People: Two Leaders In Environmental Sciences Are Awarded USC's $150,000 Tyler Prize

Out of more than 200 nominees, Perry L. McCarty, Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering at Stanford University, and Robert M. White, president of the National Academy of Engineering, have been awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. The 19-year-old prize, awarded May 1, honors individuals or institutions displaying a reverence for the protection, maintenance, and improvement of the world's ecological and environmental conditions. The University of Southern California admi

Jun 8, 1992
Ron Kaufman
Out of more than 200 nominees, Perry L. McCarty, Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering at Stanford University, and Robert M. White, president of the National Academy of Engineering, have been awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. The 19-year-old prize, awarded May 1, honors individuals or institutions displaying a reverence for the protection, maintenance, and improvement of the world's ecological and environmental conditions. The University of Southern California administers the $150,000 prize, which was split between the two winners.

Last year's recipients were former United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, for his campaigns to curb cigarette smoking, and M.S. Swaminathan, an agricultural scientist working in Asia.

`Great National Interest'

McCarty was given the prize this year for his research into the microbiological cleanup of contaminated ground and surface water.

"The biological approach we are trying to develop is of great national interest," he says. "We are learning how to use microorganisms to destroy contaminants, rather than using the alternative physical or chemical approaches, which do little more than push the contaminants from one place to another."

Currently, McCarty is working with private companies and federal and state governments involved in toxic waste cleanup under Superfund, the major funding apparatus created in the early 1980s to finance environmental reclamation projects.

McCarty says he deals primarily with chlorinated solvents, which are present in many industrial cleaning and lubrication fluids. He says that in most circumstances in which a high concentration of pollution is present, the extent of the problem is so great that finding an effective solution is extremely difficult.

Although McCarty says his work chiefly involves scientific activity involving waste cleanup, he notes that an equally important concern should be discouraging all present and future polluters--and Superfund has been a big part of that effort.

"Superfund is bitter and costly medicine for private corporations," McCarty explains. "It has really helped change corporate attitudes like nothing I've seen before."

He says that over the next 30 years, the cost to clean the water in the United States could be in the range of $1.3 trillion. "Corporations change their attitudes because of the huge cost of cleanup," he says. "For example, a chlorinated solvent for cleaning clothes or engines may cost around $1 a pound. But when dumped into the environment, the cost jumps to around $1,000 or $10,000 per pound to clean up."

McCarty received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Detroit's Wayne State University in 1953 and his Ph.D. in science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1959. He taught briefly at MIT before joining the faculty of Stanford in 1962.

A Driving Force

For three decades, Robert White has been a driving force internationally in the areas of climate control and marine mammal conservation. As president of the National Academy of Engineering, White has been involved with creating environmental agencies and organizing international conferences.

Beginning in 1963, he organized the Environmental Science Services Administration by combining the U.S. Weather Bureau with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the upper atmosphere research program of the National Bureau of Standards.

In 1970, White orchestrated the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and became its first administrator, a post he held for seven years. White says that under his leadership, NOAA became involved with the movement to protect marine mammals, specifically porpoises and whales.

"There is no question that the world whale populations are significantly better off now than they used to be, thanks to strict international restrictions--now a total moratorium-- on whale hunting," he says.

Currently, White says, his main concern is the slow destruction of the Earth's atmosphere and radical climate change. In 1979, he organized the first World Climate Conference, which now, as the World Climate Program, collects scientific data on greenhouse gases.

White received his bachelor's degree in geology from Harvard University in 1944 and his Sc.D. in meteorology from MIT in 1958.

--Ron Kaufman