Environment Picture

Rosina Bierbaum: Shaping policy, leaders

Retired U-M dean on a mission to translate science into smart public decisions
A life spent researching mollusks and microbiology might have suited Rosina Bierbaum just fine.

We’ll never know.

A timely series of interventions redirected her ambitions from marine biology to the chaotic intersection of politics, science and public policy. In that arena—working for employers as lofty as the President of the United States, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the University of Michigan—Bierbaum has carved out a definitive role in shaping public policy and training young people to make positive impacts on resource protection.

Bierbaum’s extraordinary contributions—most recently as dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment—earned her the Michigan Environmental Council’s 2012 Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award.

“Michigan’s natural resources, and indeed the global environment, will benefit for generations from the seeds of knowledge, curiosity and inspiration Rosina Bierbaum has sown in the lives of students,” said Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. “Her expertise also has left a permanent and positive mark on state, federal and international policies through work on influential advisory bodies from the White House on down.”

Steel’s shadow
Growing up in the shadow of a huge steel factory in Bethlehem, PA, Bierbaum was introduced early to the effects of pollution in the pre-Clean Air Act era. She and her family endured daily coatings of particulate matter dust on cars, porches and other outdoor surfaces. At age 11, she became enamored of marine biology after reading “The Sea Around Us” by Rachel Carson. Bierbaum spent hours in the school laboratory studying marine invertebrates, synthesizing aspirin and other compounds, learning fruit fly genetics, and “trying not to explode things.”

Appropriating a meat sterilization lamp from her grandfather’s butcher store, the young scientist won regional and national science fairs with a project examining how irradiation affects the interaction of algae and bacteria. Hooked on science, she majored in biology and English at Boston College and completed a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

As she prepared for post-graduate life, she had tunnel vision on a career “as a marine scientist working in a beautiful coastal setting.” She was, she said, “a true ‘lab rat’, devoted to basic research. I didn’t even read a daily newspaper. I had no idea what was going on in the outside world.”

Fate brings a move
Fate intervened. A mentor, Bentley Glass, browbeat her into applying for a Congressional Fellowship. She won and reluctantly accepted. When she arrived in Washington, DC, and saw the horrifying disconnect between policy making and science, she was stunned. She had expected that science was at the forefront of making wise policy.

Instead, economists and lawyers were regularly invited to work groups on environmental policy, but rarely were scientists included. Ivy League-trained scientific experts often testified on emerging environmental crises like ozone depletion or acid rain in empty Congressional committee rooms. And when they did speak, the scientists’ jargon and long-winded technical monologues were utterly incomprehensible to regular people.

“It was an epiphany,” she said. “I thought if no one can translate or access the science, it’s not useful to the public or to those making policy.”

So began two decades of policy work for Congress and the White House, including several years in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President. In that position she was the senior science advisor on environmental science issues and had oversight of the nation’s $5 billion research budget in that area. She represented the U.S. at many international science meetings and regularly briefed President Bill Clinton’s administration on climate change issues; she also served as acting director of OSTP in the transition to George W. Bush’s administration.

During her federal tenure, she worked to assess the myriad risks posed by the nation’s environmental problems in order to target research and limited funding in the most timely and effective manner.

“Science is not the loudest voice in Washington, and science funding is not an entitlement. It competes with school lunches and veterans’ benefits,” she said in a speech to the American Geophysical Union upon receiving their award for service to geosciences shortly before becoming dean at the University of Michigan. “Scientists must … not be afraid to interpret how science can be used to make wise policy decisions today, even as we continue to reduce uncertainties tomorrow.”

Leading SNRE
In 2001, she took over the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) where she enhanced a master’s program curriculum that now includes multiple disciplines, ranging from ecology to economics to public policy to urban planning and engineering. The goal of SNRE’s interdisciplinary approach, she says, is to break the disconnect between science, academia, business and the real world: “To equip a new generation of environmental problem-solvers with the tools of many disciplines to tackle the increasingly complex environmental issues, and to foresee and forestall as yet unrecognized ones.”

SNRE now regularly turns out students whose natural resource degrees are paired with degrees in business, engineering or law. The result is scientist practitioners who are trained to apply their knowledge in more than an esoteric way.

“About one-third go on to work in the private sector, one-third in public policy, and one-third to environmental groups or academia,” Bierbaum said.

During her tenure, SNRE’s research activity tripled, interdisciplinary ties to the university’s other programs were strengthened, and the school’s mission expanded to encompass global change.

Even as she steps down as SNRE dean, her leadership in public service continues. She serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and was recently appointed to the National Climate Assessment Advisory Committee and as a World Bank Fellow.

Henry Pollack, a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, said her work has had remarkable impact: “No one has been more influential than Rosina Bierbaum in keeping the realities of climate change in the periscopes of high-level policy makers over such a long period of time.”

MEC President Kolb echoed Pollack.

“From freshmen to U.S. presidents, Rosina has helped shape sane environmental policies. We’re proud she’s accepted our honor, and eager to see how the next chapters in her life will unfold.” 

Past winners of the Milliken Award are Steve Hamp, Peter Stroh, Peter Wege, Marty Fluharty, Peter Karmanos, Congressman John Dingell, Congressman Vernon Ehlers, Mary C. Brown, Bunyan Bryant, PhD, Lana Pollack, Faye Alexander Nelson and Becky Humphries.
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