Shifting Debates: Awards Spotlight Environmental Research With Impact

photo: howamo/shutterstock

photo: howamo/shutterstock

The Heinz family is a philanthropic powerhouse, especially in Pennsylvania where the Heinz Endowments are a major supporter of arts, education and the environment. Teresa Heinz has taken a step back from her leadership role there, but she’s still chair of a small foundation that gives over $1 million a year through awards in the name of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz.

The Heinz Awards, running since 1993, celebrate an interesting mix of people advancing work related to John Heinz’s concerns and legacy—arts, the environment, public policy and more. There wasn’t a running theme in the awards this year, but environmental research and policy ended up getting a lot of attention. 

Three of the six 2018 winners work in research related to the environment, but maybe more noteworthy is that their efforts have also directly translated to policy wins and environmental protections. Research that translates into policy on the environment and in other arenas is a popular pursuit among philanthropists. Packard’s science and marine funding, in particular, comes to mind, but there are lots of examples of funders hoping to turn research into solutions. In this case, the Heinz awards are giving a nod to those who have been successful at it. 

Maybe the most dramatic example of this comes from a winner in the public policy category, Sherri Mason, who studies microplastics pollution. As it turns out, these tiny particles of plastic are everywhere, in some ways posing a scarier threat than the gyres of visible trash collecting in the oceans. Her discoveries brought attention to the issue, leading several state governments and eventually Congress to act relatively quickly to pass bans on the microbeads that had become popular in personal care products. She’s currently researching pollution from tiny synthetic fibers that come off of our clothing. 

In the actual environment category, environmental psychologist Ming Kuo was awarded for her work on the impacts of green space on behavior and mental health in cities. She’s conducted highly influential studies reporting that parks and trees have positive effects including reducing violence and aggression, and taming ADHD symptoms in children. Since the 1990s, Kuo’s work has shaped the entire field of environmental psychology, and has been applied to policy and best practices in landscaping, tree planting, city parks and more. 

The third green researcher to win was, again, for oceans work, and again in the public policy category. Marine ecologist Enric Sala was awarded for his work with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program, which combines exploration and research with policy and outreach to advance marine protected areas. The program has conducted 26 expeditions to date, contributing to the creation of 19 marine reserves.

The three environmental winners are notable in the context of a lot of interesting funding happening these days in both marine conservation and urban parks. But other winners include choreographer and interdisciplinary artist Ralph Lemon, considered at the cutting edge of contemporary dance. Norman Atkins won for his work in education reform, management of charter schools and teacher training. And Linda Rottenberg was awarded for work as a social entrepreneur in founding Endeavor. 

Past winners are an eclectic bunch, too, including ClimateWorks and Energy Foundation founder Hal Harvey, cartoonist Roz Chast, Pulitzer-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, to name a few from recent years.