Chris Frey was confirmed by the United States Senate on May 25, becoming the first Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development in a decade. With some criticism from Senate Republicans, he won confirmation with a vote of 51-43.
No stranger to EPA, Frey joined the leadership team in February 2021 as ORD deputy assistant administrator for science policy. However, his first stint at EPA was in 1992 as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow (STPF) in the Office of Health and Environmental Assessment. He has held many other positions at EPA and elsewhere, including 27 years as a professor at North Carolina State University.
In a July interview with STPF newsletter Fellowship Focus, Frey delved deeply into his past to provide insight and advice for scientists and engineers who are interested in a career in Federal government.
What do you hope to bring or accomplish as the head of EPA’s research office?
A key priority for me is to make sure that the science we develop in ORD is useful to our partners, and that – consistent with the EPA’s strategic plan – our science is considered in decision-making. ORD also needs to be looking ahead, to make sure that we do research that will serve the agency in the future.
What were some of the circumstances that led a few senators to have reservations at your confirmation hearing?
When I joined the EPA leadership team on February 1, 2021, the Agency had been through four years of a prior administration. That record speaks for itself. As an outsider during that time, I observed the disconnect between best available science that should have been informing decisions and how decisions were actually being made. My highest priority was to bolster scientific integrity and to contribute to restoring the role of science to inform decisions.
For example, as a past chair of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), I was very familiar with the process by which science should be assessed to inform policy questions related to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. I was also a member of a CASAC Review Panel on Particulate Matter that was dismissed by EPA Administrator Wheeler in October 2018. This was a bad decision. So, I worked with fellow panel members to reconstitute the panel unofficially. A year after being dismissed, we met to deliberate on the science pertaining to the particulate matter air quality standards. We submitted our findings to the official EPA docket and I personally put a hardcopy of our report in the mail to Administrator Wheeler. I mention this because I am a staunch advocate and defender of scientific integrity, and of the role of science to inform decisions.
What got you interested in science and policy?
I trace my interest in environmental science and policy to my childhood in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Pollution was everywhere all the time and in many forms. I trace my concern about the damage to human health and the environment largely to my mom, who was an artist and writer. I trace my interest in the role of science as a means to quantitatively understand the effect of pollution on the environment to my father, who was an oceanographer.
What was your academic journey like?
In high school, I realized that I wanted to be an engineer, because engineers use science to solve problems. I also developed a keen interest in thermodynamics as a result of a 10th grade science fair project I did on a technical feasibility assessment of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). I did my best to teach myself thermodynamics. I especially remember a technical report written by engineers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that was so clear that even I could understand it.
When I was a first- year student at the University of Virginia, my existential struggle in declaring a major was to decide whether I wanted to focus on heat engines or chemical equilibrium. I ended up choosing mechanical engineering rather than chemical engineering. I felt that energy was the focal point of the work I would need to do in my career, although in retrospect I didn’t really understand at that time what I was looking for. However, I do know that I found it.
When I applied to graduate school, I knew I wanted to do research related to energy. Recalling that great CMU report I had read in high school, I applied there. I received a research assistantship offer from the CMU mechanical engineering department to do a master’s thesis on the performance, emissions, and cost of advanced emission controls for coal-fired power plants. This introduced me more to the policy side of engineering, since the work we were doing was intended to help DOE make decisions regarding research priorities.
After my master’s degree, I had to get out of school – I wanted to get some experience. I joined a consulting firm, Radian Corporation. Much of my work was techno-economic analysis in support of standards development by the EPA. It was fascinating to learn about the technical basis of standards development, as well as the processes by which draft rules were formulated, subject to public comment, and ultimately finalized. I also had an opportunity to draft responses to public comments on some work I did.
I decided to go back for the “third degree,” a Ph.D., at CMU. My Ph.D. was in engineering and public policy (EPP), not mechanical engineering, although I had the same advisor – Ed Rubin. EPP focuses on policy problems for which the science and technology issues are inherent, and for which it is not possible to develop appropriate or effective policy without considering the relevant details of science and engineering. After I finished my Ph.D., I continued at CMU as research assistant professor and later applied for the STPF fellowship.
What kind of impact did your STPF fellowship have on your career?
I was eager to take a break from academia and have an immersion experience in the Washington DC policy world. I wanted to a pivot to an adjacent but new research topic. Having focused for years on air pollution emission sources, I wanted to focus on what happens to pollution after it is emitted into the environment, and the subsequent human exposure. I also wanted to refine the probabilistic techniques I had been using to separately quantify inter-individual variability in exposure and uncertainty in exposure. In 1992, this was a topic that was beginning to get a lot of interest in the risk assessment community.
I couldn’t have picked a better topic or a better time to apply to STPF. What I was working on was of interest to many staff and leaders at EPA, who generously gave their time to meet with me. I took the advice we got from AAAS to reach out and meet with anyone who might be able to help my work as a fellow. I am particularly grateful to my EPA mentor Dr. Paul White. I also got to know people in the Society for Risk Analysis and built a network there that has been important to my career.
My fellowship was enormously impactful to me as a researcher – it led to a thematic aspect of my research activity. My fellowship work was also highly formative to several of the key National Science Foundation (NSF) and EPA grants that I received over the years.
Perhaps more important, the networking I did as a fellow was highly significant to my career growth, and likely contributed to many of the opportunities that I have had over the years to engage in highly impactful forms of public service via national and international advisory committees.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career?
I can’t think of anything that I would have done differently in my professional life. That’s not meant to imply that I am perfect – far from it. However, given what I knew at the time, it is not obvious to me that there was some major missed opportunity. I take the Bayesian view that decisions I made were based on the priors I had at the time, and as I learned new information, I updated my priors.
I have learned over the years this important truth: get enough sleep. For example, the night before my STPF interview, I could not sleep. I am glad that I was offered a slot in the fellowship even though I was running on fumes during my interview.
Work-life balance is also important. I have definitely struggled with this, and I’m glad that work-life balance seems to receive more attention and is taken more seriously.
You’ve been around the block here in DC – even gone through a major confirmation process. What words of advice do you have for people who aspire to a career in government?
Looking back, what I am doing now is a logical part of my career path, but the role I have now is not one that can be applied for. It is the result of a series of circumstances and events that led to this outcome. I know I did not get to where I am alone.
I’ve worked in and with the Office of Research and Development, on and off, for 30 years. The key ingredient for the staff is commitment to the mission as an agency and as a “AA-ship” of our agency. EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. All of us take this very seriously, and it keeps us going through thick and thin. ORD’s mission is to develop the best available science that our partners in the agency – both in headquarters and in our regions – need to make decisions. ORD also develops science to support our external partners in states, local governments, tribal nations, and communities.
EPA is a science-based regulatory agency. The credibility of our decisions depends on the credibility of our science. The credibility of our science depends on our scientists and engineers. Our scientists are flat out the best in the world, by any metric. They work on difficult and meaningful problems. They publish in the best journals. They present their work nationally and internationally. They mentor students and postdocs. They collaborate with partners inside and outside of the agency. They receive external recognition via awards. I am so proud of our work force.
In my observation, what drives our scientists, and our science, is not a pursuit of glory, but the desire to develop policy-relevant science to inform decisions in service of the agency’s mission. That is, we desire to serve the public. And Federal service is a very special way to make a contribution to our society.
I did not specifically aspire to a career in government, but where I am now is where I need to be. My career has included academia, but I have also had stints in industry, consulting, and government. Each career path has merit and offers the potential for satisfaction and reward. For me, my purpose is rooted in my personal history. In a real sense, I feel that I am responding to my calling and that my career is not about a particular job – it’s a vocation.
Have any tips or parting thoughts for scientists contemplating their career path?
Ask yourself: Am I doing what I need to be doing? Am I where I need to be? I reflect on these questions at least once a year. In my 27 years as a professor at NC State, I always felt that I was doing what I needed to be doing and I was where I needed to be. Now that I have this amazing opportunity as a Senate-confirmed Presidential appointee on the leadership team at the U.S. EPA, as Assistant Administrator of a world class scientific organization and as the Agency’s science advisor, I know that I am doing what I need to be doing and I am where I need to be.