A Breath of Fresh Air

Young Government Leaders (YGL) and GovLoop present the NextGen Public Service Awards for superior public service and achievement. The 5th Annual NextGen Public Service Awards will be given at the 2015 NextGen Award’s Ceremony, which will kick off the NextGen Training Summit on July 20th and 21st in Washington, DC. This year we have 30 finalists – the NextGen 30. Over the next month we will introduce you to our finalists through this blog series.


Meet the finalist:

Who: Kevin Kuhn, Science Advisor to the Chief Innovation Officer, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Achievement: NextGen Public Service Finalist, Innovation Category

“Kevin is an expert at balancing ambitious goals and possibilities with the practical realities of the federal bureaucracy. He is active in most of the innovation team projects, allowing him to serve as an intermediary within the team and throughout the agency. Innovation team members seek Kevin’s insights on their projects, especially during the startup phase of a project. He has the foresight to shape the vision of efforts and launch those emerging ideas.” – Dustin Renwick, Environmental Protection Agency. Renwick nominated Kuhn for the NextGen Innovation Award.

Most people don’t like to take risks, especially ones that could make or break their careers. Kevin Kuhn is not most people. Kuhn has dedicated his career to boldly moving the EPA forward to address future environmental problems.

As Science Advisor to the Chief Innovation Officer for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Kuhn works tirelessly to protect human health in the environment through scientific research. His colleague and nominator, Dustin Renwick, said, “[Kuhn] provides leadership and technical expertise on chemistry and innovation in the environmental sciences.” Kuhn launched the EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Project (PIP), a competition that provides funding for some of the EPA’s 2,000 scientists to pursue high-risk, high-reward research with environmentally sustainable goals.

According to Kuhn, PIP provides seed funding and time to “let people tinker with new ideas.” With encouragement, the EPA’s best and brightest have been able to explore high-risk research that could make a huge difference for the environment. Every year, “EPA scientists…really give us their best ideas, the really far out stuff, and then we give them time and money to go try,” said Kuhn. “[They are] so excited to really explore things that aren’t problems the EPA’s worrying about tomorrow, but problems they’re worrying about 5 years from now.”

Big ideas born from this competition have blossomed into even bigger projects. For example, one project wanted to use satellites from the International Space Station to monitor coastal water quality in the Gulf of Mexico using a device called a spectrophotometer. EPA was able to implement this project by teaming up with NASA during its initial seed funding. They got spectacular results. Today, the EPA has expanded this concept to monitor hazardous algal blooms in the ocean as well as bodies of fresh water.

This project, which has transformed into a massive collaborative effort between NASA, the EPA and NOAA, is just one example of the several successful innovations bred from Kuhn’s PIP competition.

Big Risks, Bigger Rewards

“Risk is scary to everyone,” said Kuhn. However, smart risk-taking, like what’s being done with these projects, inspires people to think big. “I find it really frustrating when people have this great idea, but aren’t wiling to take risks and see if it’ll work,” he said. Whereas the government was once a risk-averse environment, seed funding programs like PIP are encouraging agencies like the EPA to take on riskier, higher reward projects. Kuhn’s PIP program has thus really caused a cultural change in the EPA, allowing the agency to take a more agile approach to innovation.

Admittedly, changing the culture of an agency seems like a daunting task. However, Kuhn encourages young people to try. “I’m a public servant because I really just want to make a huge difference, and I think that’s where you can do it,” he said. While it may not be easy to change the culture or practices of a government agency, Kuhn insists that it’s always possible.

Support from the agency’s leadership is essential to any project’s success, according to Kuhn. Young people in government must build trust with the leadership and start employing their ideas on the smallest organizational levels before working their way up. Though this may be difficult, Kuhn said people should always try to innovate.

No risk, no reward; it’s a mentality that has helped Kuhn establish an impactful career at the EPA, and it’s a mentality he hopes future government leaders will adopt to spur even more innovation.

We will be talking to all the NextGen Public Service Award finalists in the upcoming weeks. See the full list here. Finally, register to attend the Awards Ceremony to get to know the NextGen 30 in-person!

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