"What keeps you awake at night?" is a question Paul Gilman often asks federal decision makers. For the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior, the answer is "Water." If the issue requires scientific and technical expertise, as well as input from economists and policy analysts, Gilman may suggest this concern as a candidate topic for consideration by the new Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies at ORNL, of which he is the first director. Gilman says he would like ORCAS to be perceived as a "do tank," not a "think tank."
coming to Oak Ridge, Gilman was the science advisor for the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Starting in 1998, Gilman gained research management experience in the private sector for three years by helping Craig Venter create and manage Celera Genomics, which sequenced the human genome. From 1993 to 1998 he was the executive director of the Life Sciences and Agriculture divisions of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.
From 1985 to 1991 he served as chief of staff for Senator Pete Domenici, and prior to that, he worked on the Senate Energy R&D Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over DOE research programs. He convinced many senators to support Charles DeLisi's concept of a human genome project and helped DOE receive appropriations for human genome research.
A native of Connecticut, Gilman attended Kenyon College and received his A.B. M. A., and Ph.D. degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology from Johns Hopkins University. His plan was to become a scientist, but in 1978 he was diverted to Capitol Hill after winning an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship.
Q. What did you do on the National Research Council?
I worked at NRC from 1993 to 1998. It was a great place for me to recharge my technical batteries because it gave me broad experience and exposure to many different controversial topics. I helped bring in a broad range of experts to talk about a topic. These experts might be economists, social scientists, or physicists. Some of the issues we worked on were nuclear waste disposal, the use of DNA-based technology in forensic science, and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture.
Q. Which of your accomplishments at the EPA are you particularly proud of?
The increased use of science in EPA's regional offices, where most of EPA's technical decisions are made; a new program called computational toxicology, to better understand the human health consequences of compounds in the environment; and the initiation of the Global Earth Observation System, which will enable the integration of data from tidal gauges, water stations, and measurement instruments aboard satellites to answer questions such as: "Is the sea level rising?"
Q. Why did you leave EPA to become ORCAS director?
I saw it as a chance to work at what is not a think tank but a "do" tank. I became interested in ORCAS because I knew enough about DOE national labs and Oak Ridge and the tremendous resources here. The emerging emphasis on computation and the revitalized focus on user facilities made ORNL the kind of place where the raw material is good. I have long known Lee Riedinger, Bill Madia, and Jeff Wadsworth and have a great deal of respect for their abilities. The universities view ORCAS as an international center and a regional enterprise. They want ORCAS to focus on any issue with a significant scientific and technical challenge. At ORCAS, the very best from the basic research side will be brought to bear on issues or problems that federal, state, or local policymakers have. We want to bring scientists, engineers, policy analysts, and policy makers to the table to address important issues.
Q. How will ORCAS operate? What is the ORCAS model?
We will identify the critical gaps in our knowledge; catalyze research, analysis, or computation to fill those gaps; and then feed information back into the policy debate or decision-making process. That's what makes ORCAS different from your average think tank. It doesn't mean we are funding the research; instead, we are calling attention to the gaps so a university or lab researcher might go in that direction. If we give proposed research a high enough profile, a program person at DOE or EPA might say, "This is research that should be funded." We want to keep policy people under the same tent and have them understand and interpret the researchers' data.
Q. How will ORCAS work in its new building?
The thinking always has been that ORCAS will be largely a virtual organization and not have its own large faculty. We will put a versatile, interdisciplinary team together. We will identify an issue and bring in the very best people from wherever they are, not just at the core universities and ORNL, to address that issue. As the topics change, the people involved will change. This building was constructed with very good electronic communications capabilities, to enable distance learning. It has a lecture hall that is excellent for videoconferencing. We can bring people here, both electronically and physically, and send people here "there," wherever "there" might be. In the past, we worried whether a member of Congress would be able to attend our meeting because of a snowstorm or a need to vote on an important issue that day. Now we can have that policymaker "live" in our room. It's just that this person and our group will be sitting in front of cameras.
Q. What types of issues might ORCAS address?
Our program committee has already looked at a couple issues. ORCAS isn't just about energy or the environment or national security. We are concerned about any issue with substantial science and engineering content. For example, the core universities and ORNL are interested in the biomedical applications of nanotechnology. Substantive technical issues associated with nanotechnology must be understood before the social, legal, and ethical issues are addressed. Because of the concern that humans might inhale carbon nanotubes, we have to determine the dose of nanoparticles that might cause a cellular response potentially threatening to human health. Before we can talk about the social and ethical implications, we first have to understand the physical consequences. In the area of climate change, we might look at the science needed to translate the results of the global models into predictions about the human health consequences in the Southeast. Will the Southeast have more mosquito-borne infectious diseases if the regional climate is warmer and wetter? A third possible issue is housing. The U.S. government owns the most mobile homes because of federally guaranteed mortgages. Many of these homes have been abandoned because occupants can't pay the energy bills or believe these homes are unsafe. This could be an issue for energy technology, environmental health, and social policy experts.
Q. What will the final product be?
I am very hopeful that the final product won't be just a report. I'm hopeful that the final product will be the world becoming a different place because of the work that's done here . . . that the direction of research changed at some lab or a state transportation division made a decision affected by ORCAS. If we don't help the program manager from a federal department who tells us what keeps him awake at night, we will have failed from the start.
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