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Reflecting on 50 Years of EPA Research: Dr. Mike Slimak

Dr. Mike SlimakDr. Mike SlimakPublished December 2, 2020

EPA’s Dr. Mike Slimak is the National Program Director of Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. In honor of EPA’s 50th anniversary, Mike is reflecting on his career at EPA which began in 1978.

What brought you to EPA?

I earned an MS in Wildlife Ecology through an EPA Traineeship program from 1970 to 1972, so EPA has been a part of my life since its formation. I became an EPA federal employee in 1978 and worked in three of EPA’s program offices before joining EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) in 1987. EPA is an agency whose regulations are grounded in evidenced-based science and much of that science has been developed by ORD. My passion for environmental research led me to ORD where I’ve been for 32 years.  

How has research changed at the Agency while you’ve been here?

Certainly, the technology has changed dramatically since the 1970s: better sampling methods (e.g., passive sediment and water samplers); analytical chemistry (e.g., Mass Spec for analyzing chemicals); use of remote sensing technologies; and the computing power to predict toxicity from chemicals to name a few. As an applied research program, ORD has always focused on Agency issues but in the past 10 years, this emphasis has expanded to include critical issues from the states and local communities.     

What have been some of the most transformative scientific advancements that you have observed during your time here?

As mentioned, the technology for collecting and analyzing environmental samples has been transformative. Also transformative is the advanced computing power that allows us to assess complex data sets and the development of predictive models. Just as notable is the recognition that public health and well-being are inextricably linked to ecosystem services; i.e., those benefits provided by nature such as food and fiber, raw materials, energy, biogenic minerals, medicines, etc.      

What are some of the biggest areas of research at EPA today?

Some of today’s important research topics include: Contaminated sites, waste and materials managment, human health (including vulnerable groups), community resilience, watersheds and nutrients, harmful algal blooms, storm water management, air quality decisions, extreme weather events, assessment of risks to toxic chemicals (e.g., PFAS), computational toxicology, and homeland security research specific to water infrastructure. The SARS-CoV-2 virus and the pandemic reminds us of the importance of understanding zoonotic diseases and the role of a balanced ecosystem in ameliorating these diseases. 

What are some of the country’s greatest environmental accomplishments over the past 50 years? What has struck you most about the EPA’s history and trajectory over these past 50 years?

Our greatest accomplishment is the considerable progress made in our nation’s environmental quality – air, land, and water – that has greatly improved human health outcomes without impacting our economic growth.  Although we have more work to do with issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, chemicals of concern (PFAS, lead), and harmful algal blooms, the United States is the envy of the world in the degree to which we have protected our environment and we have become the model for many other countries as they grapple with their own environmental issues. 

What has struck me the most about EPA’s history is that with the improvements in environmental quality there are those who don’t fully appreciate EPA’s role and feel that EPA’s regulations have somehow thwarted economic growth when it’s just the opposite.  I am also concerned about individuals that are driven by a cultural or political ideology rather than critically thinking about the environmental issues that are grounded in evidence-based science.      

What are some things you’re most proud of throughout your career?

There have been several reports, guidelines, and programs that I have been proud to be a part of. Some of those include the ecological and exposure risk assessment guidelines, pesticide labeling to protect endangered species, the Environmental Monitoring & Assessment Program, the first and second Climate Change Assessments under the US Global Change Research Program, and many others.

I am proud of some of the roles I’ve taken on throughout my career, particularly becoming the Associate Director for Ecology in ORD’s National Center for Environmental Assessment and the Program Director of ORD’s Sustainable & Healthy Communities Research Program.

Finally, I’m very proud to have dedicated 42 years of service to the American public in protecting our environment. I’ve cherished the opportunity to mentor and coach staff to help them achieve their career goals, as well as mentoring AAAS Fellows under the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program.

Who have you most looked up to throughout your career?

Most important are the EPA senior career colleagues I’ve worked with for the past 42 years and there are too many to name here. Some of the EPA Administrators and leaders that I’ve looked up to include William Ruckelshaus, William Reilly, Alvin Alm, Henry Habicht, Robert Perciasepe, Lee Thomas, and Gina McCarthy.   

What future advances would you like to see in environmental and public health research?

Two important research opportunities that will benefit our environment and human health are:

  • Assessment of climate change Impacts and adaption at the local (community) scale.    
  • Research on environmental technology that transitions the US to a net zero carbon energy economy

What do you think EPA will look like in 50 years?

This is a question with no easy answer. My hope is that EPA will continue to be the world-wide leader in environmental protection. I think (and hope) that technology will have progressed enough that we will have a net zero carbon energy system; that managing for ecosystem services will be recognized as a critical element for maintaining human health and well-being; and that the public realizes that a clean and healthy environment is a prerequisite for a sound economy.        

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.