with the rest of the agency. Remember, I said our job is to make sure the agency has the science and technology it needs as it makes decisions. This is sort of our way that we plug into all of the other parts of the agency to make sure that when they're facing some particular regulatory decision -- or they're evaluating options that they might have -- that we're providing the scientific input that they need.
We have a support group that does a lot of our logistics and our personnel. We have two other very small and new centers I just want to highlight real quickly. One is our National Center for Computational Toxicology, and there, what we're trying to do is to bring new tools and new methods that are coming out of scientific revolutions really in biology and informatics, and we're trying to bring those to bear so that -- to make our work at identifying potential hazards and dealing with them even more rapid, more cost-effective, where we can take advantage of the technologies.
The other thing that we have and a lot of people don't know about is the National Homeland Security Research Center. Under a couple of Presidential directives, we have been given responsibility for certain parts of Homeland Security. We focus primarily on water safety, we focus on decontamination; that is, what you do after there might be some sort of an event. And so we have -- this Homeland Security Research Center is in Cincinnati, Ohio, and they work on things from identifying -- how you identify risks to having laboratories to measure things that might show up in the environment in some way, to thinking about novel detectors and ways in which we can detect something that might have been added to a water supply, for example.
So our idea is that we support the agency. Sometimes it's short-term research; we've been asked for example to develop a quick lead-test kit, and it's something where we can do some of our engineering magic and come up with something that can help answer short-term problems. We were asked to help the Office of Water with requirements that they were given by Congress to be able to do a better job of telling when to close a beach because of contamination.
The methods that we have today take two days to identify whether there might be harmful bacteria in the water. That's two days after we took the sample. It's hard to close that beach two days before. We came up with a rapid molecular-based approach using what's called a quantitative polymerase chain reaction that lets us tell within two hours if there's something in the water that means we should close the beach. So we try to be very responsive and work on short-term needs of the rest of the agency.
We also want to work on longer-term things. Part of our responsibility is making sure that the agency is positioned to meet tomorrow's environmental challenges, and that ranges from doing novel research in biology and in chemistry, to things that we're doing, for example, to help support water infrastructure.
We've got 100 million miles of buried drinking water systems in this country, and they're getting older by the day. And we are working on technologies to help identify places where there could be problems, whether these are things you put in the water to help detect leaks, modeling opportunities to look at where leaks are more likely to happen; new ways of refitting water systems rather than digging up your street, which is not good for anybody; having ways to realign the pipes that are there, things that you can put down the middle that help to more rapidly and cost-effectively rehabilitate that system, save water and save money.
So we also -- so we work on both the short-term and long-term research that helps to support the mission of the agency.
Mr. Boyer: Now, George, what are your responsibilities and duties as the Assistant Administrator for Research and Development within EPA? Could you tell us about the areas under your purview?
Dr. Gray: Well, sure. As the head of the Office of Research and Development, I really see myself as having a couple of important responsibilities. One is working with the folks in ORD to help set priorities, to think about our future. It's one of the most important things that we do, trying to understand where are the new challenges, what are things that we've done a good job of characterizing and the agency is in good shape, then we can move on.
And that's always difficult in any organization when you have to set priorities, you have to change areas of emphasis. And we've got to do this in a constantly evolving world of science, in which the skills that are needed may change, in which the tools and techniques that are being used change and evolve constantly.
So I really take very seriously my job of working with the people of ORD to identify where we're going, where we need to go to support the agency, where we need to go to meet those environmental challenges, and where we need to go as an organization to be best positioned to make the contributions that the rest of EPA looks to us to have.
Mr. Boyer: Now, George, you've had a very interesting career. Could you describe your career path for our listeners? Specifically, how did you begin your career?
Dr. Gray: Well, I'm not quite sure where one's career begins. I won't go all the way back to kindergarten, but I think it's an interesting path that's gotten me here, simply because I am someone who has always had an interest in science, and an interest in seeing science make a difference.
I really first got interested in scientific research in college, with a job. I needed a job. I ended up washing glassware in laboratories at the University of Michigan. It wasn't the most exciting job. I'd go around with my cart and I'd get the test tubes and petri dishes and take them down to the big dishwasher and do that. But by interacting with the people in the labs, they got to know me, they got to know my interests, and eventually I ended up in one of those laboratories working and doing experiments. So I got exposed to scientific research in a way that got me very excited.
I went off to graduate school to work in toxicology. That was what I thought would be a very -- it's kind of an applied kind of science. It turns out that I learned an awful lot of good things, but I ended up -- my laboratory work was molecular biology and very kind of basic research, and it left me feeling still less connected to where the science makes a difference.
I think a real break and something that made a real difference for me was to get a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard at the School of Public Health, in a program that they had that was supported by the EPA -- they called the program Environmental Health and Public Policy -- and what they tried to do is bring people from a variety of backgrounds together, toxicologists, economists, psychologists, all people who are interested in environmental health but came from very different backgrounds, and working together in really understanding how the environmental policy world works, how science plays in there, and that got me really excited,
I really enjoyed that. I fell in with some great people, and I basically went from a post-doctoral faculty member at the Harvard School of Public Health for about 16 years. And it was just last year, last November, when I left Boston and came down here to take the position as the Assistant Administrator of ORD, and this was something that was really exciting to me as well.
It's an opportunity to do public service. It's an opportunity to put what I've taught and written about, and done research on for my career to work, and an opportunity to work with a great bunch of people in a place that really matters. And I'm only 10 months in, but I'm having a great time.
Mr. Morales: That's fantastic, George. I only have about another 60 seconds, but I do want to ask you that in January of this year, in addition to your R&D leadership role, you were also appointed EPA's Science Advisor. Can you explain this role briefly, and how does the dual role within EPA, this dual role, complement each other?
Dr. Gray: Sure. The Science Advisor's a new position that was created under Administrator Whitman, the idea being that there would be a central person who would represent science for the agency. And I think it's really important that the Science Advisor and the Office of Science Advisor is seen as an honest broker for scientific issues across the agency.
And so my goal there is to bring together all of the various parts of EPA -- all of us have scientific questions, technical parts of the work that we do -- to be a meeting place and an honest broker for discussion and for eventual solution of common problems that face a wide part of the agency.
And here I think it's great; working in ORD, I get to hear more about what's going on in the rest of the agency, about science, that's important in that job, and as a Science Advisor, I know what's going on in ORD's research program, and that lets me do a better job there.
Mr. Morales: Fantastic.
What kinds of innovations are happening within Environmental Research and Development? We will ask Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development at EPA, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with EPA's Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development. Also joining us on our conversation is Pete Boyer, director in IBM's federal consulting practice.
George, can you describe what some of your highest organizational priorities are for the fiscal year 2007?
Dr. Gray: I'd be happy to. Now, the way in which we manage ORD, it's important to say that everything we do, at some level, is a priority. We're working in a world where resources are limited, and we work really hard to plan and make sure that we're doing the right science.
At the same time, there really are some areas that we are putting extra emphasis on, some things where we put some additional resources, or we are just applying more brainpower. Water infrastructure is one of those. That is, how can we find ways to help with this -- both our drinking water and our wastewater infrastructure as it ages, to make sure that we're being efficient with the water that we have, that we're doing the best job we can protecting human health and the environment.
Another area that's up and coming is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is clearly an area that we have been involved in for a while, but it's something that's getting even more attention as we move forward. It's something where we will be putting effort in to research both in ORD and in research that we fund out in the universities around the country.
An area of real interest of mine that comes partially just from my background and the work that I did as an academic is the way in which we assess risks, and we're working to do a better job of risk assessment. There, the idea is to get just the best information possible into the hands of people who have to use that information to make some sort of decisions.
We're also going to continue to focus on our important work in Homeland Security. So Homeland Security Research is an important responsibility the agency has been given, and within ORD, our Homeland Security Research Center is working on a variety of important areas, from how to decontaminate outdoor spaces if there is some sort of an attack, to how to best monitor water systems for where something might be going on. So Homeland Security is another important area.
And then, finally, just kind of wrapping up all of this is where we're really beginning to put more emphasis on the notion of sustainability. That is, how can we think about making all of our research and all of our work fit together to help to support -- really, what's interesting, the President gave Steve Johnson a charge when he was named the Administrator, and he reminds us all the time of that charge. So the President told Steve Johnson that what he wanted him to do as Administrator of the EPA was to accelerate the pace of environmental protection while enhancing our nation's economic competitiveness. And to me, that's sustainability. That's finding ways to do a better job of protecting human health and the environment in ways that are cost-effective, that are smart, that are making us more efficient.
And that's going to be another area that we'll be focusing on, as how we as ORD can help to support the agency as we move to this kind of thinking that recognizes the interconnectedness of so many of the things that we do: energy, water -- quantity and quality -- things where there are interconnected decisions that have to be made, where making sustainable decisions means having really good information, and in ORD, we're going to be thinking about how we can support those decisions best.
Mr. Morales: George, you mentioned nanotechnology, and we know that the EPA leads the federal government in planning research directions for the environmental applications and impacts of nanotechnology. I was hoping you could take 30 seconds to give us a definition of nanotechnology and tell us more about EPA's research strategy around the study of nanotechnology, and highlight its potential to improve environmental monitoring and pollution control.
Dr. Gray: Sure. Nanotechnology is really working with really, really small engineered structures. That's an important thing, that we are now developing the ability to make, purposely make, small structures that are a nanometer, which is one-billionth of a meter, long, in some dimension or another. So what we consider nanotechnology are things where we are engineering things to these very small scales. Why that's interesting is that at this small scale, things can have new and different properties than they do in the large.
One example of this that's being used a lot is carbon. Carbon is, you know, a lump of coal. But if you take those carbon molecules and you arrange them in a certain way at a very, very small scale, they take on very new properties, where they're stronger, where they're lighter, where they have different surface properties that change at the nanometer scale. And there are all kinds of fantastic and really exciting opportunities for nanotechnology to enhance our quality of life.
In ORD, we've been looking at nanotechnology, sort of knowing that it's been coming -- really since 2001, we've been doing and funding research in that area. And that research falls into two general areas. Now, we touched on these. The first one is what we call the applications of nanotechnology, the ways in which it can help us to do a better job protecting the environment. And for example, we've had some of our funded research that's gotten to the point where there are new ways, using nano-sized zero-valent iron as a way to better clean up contaminated waste sites. So it's a great applicational place where we're going to do a better, more efficient job of cleaning up with this nanotechnology.
Another way that we're looking at that nanotechnology is for use as sensors and things like that that can help us detect things in the environment. So we're looking at applications for helping us do a better job, new ways of doing chemical reactions that make less waste so they're more efficient.
All of these sorts of things, we're supporting. We're also putting more emphasis now even on what we call the implications of nanotechnology, and there, we're thinking about what might happen -- whether there might be some risks associated with nanotechnology that we'll need to understand so that we can properly manage them to be able to get those benefits to our quality of life that this technology can bring us.
Mr. Boyer: Now, George, you listed risk assessment as an organizational priority. How has your office sought to enhance the transparency and inclusiveness of the chemical risk assessment process through the creation of the Integrated Risk Information Systems, or IRIS? And the second part of the question is, could you describe IRIS and its principal benefits?
Dr. Gray: Sure. A lot of the work -- as I mentioned, we support decisions that are made in other parts of the agency. And sometimes in making those decisions, they have to know whether a particular chemical is hazardous, and maybe how hazardous it is. The IRIS system, the Integrated Risk Information System, is a way in which we apply very, very thorough, very, very good reviews and analyses of specific chemicals, and then we make that information available to the rest of the agency.
But IRIS in many ways has become so effective that it's now used not just by EPA but by state agencies, local agencies. Right now, a third of the hits on our website for IRIS are from outside of this country. So this is an information source that was developed -- it first started 20 years ago within the agency, and has grown in importance now to the point where it's being used not just around the country but around the world.
What we are doing now within ORD is working to make the way in which we do those analyses of chemicals, the way in which we look at the information we have, first of all, as open and transparent as possible. The decisions we make have implications for lots of people not just in government, but in the private sector and elsewhere, and we want people to understand how we do our analyses.
We also want to be open to sources of information, knowledge data that comes from outside of ORD. There's lots of smart scientists in ORD, but there's an awful lot of smart scientists elsewhere, and we want to make sure that we have a process that allows them to get their information and their knowledge in, to make sure we do the best job that we can when we're assessing chemicals.
So we've got a process ongoing and we're working on this and it's something that we are -- I think we all support as a way to make this really important database even more effective in the future.
Mr. Boyer: Now, you mentioned in the first segment Computational Toxicology. Can you expand on ComTox? Specifically, how does it reduce reliance on animal toxicity testing?
Dr. Gray: Well one of the things that we hope to do with ComTox is to take advantage of the ability to manipulate and use lots and lots of different kinds of data in very sophisticated models. But for example, one of the things we want to do is how do we learn from all the tests that have already been done? One kind of work that we do in ORD that's a kind of ComTox is called structure-activity relationships, where we look at chemicals that have already been tested and what happened when you tested those? What kind of organ damage did it cause? Was it neuro-toxic? And using that kind of information, then to make predictions about chemicals that you haven't tested yet. Can you learn from the things that you've tested to make predictions about things that haven't been tested, and the kinds of adverse effects they might have?
At the very least, that can help us set priorities for testing which should reduce our reliance on animal testing. And at some point, I actually think we will be sophisticated enough in our ComTox abilities to not even need to do animal testing, to be able to make decisions based on the kinds of information that we can get out of these systems.
Another neat thing that's happening in ComTox is taking advantage of a revolution in biology that's going on -- it's often called the "omics" explosion -- where there are new ways of measuring things. Genomics, working with the power of DNA; proteinomics, works with protein, the next step up from DNA, and looking at the way in which DNA or proteins, or the way in which the body processes things change with exposure to chemicals or biological agents or physical agents.
And what we want to do is have the ability to process the huge amounts of information that come out of that and again use that to help make predictions, so that perhaps we could do chemical testing instead of on a cage full of mice, we could do it on a little gene chip, and get the same information and be as confident in it. Those are the things we're working toward in our ComTox Center.
Mr. Morales: George, we talk with many of our guests about collaboration, and given its R&D development focus, your organization certainly collaborates with many other entities across federal agencies, private sector, and academia.
What kinds of partnerships are you developing to improve operations or outcomes for ORD, and how will partnerships between the EPA and other federal agencies or the private sector for that matter change over time?
Dr. Gray: Well, that's a great question, Al, because one of the things that I recognize as I have come in, and where we're looking at where it already is, is we're in a world where resources are limited, there are a lot of things we'd like to do, and collaboration is a great way to make the most of the talents and the resources that our folks have.
So within the federal government, there's a coordination that happens, so through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of the President's Science Advisor, we try to work across federal scientific agencies to make sure that people, there's coordination. A great example of that is the government's work on nanotechnology, where through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, there's a great deal of resources going into nanotechnology.
But the federal agencies are all talking and they're coordinating and they're working together to avoid duplication. For example, in the area of implications of nanotechnology, in areas that the ORD's working on, we are coordinating with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For example, they are doing certain kinds of implicational research, a lot of it that has to do with the response of animals and humans.
We are, on the other hand, taking the skills and the talents we have in ORD, and we're focusing a lot on environmental fate and transport of nanotechnology. All of these are things that we're going to need to bring together, but we don't each have to do that research ourselves. So there is coordinating technology in collaboration there that happens across the federal agencies.
We work a lot with academic institutions, and that ranges from our STAR grant programs that we have within ORD, the Science To Achieve Results, the STAR grants, and next year, we'll put about $60 million out into the academic community to help to give folks -- to have them do research that's going to help us.
And then we work with the private sector in a variety of ways. We have a program that we call our ETV, or Environmental Technology Verification, and what we do there is have private sector companies that have developed new technologies that they think can help solve an environmental problem, they come to us and we set up a test method, we set up a way of validating that their test actually does what it says, and then we will validate it. And that's something then that they can use when they're going out in the marketplace and say, EPA has looked at, tested, and approved this particular technology. It's the way we work with them.
We also do research with what are called CRADAs, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements. And these are agreements between the government and often a private sector organization, a research organization, someone to do work that is mutually beneficial.
So we really do work to collaborate the best we can, to take advantage of the talents that are outside the agency, to leverage the talents that we've got within ORD, to help to be ready to meet all of these challenges that are coming.
Mr. Morales: That's fantastic.
How is the EPA managing its research and development efforts? We will ask Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development at EPA, to explain this to us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development at EPA.
Also joining us on our conversation is Pete Boyer, director in IBM's federal consulting practice.
George, given your broad background and in working with academia as you described earlier, we'd like to get a sense of your management approach. Could you provide us with an overview of this approach?
Dr. Gray: Sure. And I think actually the time I spent in academia is part of the -- a strong part of the explanation. I see an awful lot of management as teaching. It's setting priorities, it's understanding where you need to go, but then it's helping to get others to understand why it's important for us all to be working in that same direction.
I guess I'm -- I don't know if this is -- it's not quite a carrot, not quite a stick -- I'm not quite sure what the right description is, but I mean, I have actually -- in my time at ORD, I have gone back and pulled out teaching materials from my time at Harvard, pulled them out and sat down with the group and talked to them -- this is why it's important that we move in this direction. And it works. That's something that works with people. It engages them, and I think it's an important part of the way in which I approach management.
The other thing that I do is, I think that it's important to have clear goals for people. I mean, people have to know where they're supposed to be going, and having clear goals in those expectations is important. But I'll tell you -- and this is no secret -- management doesn't come naturally to scientists, and it's something that an awful lot of people need to work on.
I happened to be very lucky; and when I was talking to the Administrator about potentially taking this job, he said, you know, out there at Harvard, you're responsible for about five people and a couple of million dollars in a good year; ORD is 2000 people with a $600 million budget. And I did tell him I had one little special secret in that I had a management consultant at home, my wife taught at Harvard Business School. But from that I'll tell you that I developed a real respect for and understanding of the importance of management, something that isn't part of a standard scientific education, and something I think has really helped me.
Mr. Boyer: That's fantastic. You alluded to this in one of your previous responses about the combination of finite resources and the multitude of priorities that you have, and the careful attention to funding these priorities, and the choices that you have to make around these.
How does ORD evaluate its existing programs, and wherever possible, consider them for modification, redirection, reduction, or even termination?
Dr. Gray: Oh, it's a very important thing for us to do, to look very carefully at the science we're doing and making sure that it's the most effective and most relevant science for the agency. We really do this in a two-part system. It's almost like a matrix management approach, in that I work with what I call my executive council -- it's ORD's board of directors, so it's the heads of our lab centers and offices, and we work as a group to help to set these priorities and to plan.
But the other thing that we have is, we've got a system in which we've instigated what we call National Program Directors, or NPDs, and they're responsible for looking at the research that we do in a particular area. We have an NPD for ecological research, we have one for drinking water. We have another one for pesticides. And their job is to look across the organization, all of those different laboratories that I talked about, and make sure -- and look at the research that we're doing in their particular area. So that we have -- I always make a -- sort of think of it as rows and columns -- our laboratories are rows -- the NPDs go down the columns, and they help us between them to get a good picture of where we are.
The NPDs also have the job -- the National Program Directors -- of working with the program offices to say, what do you need so that we're being responsive to our customers, the rest of EPA? But they're also involved in setting these priorities, because everybody's needs succeed what we can do, just not only because of resources, because of people power. So we work hard to be responsive and to work -- and with a collaborative decision-making approach, but all of us know how important it is for us to make sure we're doing the right science for the agency.
Mr. Boyer: George, a related question. How do you measure the return on investment, given the future-oriented nature of R&D programs? And what are some of the unique challenges you face when measuring performance and results within the R&D area?
Dr. Gray: Well, Pete, that's one of the biggest challenges that we face. It really is tough. We do work. We can look at the things what we do as short-term work, where the Office of Water came to us and said, "We need a quick way to tell if we need to close the beach." And we can -- we were responsive. We did that. We can follow the product that we came out with and see its applications in the environment.
But remember I said another important part of what R&D does is try to look over the horizon. We've got to be doing basic research that's going to support the agency's mission for the next 10 or 20 years. We have to -- they -- we want the agency to be ready when the new challenges come. And knowing how to evaluate the effectiveness of that research, to monitor the productivity of that research, is really hard. It's something we're working very hard to measure. It's an important priority for this administration and for the leadership of EPA, that all of us think about how we do it. And we are -- we're working to confront that challenge right now in ORD.
Mr. Boyer: Now, to engage in proper R&D program evaluations that you talked about, could you describe how your office uses independent validation panels such as EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors, or BOSC, to assess your program's utility and performance?
Dr. Gray: Working with outside scientists is a really important way in which we evaluate the work that we're doing. So we have a variety -- at the agency, we have a variety of Advisory Committees, the Science Advisory Board being one of the most important ones. Within ORD, we have our Board of Scientific Counselors, and we call them the BOSC, and these are independent experts from -- well, not just around the country, from around the world, who come in and help us with program evaluations.
They will look at our land program. They will look at our drinking water program. They will evaluate the work that we have done, the effectiveness it's had, the scientific quality, and even give us some advice and say here is an area that, you know, at this point, this is not as high a priority. There is more important work to be done over here. It's a forum and a source of advice that we find really, really useful. So again, as a scientific organization, it's helpful to have those outside scientists, the peers, who are reviewing our science and our scientists and helping to give us advice. And we make -- we appreciate the hard work that those folks put in.
Mr. Boyer: George, in November of 2005, your organization awarded $40 million to establish five cutting-edge research centers to study the health effects on particulate matter. Could you identify the centers and tell us about the type of research each center is performing?
Dr. Gray: Sure. Particulate matter is arguably one of the biggest pollution issues that the EPA faces. And just in late September, we issued new ambient air quality standards for particulate matter, and one of the things we noted there is that we need more science to make better decisions. And ORD is helping to support the agency to develop that new science for the next time we come back to our ambient air quality standards for particulate matter.
These particulate matter research centers that we established around the country are world-class scientists that are teaming up in trying to help us understand more about particulate matter so we can make better decisions. For example, the Johns Hopkins Center is using Medicare data to investigate how particulate air pollution contributes to hospitalization and death. There is a group in Southern California looking at the toxicity -- how the toxicity of these particles is affected by their composition.
One of the most important questions we have is, is a particle a particle or does it matter what it's made of? It's very important for how we decide to manage that risk. We have a group at the University of Rochester that's looking at very, very small particles, and they're looking at potentially susceptible sub-populations like diabetics -- are there groups of people who are potentially more susceptible to these particles?
At Harvard, at the School of Public Health, their PM center is looking at whether an aging population might have different responses to particulate matters. So they're working with a particular cohort of veterans, and looking at their responses as their exposure to particulate matter changes.
And then now, out at the University of California Davis, they're working in the San Joaquin Valley -- it's one of the worst areas for particulate air pollution in the country -- looking at how PM might affect the normal biology of the heart and the lungs. So all of these are efforts for us to get more information to help make better decisions down the road on some of the most important issues that the agency faces.
Mr. Morales: What does the future hold for the EPA? We will ask Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development at EPA, to discuss this with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development at EPA.
Also joining us in our conversation is Pete Boyer, director in IBM's federal consulting practice.
George, our listeners may not recognize EPA's important role -- the important role it plays in both Homeland Security as well as responding to national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Could you elaborate a little bit on ORD's role in protecting Homeland Security and disaster response?
Dr. Gray: I would be happy to, Al. On the area of Homeland Security, as I mentioned, we were given certain responsibilities by the President in the Presidential directives, and ORD and EPA generally was given responsibility for water security and for decontamination. And what we do is both research and field and pilot testing of ideas, of technologies, of new analytic techniques, and all of this is organized toward trying to make sure that we are better prepared that if there is ever another event, we can understand and identify a problem if it's there. We know how to respond to it and then we know how to clean it up when we're done.
So there -- Homeland Security is taken very seriously in the agency. We have a Homeland Security director in the Office of the Administrator, Tom Dunne, and he tries to organize all the way across the agency the work that we do. Interestingly, Homeland Security of course, if you think of it as preparedness, really does have some natural and obvious roles in disaster response. And so we have spent a lot of time in ORD thinking about ways in which the work that we're doing in Homeland Security can support our preparedness in general. We also do some very specific kind of work. One of the things that happened in Katrina, of course, with all of the damages, we had to get rid of a lot of material. There was a lot of debris, and getting rid of it was a big deal.
We worked together with other parts of the agency; with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Protection, to look at different ways of reducing the volume of debris that was down there while being careful about the fact that a lot of housing debris, for example, can contain asbestos or lead. So we set up testing programs, we evaluated these technologies, and helped them think about the ways in which they could more rapidly respond, clean up and get Louisiana moving again. So we took a pretty serious role there in responding to Katrina, and we're thinking and we have lots to offer if there is ever another kind of a disaster like that.
Mr. Morales: We have talked a lot about various technologies, and given the impact of technological innovation, how do you envision the role of your office changing within the next 5 to 10 years?
Dr. Gray: Well, I think that ORD -- just because of our culture, we are very forward-looking. And that's a real advantage to us. We are looking at how to use new technologies that are, you know, in scientific laboratories today. These are -- this is well before they reach the mainstream. So I think that what we'll see is a continual evolution of our people and our technologies and our approaches to keep up with the evolution of science.
And the great thing about that is, with all the great minds around the country and around the world that are helping to move forward basic biological and engineering sciences, environmental science will keep us moving, too, because it's important for us to be part of the leadership of environmental science. I think we'll see us just continue to evolve, continue to get better, continue to use these new technologies and adapt them to our mission of providing the best scientific and technological information to the agency.
Mr. Boyer: George, to that end, what steps are being taken to attract and maintain a high-quality technical workforce?
Dr. Gray: Well, one of our most important strategic goals at EPA is for us to attract, to develop, and to retain a talented and diverse workforce. Just within ORD, we have 1,300 career scientists, and most of them at the Masters and Ph.D. level. I mean, we are a big science organization, and these folks -- we support them, we make sure that they can continue to be leaders in their scientific communities. These are the folks who get invited to give big speeches. They are the leaders of their professional societies, and supporting them is a really important part of what we do.
But we also are working to make sure that we're looking into the future, and there, for example, we have a post-doctoral program where we bring people in; scientists who have completed their graduate work, to work at EPA. And there is something I've just got to brag about a little bit. The Scientist magazine does a poll among post-doctoral scientists around the country every year around the world, and they -- they're essentially -- they name the best place to be a post-doc.
Two years ago, we were number one. This year, we're number three. We're beating Harvard, we're beating Stanford, we're beating Oxford -- you name it. People want to be at EPA. And that's really exciting. We have a post-doctoral program that's attracting the best young scientists, and they like it. Now, not all of them will end up working at EPA, but you know what, they will go off into their academic job, they will go off into their industry job, and they will still have a good feeling about ORD and about EPA. And that helps us in ways that we can't even measure. So we work very hard both to support the scientists that we have, but to think about how we move folks along in the scientific pipeline.
One other really neat thing that we're doing to help address this issue as a rapidly evolving sense of science and the new techniques and approaches that are being developed is to use a new hiring authority that we've been given. This is one of those things I learned about when I came into government. It's very important. Congress said to us, you can use what's called Title 42 Authority, but what that lets us do is to pay a little bit more than the standard grade in the government to go out and hire on five-year contracts world-class scientists to address specific issues that we have.
So we have, for example, gone out and found somebody in bioinformatics who will be working in our ComTox Center helping us to deal with the flood of information that comes out of these new technologies, how you organize them and how you turn data into knowledge. And this is one of our new Title 42 hires. It's really exciting that we have been given this way to bring in outside expertise to bolster and to further support our already great workforce, but to bring new tools, techniques, and ideas into the agency. So we're very excited about that.
Mr. Morales: That's simply fantastic. George, you have enjoyed a very successful career, both in academia and obviously now in government. What advice would you give to a person who is either just starting in public service or thinking about getting into public service?
Dr. Gray: Well, the first thing I'd say is that public service is an opportunity that people should really take very seriously. I think an opportunity to serve your country is one that doesn't come along very often, and when it came for me, I grabbed it. But I also think that I would urge people to think very strongly about the importance of going in and helping the organization you're joining. The folks who work in the government, the people that I've worked with at EPA and in ORD specifically are smart, they're dedicated, they're passionate. They want to do the best they can to help the environment and public health. I take very seriously my job of trying to help the organization think, to plan, to anticipate, and to be ready both with the work that we do and the people that we have, for the next -- for the challenges that are coming.
The other thing there that's important, and I'll just mention this because it's obvious for me, is that management really matters, and having a good plan for how you want things to work in public service is really important. And I don't think you can underestimate its importance.
Mr. Morales: George, that's fantastic. Thank you.
Unfortunately, we have reached the end of our time here. I do want to thank you for fitting us into your busy schedule today. But more importantly, Pete and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to the public and our country in the various roles you have held at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dr. Gray: Thanks a lot, Al. Thanks a lot, Pete. And for anyone who is listening who wants to learn more about the EPA, you can look at the agency's website, epa.gov. And on that website, you can find information about environmental work that's being done across the country looking -- protecting our ecology, protecting our health, and you can look into the Office of Research and Development. There will be a link there to our website where you can learn about the research and the technology that we develop. And I hope you will do that, and I think you'll be very impressed by the great work that goes on at ORD.
Mr. Morales: Great. Thank you.
This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Dr. George Gray, Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, and Science Advisor with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Be sure to visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's conversation. Once again, that's businessofgovernment.org.
As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women in our armed and civil services abroad who can't here this morning's show on how we're improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support.
For The Business of Government Hour, I'm Albert Morales. Thank you for listening.