In the culture of research science, there’s a focus on the frontier, a premium on solving unsolved problems. But Paul Anastas, known as the father of green chemistry, urged scientists in a presentation at AAAS to revisit old problems and re-solve them in cleaner, more efficient ways.
Across science, in areas ranging from agriculture to light-bulb design and pharmaceutical development, science-driven improvements conceived in past decades often have come with high cost to the environment and sometimes human health, Anastas said.
“We are very good at pursuing the right goals… and we’re very good at doing it wrong,” he said in a presentation to the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. “We know how to purify water using acutely lethal substances that have persistent byproducts. We know how to have energy-efficient lighting, but we do it in a way that introduces neurotoxins into the life-cycle.
“Until we step back and understand that we have to look at the entire system… we are going to continue to do the right thing wrong.”
Anastas is the science adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He was appointed by President Barack Obama last year.
He is on leave from Yale University, where he had been serving as director of the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering and held joint appointments in chemistry, chemical engineering, and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. With John Warner, he is the co-author of the seminal work, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice.
Anastas’ research has focused on the design of safer chemicals and chemical processes to replace the use of hazardous substances. He earlier served from 1999-2004 in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
He spoke at AAAS on 14 September to more than 200 members of the 2010-11 class of S&T Policy Fellows and others. His talk ranged broadly to cover the urgent need for innovation to drive a more sustainable human civilization, the importance of science communication, how the AAAS Police Fellows can have an impact in Washington, D.C., and the need to bring a positive perspective to challenges.
Now in their 38th year, the Fellowships have matched scientists and engineers with host offices in Washington, D.C., that are seeking scientific expertise. Fellows come from fields across the spectrum of science, engineering, and technology. Dozens of them have stayed on after their fellowships to build high-impact careers in the federal government, while others have risen to leadership positions in private enterprise, academia, and non-governmental organizations.
The 2010-11 class of 210 Fellows is the largest in the history of the S&T Policy Fellowships, said Director Cynthia Robinson. During their two-week orientation, Fellows also heard presentations on the presidency, science policy and the judiciary, the legislative and executive branches, diplomacy, foreign policy, and other aspects of law- and policy-making in Washington, D.C.
Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.