New F&ES-Based Center Receives EPA Grant to Study Air Quality, Public Health

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week announced major funding for three U.S. universities, including Yale, to study regional differences in air pollution and the effects of global climate change on human health. 
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Michelle Bell
The five-year, $10 million grants will be used to establish new multidisciplinary research centers, including the Yale-based SEARCH (Solutions for Energy, AiR, Climate, and Health) Center. Directed by Michelle Bell, the Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the SEARCH Center will study the relationships between air quality, energy policy, climate change, and public health.
Other centers receiving EPA grants are Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions (CASES), and Harvard University’s Regional Air Pollution Mixtures.
“We eagerly anticipate the centers’ new models and research insights that will lead to improved air quality and public health,” said Dan Costa, national program director for EPA’s air, climate and energy research program. “Understanding how to maintain and improve air quality as the climate changes is the first step in working together to reduce risks.”
Understanding how to maintain and improve air quality as the climate changes is the first step in working together to reduce risks.
— Dan Costa, EPA Air, Climate and Energy Research Program
The Yale-based SEARCH Center, which will work closely with researchers from Johns Hopkins and North Carolina State University, will host four research projects and involve more than two-dozen researchers at nine institutions. The center will also include researchers from across Yale, including F&ES, the Department of Geology & Geophysics, the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and the School of Public Health.
Project 1 will use sophisticated economics models to estimate the nation’s air quality under different energy policy scenarios. Project 2 will develop and deploy air pollution sensors — including ones that individuals can wear — throughout Baltimore to measure real-world exposure to air pollution. Project 3, housed at North Carolina State University, will use information from Project 1 to model air quality in relation to public policy and human health under different climate change scenarios. Project 4, led by Bell, will estimate the health impacts of various air quality scenarios from other projects and will examine the state of scientific research with a focus on identifying which populations are most vulnerable to air pollution. All of the projects are interlinked, but not interdependent.
“The Center is designed to have a high level of interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Bell, who holds secondary appointments at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Our research will link policies and research questions that historically have been largely studied separately. Our overall aim is to provide scientific evidence that can inform more effective decision-making to improve public health.”

The Center includes an administrative core, a fulltime project manager, and two support units. One, a quantitative methods unit, will deliver technical support for statistical challenges and help provide a more unified framework for all the projects. Much of the statistical code will be made available for other interested researchers and students who want to apply the models to their own work.
We really want the research… to spur more interdisciplinary research and understanding of these issues.
— Dan Costa, EPA Air, Climate and Energy Research Program
The second support unit, led by Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at F&ES, connects with policymakers who deal with air quality, climate, and energy. “Our goal is to not have just a one-way interaction where the scientists generate results and we provide them to policy makers, but to have two-way communication,” Bell said. Researchers will continue to meet with staff from local, state, and federal air agencies throughout the project to help convey what the science means, to learn what types of scientific questions are most relevant, and to develop more effective methods of presenting scientific research to policymakers and the public.
“The primary driver for environmental policy, historically, has been human health,” Bell said. “EPA’s mission is to protect the environment and human health, not just to protect the environment. The more scientific evidence we can give of the consequences, especially for health but also other consequences, of different energy scenarios and policy scenarios, the more informed our decisions can be.”
Although such an interlinked project may seem daunting, Bell says the Center’s researchers are not only experts in their own disciplines, but also have a strong interest and demonstrated experience in interdisciplinary research. “We’ve put together a team that has a healthy respect for the contributions of other disciplines as well as their own,” Bell said.
The project also includes funding for student research projects — not just at F&ES, but throughout Yale — at any part of the Center. Bell also said the Center will host seminars open to the public.
“We really want the research and the work to get out beyond what we give to policymakers and scientists to spur more interdisciplinary research and understanding of these issues,” she said.
– Timothy Brown