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Sparking Innovation to Meet Environmental and Human Health Challenges

EPA is invigorating its research efforts by tapping the collective vision and energy of its own scientists and engineers, as well as engaging others to join the discussion.

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“Innovation needs to be the lifeblood of the progress we seek to make in protecting human health and the environment.”
--Paul T. Anastas, EPA Assistant Administrator for Research and Development

How do you spark the kind of collective effort that facilitates collaboration across multiple disciplines, use new communication technologies to open the scientific process to creative problem-solving, and at the same time engage the collective expertise of EPA scientists, engineers, and their partners to bring new approaches to 40 years of work advancing environmental and human health science?

In a word: innovation.

“Innovation is not just a buzzword, it’s a critical way of life for a whole lot of very successful organizations. And with the pace at which things are changing, innovation has become the driver for tremendous change in the way every organization does business,” says Peter W. Preuss, PhD, the leader of EPA’s Innovation Team for research. “EPA research has embraced innovation as of a way of meeting today’s environmental and human health challenges.”

The Innovation Team is developing a more systematic approach to innovation at EPA, including increased emphasis on integrated transdisciplinary research, and encouraging high-risk, high-reward research.

On January 31, 2011, EPA Assistant Administrator Dr. Paul Anastas announced 12 Pathfinder Awards, the first of several targeted innovation activities to support creative problem solving. Scientists and engineers across EPA were invited to submit proposals for research projects that exemplify innovative, collaborative approaches for advancing sustainable solutions.

A total of 117 proposals were submitted to the EPA Innovation Team, who enlisted three external panels of experts to review submissions. The proposals selected to advance as Pathfinder projects illustrate exactly the kind of diversity and creativity the Innovation Team was looking for when it called for the rapid development of a new kind of research proposal.

Lead investigators on the selected projects range from long-standing, senior EPA scientists to post-doctoral researchers; a number of the projects involve collaborations across EPA laboratories. Technologies that will be employed during the research phase of the projects range from hyperspectral imaging on the International Space Station to innovative biological treatment of drinking water contaminants. One project will explore the intentional design of nanomaterials to facilitate their eventual decomposition in the environment, while other projects will apply cutting-edge genomics to assessment of chemical mixtures and of bacteria in water distribution systems.

The results of the Pathfinder projects have the potential to dramatically change environmental protection. But they are only one set of EPA’s efforts to incorporate innovation into its research. Another step the team is pursuing is to test innovation tools that better connect researchers within ORD and network ORD scientists with external stakeholders and partners. “We are targeting two initial approaches based on extensive discussions we’ve had with leaders across both government and private industry: improved collaboration and open source innovation,” explains Preuss.

The Agency is experimenting with a web-based collaborative platform called IdeaScale that allows its scientists and engineers to engage in an open, interactive dialogue.  Staff can share their ideas, then harness the input of their peers through on-line discussions and ranking tools to refine them.

EPA is also developing IdeaScale sites for the research programs, engaging both internal and external stakeholders to help prepare new research frameworks.
The first IdeaScale platforms currently open for participation are:

The Innovation Team’s next significant activity will be to engage in a research and development tool called “Open Innovation.”  Open innovation taps the vast expertise that exists beyond the boundaries of a single organization.  Congress recently passed legislation that authorizes the use of prizes and challenges across the Federal government to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance core missions through a process like open innovation.  Over the next year, EPA will be tapping this resource to bring innovation to the forefront as they develop research and development problems or “challenges” for high-priority environmental protection needs.

View the Pathfinder Projects.

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