LISTEN: Veena Singla on turning science into policy

"I love science … but many of the aspects that were my strengths in science don't necessarily fit with an academic research career."

Dr. Veena Singla joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the often-arduous path of turning science into policy, and finding confidence and a voice as a scientist.


Singla, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Health People and Thriving Communities program, talks about the difference between academic research and an advocacy work, environmental policy victories, and her work at the intersection of affordable housing and environmental justice.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Singla, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Brian Bienkowski

Veena, How are you,

Veena Singla

I'm well thank you Brian. How are you,

Brian Bienkowski

I'm doing great and where are you Where are you coming at us from today.

Veena Singla

I'm in beautiful San Francisco, California.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. So before we get to your current work. I was wondering what initially got you interested in environmental health.

Veena Singla

That's a very interesting question and the answer is quite personal for me actually, my education and graduate training had nothing to do with environmental health. My graduate research focused and Cellular and Developmental Biology and everything I learned about health through my research and education was that our health is determined by our genes, genetics, and our choices, and if you have poor health. Maybe you had bad genes, or maybe it's your fault because you make poor choices. I don't think I even heard the term environmental health and all of my training, which is a problem. But while I was in graduate school. One of my cousin's in India, passed away from cancer in his early 40s quite young, and He's survived by his wife and two teenage children, and they live in the state of Punjab and India which is heavily agricultural region, and I started reading and learning more about the high rates of cancer in the area. So much so that there was a train from that region to a major cancer treatment center and it was called the cancer Express because so many people would take it. and I learned about the heavy pesticide and for fertilizer use the decades of contamination of the air and water, and I started to have a more holistic understanding of the reality of our health, that, yes, it's about our genes, and our choices but it's also very much about our environment and the interaction between all of those factors. And I also understood that healthy environments are not available to everyone equal and that the harms of pollution and toxic chemicals are largely falling on people like my cousin. And it's not because of his choices. He had no choice about where he lived, and I asked myself, Why do some children get to grow up with their parents and his children don't know. And that really put me on my path to working in environmental health science and policy.

Brian Bienkowski

So, so now your work is, is at this intersection of science and policy but I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about this journey from conducting science to translating it for decision making and what were some of your motivations.

Veena Singla

While I was in graduate school, I realized that I love science, and that was what have motivate vote, excuse me, that was what had motivated me to go to graduate school in the first place. But I realized that many of the aspects that were my strengths about science, or don't necessarily fit with an academic research career. So I really loved that kind of team aspect and collaboration. And that's not necessarily emphasized in the academic world, it's a little bit more competitive. And I, I really liked the education translation communication piece of it, too, especially to different kinds of audiences, not just other scientists, again, something that's not necessarily emphasized, or rewarded in academic research world and being able to see the impact of my science in the real world, which generally when you're working in fundamental biology research can take decades and is not as tangible, so I, I, I saw this disconnect between an academic career path, and the things I liked doing day to day, and how I wanted to be in the world and what kind of impact I wanted to have on the world. And that's when I started exploring other career paths and options, moving away from the just being as a scientific researcher, and I found by had these interests and skills at the intersection of science education and communication. And I, I taught for a few years at the university level, and was really interested in policy, and was looking broadly for jobs and careers in that area. And I saw posting on Craigslist, so it's a lesson that you never know where your next opportunity might come from. It was a small nonprofit organization in Berkeley, California called the Green Science Policy Institute, and I wasn't familiar with it, didn't know much about it, that they were looking for a scientist with a background in education, to join their organization and do some science policy work so that was my first introduction to, to working in the science policy field and to an environmental health, and I learned a lot on the job. And I also just really felt like I found my niche, being able to still be engaged with the science and scientists and reading papers and talking to scientists, but then having this whole other side of my job, where we were working on putting the science into action in a very tangible way and making policy change.

Brian Bienkowski

And the Green Science Policy Institute is that Arlene Blum is at the right place.

Veena Singla

That's exactly right. She's quite well known in the environmental health world, and I honestly wasn't aware of what a force of nature I was I was going to work with so it was a really great learning experience for me.

Brian Bienkowski

It's funny to think that you found your career path the same place that I found, you know bicycles on Craigslist a very, very American. So again I've been asking everybody this and I do want to hear some examples of of your, your work now at the NRDC, but so I've been asking everybody on the podcast, a defining moment that shaped your identity. And I know that's a big broad question and it can be personal, professional, but something between then now.

Veena Singla

That's a That's a deep question. I'd say, professionally, that my time at the, at the green Science Policy Institute was very defining because it was the first time I felt like I was appreciated for the many different kinds of skills and strengths that I had outside of data analysis scientific research, these, these, these broader skills of being able to bring together a team of people and build a good collaboration, design a good curriculum for our interns, communicate well with people other than scientists, these, these, these skills and areas that I really enjoyed, but were seen as extraneous to add to academic research. So finding that place where I was very appreciative for that, that whole range of of skills and strengths that I brought, as well as the underlying passion and motivation for better public health and environmental justice, which again seen as a little bit extraneous in the kind of research that I was doing that to be in a sector where there was many people who, who felt like that it felt very validating and positive, and I finally felt like I've found my niche, and the place I needed to be.

Brian Bienkowski

You mentioned environmental justice and your work now focuses on, at least, in large part on toxic chemicals in vulnerable populations as wonder if you can give some examples and fill us in on some of the top issues right now that you're focusing on.

Veena Singla

Yes, one of my main focuses is healthier affordable housing, and it's an intersection of many issues like energy burden, energy efficiency, building electrification tenant protections, healthier in indoor environments, and including healthier, building materials. So, there's, there's books from many different sectors, working on these issues, from, from a climate perspective, from a housing perspective, from a public health perspective, it's, it's quite interesting and challenging I would say in ways to try to bring these many different areas together to think about. So, energy burden and energy efficiency for one energy burden means that what we see when we look at how what portion of your income you pay for energy for utilities like electricity and gas is that low wealth, people, and especially in communities of color, pay significantly more. Two times three times five times more of their income for their energy. So, it's, it's quite a greater percent of their, their total income that they're putting towards these costs, and sometimes people have to choose between do I pay my electric bill or buy food. Do I buy this medicine or pay this bill. So, energy efficiency is seen as a way to start to address some of those issues but many programs are well designed for affordable housing, they might require upfront investments, for example, that affordable housing owners, oftentimes just don't have so they require different program designed different kinds of financing, even different kinds of energy efficiency measures because affordable housing is oftentimes multifamily buildings, not single family whereas programs might be focused on single family. So it's thinking, thinking very broadly about many different issues that impact on housing quality and stability. And we know that housing quality and stability are hugely important for people's health. The other thing I'll say is that programs have generally been very siloed, so there's a program for lead paint a different program for energy efficiency a different program for social services. So how can we integrate housing interventions to provide the best support and healthier homes for people living in affordable housing. And this has kind of been a neglected sector in research and policy related to the built environment I gave some examples and I'll give another one which is a lot of the research on energy efficiency and health benefits is focused on single family homes, and we don't have as much information on multifamily homes and how we can how we can do energy efficiency interventions that are going to be the most beneficial for residents, their energy burden and their health. So I'm working to advance research and policy for affordable housing, to more holistically address housing equality.

Brian Bienkowski

So what does that look like when you're so this is kind of under the big broad umbrella of energy justice. So is it so it sounds like you're getting a lot of different sectors together. And are you, you do go research first and then take the research to the policymakers and say hey this is what we found this what we need to do, or how does that shake out.

Veena Singla

It's a variety of approaches because programs are in very different places. Sometimes we have the opportunity to design a program from the ground up, when there may be new regulation or we got legislation passed that creates a new low income focus program. So we have the opportunity to say here's you know here's the evidence we have, here's what we'd like to see in the program design. That's a really great scenario, but in many cases there's existing programs, and we're trying to tweak and revise them within, within specific frameworks to improve them for the affordable sector, even though they were never quite designed for that, so it can be it can be more of a challenge, and many energy efficiency programs have very narrow definitions around costs and benefits, and their fees therapies solely focused on energy costs and energy benefits and don't take into account what, what in the energy efficiency world is called non energy benefits, health, kind of seen us co benefit the add on. I thought that was, that was funny when I first came into the energy efficiency world that the main thing I worked on was the non energy benefits. So, so just that framing tells you right there it's not seen as critical or essential, so trying to work within some of these frames that that really don't account more holistically, for how kind of housing quality and thinking about the different factors and, and, in some ways, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole to make it work better for what we're trying to do. And we're thinking about broader systemic reform, around, around these issues, as well, but that's a longer term proposition.

Brian Bienkowski

So whether it's energy justice or other programs you've worked on, I'm thinking of, you know, community empowerment. And I'm wondering what, how does that look or what kind of efforts are made to kind of tap into the communities, you're trying to help, to see what they want and how you can best serve their needs.

Veena Singla

What we've done in the initiative that I've worked a lot with that's called energy efficiency for all is formed coalition's in in specific states to work on energy efficiency, health and affordable housing issues, and tried to bring together stakeholders from the different sectors so the community, affordable housing owners and developers, energy efficiency advocates so trying to get everyone together in one space, which somehow doesn't happen very often and forming coalition's so that the needs of the community, can, can feed into the policy changes to to be made. Make that direct connection. And because every local and regional context is so different, it's really important to, to do it at that state and regional level, to be able to address the particular policy frames and public policy rules, regulations, and the needs of the specific community.

Brian Bienkowski

So I know you've had some victories, I was wondering if you could tell us about some of the policies that you've helped change.

Veena Singla

Absolutely. That's the fun piece to talk about. I say, I say, when I talk about my work, there's often times of focus on the problem, and the scale of the problem and it can feel really overwhelming. And this is why people move away from me at parties. When we used to have parties, be able to talk to people in person. So I love being able to talk about how we actually know how to fix these problems and when we do we see we see success, and, and better outcomes. I think a great example is flame retardant chemicals in furniture that's in all, all of our homes, and through many years of work. We understood that these flame retardant chemicals added to our furniture, don't actually benefit fire safety that was the intention to slow and prevent fires but they don't work for that purpose. And they're harmful, they come out of the furniture they get into people's bodies and raise risks for many kinds of diseases, especially for children, and we see higher levels in children and people of color especially black people, so that we see these disproportionate exposures and impacts, but they're not necessary. We don't need them, as the, it's the best case scenario where we can remove them, and we don't need to add something else to replace them. So we work together, policy changes in California. First, because the state had this unique flammability standard that was driving a lot of this flame retardant chemical use, and needed to be performed and updated to provide better fire safety without the need for these toxic chemicals. So we were able to work on that first with lots of other folks as there was a large coalition involved in in all of these policy changes. I'm talking about. Work on that first and then once that was done, that driver was no longer there. But, people could still use flame retardant chemicals if they wanted to. So then moving on to restrict limit ban the use of the worst and most dangerous flame flame retardant chemicals from from furniture and kids products, and what we see now is almost a complete flip in the market when we look at flame retardant free furniture and furniture that contains flame retardants that used to be majority over 80 90% contain flame retardants and a very small portion was flame retardant free, and where we are now it's a, it's a flip, very small portion with flame retardants most is flame retardant cream, and we are seeing the levels of flame retardants in people's homes, go down, and the levels in people's bodies, go down. So it's a great example of when we understand the problem, take policy action, we can get why in public health benefits.

Brian Bienkowski

It is, it is nice to hear that there are victories and things that get changed because when you mentioned the idea of getting stakeholders in the same room, affordable housing owners and people living there and I mean, to start from that seed, and then have it grow into something, some kind of change down the road, it's good to point out those victories and I'm wondering if there's anything you sounds like you're really busy but if there's anything you're not working on right now but that you hope to work on an issue or a problem that you see that, that you'd like to work on in the future.

Veena Singla

Yes so many answers to that question. No, there is no shortage of problems and unfortunately I have, I have to save one one area of work that I would love to spend more time on actually relates to this. This question that I raised earlier of if you ban or remove something harmful, what do you replace it with. If there's a need for for that thing. And what we've seen often is, you ban one harmful chemical, you get it replaced with something that might be similarly harmful or untested and later we find out it's harmful this idea of the toxic treadmill regretable substitution. And what we want to see is informed substitution, where there's a need, or there's a need for, for that particular function, and going through this process called alternatives assessment where you look at what are the alternatives, including, not having are using this thing, including a complete design change, And how did those stack up when we think about human health and the environment, and potential hazards to it, and who's impacted a kind of across the lifecycle of these alternatives, because often, we see that disproportionate impacts and we're talking about chemicals can occur in the manufacturing and production things, and the end of life. So, low wealth and communities of color, and if you only focus on the use phase, you might, You might miss those. And I think a great example of thinking creatively about alternatives is pee fast these per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, also known as forever chemicals that are used in a lot of food packaging because they make it kind of grease and water resistant, and one of the uses is microwave popcorn bags, some of our colleagues over at the environmental justice and Health Alliance have been working with dollar stores for many years to have them have chemical policies and improve the products that they're offering and, in, in communities. And in thinking about the microwave popcorn those dollar stores carried on the pee fast chemicals. The solution communities came up with is, we don't need those microwave popcorn bags have a bulk popcorn bin, and paper bags next to it, and you can take those home. Add, add your own oil and butter and pop it in the microwave. It completely removes the need for that function. And it's more cost effective, because you don't have as much as much packaging. So that's, I think that's a wonderful example of really thinking about the alternatives, and having the community. Be the one driving, what's going to solve for their needs and what works for them. And it's, it's an area this idea of the alternatives assessment, and sometimes there is a technology gap of how do we meet this function or this need, and they're just, I think there just hasn't been the investment and attention to that, in, in the US from the, the chemical industry and chemical users and and others who could, could really benefit from better solutions that don't rely on toxic chemicals.

Brian Bienkowski

So I know right now things are different because of COVID and I'm not sure your working situation but a lot of the people I've had on are postdoctoral students and PhDs, so it's a lot of people in the academic space and I'm wondering if you could just kind of tell us what a day and day in the life is like as a scientist at NRDC and you've talked a little bit of help, about how this position is different than working in academia but just kind of what, how you spend your time at work.

Veena Singla

Lots of email I feel like that's a reality of life for for many of us in our jobs. So, email is a primary communication tool, both internally like within NRDC within the organization and externally for partners and collaborators, and generally my day is a mix of meetings and calls in the before times met many would have been in person. These days all video or phone. So having some meetings and calls which make, kind of, some are internal, some are with external partners and stakeholders, some might be presentations to policymakers or talking to agencies, and time where I'm working independently, doing analysis, looking at data, or creating products like a blog or a fact sheet, or putting together a new report or a or a paper to be published in a, in a peer reviewed journal. So some activities that are very familiar to academic scientists, and, and others that are sort of, they're very different.

Brian Bienkowski

And you came in spoke to the agency change fellows for listeners who who wouldn't know that, but you were able to meet them and one of the main goals, the program is to get more diverse voices in the environmental health space and amplify those voices, and wondering as a woman of color if you can talk about any challenges that you face working in spaces that are often white and male, that's I mean both academia and environmental organizations right now.

Veena Singla

Yes. I think there's many ongoing challenges in that regard. The work I'm focused on now and healthier affordable housing. There's a lot of intersection with the green and sustainable building sector, which historically and currently is extremely white. And this is, this is a major issue because there's a big disconnect between the reality of what millions of people in affordable housing, experience, and their needs, and who green building has traditionally served, and the focus of green building on energy to the exclusion of the many other factors that are important to housing quality, and people in the building sector can see, equity, and housing quality issues as a distraction, I'd say at the worst or maybe add on at the best from their work that's focused on climate and energy. So a good example I think is spray foam insulation, where it's well established that the chemicals in spray foam are respiratory sensitizers, and as magicians and workers are exposed to these hazardous chemicals, when they're installing spray foam. However, spray foam insulation is excellent in terms of energy efficiency, performance in a building. So, ciao challenges I've run into are people who see the worker issues as outside their scope and not their concern, because they're focused on the energy performance. But I think we are at a moment right now, where more people are understanding that there is actually no single issue that racial justice, housing affordability housing quality and climate are connected issues, and you can't really separate them in the way that we have been so siloed. And I think my challenge. And our challenge, more broadly in the field, is to try to build this new plane while we're flying it, because we haven't really done this before, right, but there is an opportunity to really start the transformation of racist systems and policies but we have to figure it out as we go along. So I certainly invite all of your listeners to join me because I need your help and I welcome it.

Brian Bienkowski

Do you have any communication tips for early career scientists or otherwise that maybe from whether it's from marginalized backgrounds. You know, first generation graduate or whatever that are in these in these new spaces that maybe they don't have the competence to speak truths, or just speak up about their expertise things they know about any tips you have there.

Veena Singla

Yes, that can be. That can be a tough one. I'd say first and foremost is to just trust, trust your instincts and don't speak up if you feel unsafe in a situation. So trust your instincts, and push yourself. So I would say don't regret situations where you didn't speak up, and later thought that I wish I would have said this, you know, but so don't regret that, but use that to be ready for the next time and find those opportunities to, to speak up. So in, in the past, I've certainly been in situations where I didn't quite feel the confidence or have the language to articulate what I wanted to say. So many years ago, I was in a meeting where we were discussing organizational hiring practices and talking about how can we have a more diverse candidate pool. And one of the senior people in the meeting, the sort of pale male and yell type that is very common in the environmental world stood up and kind of gave this loud speech about how, no one's going to tell him how to hire his people, and then the room broke into applause. And I was very uncomfortable, and, you know, People seemed angry he seemed angry, and I didn't quite know what was going on in it but it didn't seem right to me. And now I know I can name that's a perfect example of white fragility, right, and I, I took that opportunity though to reflect on that event, and then try to find the words and read and listen to other experts and thinkers and literally write down what I would have wanted to say, and that really helped me find the words to speak up in the, in the future, in an other somewhat similar situations. And I've also found something that works for me often is to approach with a questioning frame, rather than stating it can be helpful. So for example, to say something like we said we're committed to diversity but everyone on the panel is white. Am I missing something, rather than saying, as a statement. The composition of the panel doesn't meet our diversity goals. Because I found that asking a question, can encourage engagement and discussion, and can be seen as less aggressive. Coming from someone, but I think everyone has to find the approach that works for them and their personality and how they like to interact and engage with people. And another thing that's been really helpful for me is observing my mentors and people that I think handle some of these difficult conversations or speaking truth really well I've been in meetings where, where there's a conversation going on and I wish I could say something and struggling, and then someone steps in and says it perfectly and observing that and ask what did they do that made it work so well. But was it the way they frame to their tone of voice, kind of, it's often the many things right it's many aspects of how they do it. So, observing that and then trying their tactics and if it's a mentor someone you talk with asking them, you know how, what, what's your approach. Do you have advice for me and trying those and then your own spin on some of those tactics and approaches. So you can, you can start to develop that individualized that for yourself and how you want to be in those situations.

Brian Bienkowski

It's really good advice. I especially like the idea of being in a situation and maybe not being comfortable or not being ready and reflecting on it later. I've noticed, working with Dr Ami Zota who's, who's my, my partner in crime here at Agents of Change. I've noticed that she is always prepared when we do anything. She is, She knows exactly what she's gonna say and she says it perfectly. And I really respect it and I've learned a lot from from watching her do that and it's a little different because I don't think these are spaces, she's uncomfortable in but, um, I think the point remains that just kind of thinking through your thoughts ahead of time and being prepared. I've learned a lot from Ami and I think your tips were very much in line with that. So Veena I have one last question, and I've been asking everybody this and it's not nearly as heavy as the first one that I sprung on you is what is the last book that you read for fun.

Veena Singla

Oh, Boy, the last book I read for fun. Do audiobooks count.

Brian Bienkowski

Sure.

Veena Singla

I haven't read a real book in quite some time, but I've been loving audiobooks. was the last one. Think it was Trevor Noah's Born a Crime, which I highly recommend the audiobook version of that because it's, it's him reading it, And you get all of his delivery his vocal inflections - He's a, he's a seasoned comedian right so the book is quite, quite entertaining and quite funny in many places, even though it's covering very serious subjects growing up in in apartheid South South Africa, and what the title of the book she was literally born a crime, it was illegal to have black and white people together. So it's, it's very serious. but he, he writes about it in a very accessible way and I learned a lot, actually about, about the history of South Africa as well. So, I, I quite enjoyed it, and definitely recommend his reading of it.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. Well Veena thank you so much for taking time today this has been a lot of fun.

Veena Singla

Thank you, Brian.

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