By Terry Kosdrosky
Public Engagement & Impact
Two University of Michigan professors are being honored by President Mark Schlissel for their pursuit of public engagement and using their knowledge to positively impact society in the areas of science policy and child advocacy.
Rosina Bierbaum, a professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability and former dean of its predecessor, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, will receive the President’s Award for National and State Leadership. This award honors individuals who have provided sustained, dedicated, and influential leadership and service in major national or state capacities.
Joseph Ryan, a professor in the School of Social Work and co-director of the Child and Adolescent Data Lab, will receive the President’s Award for Public Impact. This award honors individuals who have offered their academic research and expertise in tangible service of a major public-sector challenge.
"Professors Bierbaum and Ryan have used their expertise to elevate public discussion and promote policies that are making a difference in the lives of people in communities and all around our nation,” Schlissel said. “Their commitment to engagement is upholding the greatest traditions of the University of Michigan's public mission."
Science advocacy has been a hallmark of Bierbaum’s career, building an international reputation in the fields of science policy and climate science adaptation. She was recently named senior adviser to the Global Commission on Adaptation, led by former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Bierbaum served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology throughout the Obama administration, helping formulate policy on science, technology and innovation. She also ran the first Environment Division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and serves on the Michigan Climate Action Council and Michigan’s Chronic Wasting Disease Commission.
She also was an important conduit between U-M and the science policy community, helping SEAS secure guest lecturers such as former Vice President Al Gore. Bierbaum has co-authored or contributed to many governmental and intergovernmental reports, including the “World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change” and served on several national environmental boards and councils.
“Thirty years ago on my first day in Washington, D.C., I attended a congressional hearing, eager to hear a brilliant discourse between Congress and leading scientists testifying on ozone depletion and climate change,” she said. “The uneasy exchange was sorely disappointing. The lawyers and the scientists spoke past — not to — each other.
“I realized that there was a crying need for translators and assessors of science. If all the good research produced by universities is not ‘accessible,’ it is not useable. I never looked back, and made communication of science a lifelong goal.
“I believe we must all be ‘civic scientists’ and tithe some of our time to improve public understanding and use of best available science. The President’s Award for National and State Leadership shows the value the university places on being the ‘leaders and the best’ everywhere — from the classroom to the statehouse to the White House.”
SEAS Dean Jonathan Overpeck said Bierbaum is a “tremendous asset” to the university and the nation.
"It’s hard to find a person who embodies state and national leadership on climate and natural resources more than Rosina,” he said. “She has served multiple presidents as well as the governor of Michigan. Importantly, she brings her connections, experiences and insights to the University of Michigan, leaving a lasting impression on a long line of students and faculty colleagues."
Ryan has committed his career to improving the lives of children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in Michigan and other states. His research on the risk factors associated with child maltreatment has been critical in helping state governments and social service agencies better prevent abuse.
Along with Brian Perron, professor of social work, Ryan Launched the Child Development and Adolescent Data Lab to help policymakers and social service agencies use data and empirical evidence to better inform their decisions.
Former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Ryan to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice in 2018. His work using data to study child welfare, education, juvenile justice and adult arrest has helped the state think more critically about child welfare and justice policies. He also helped the Illinois Department of Children and Youth Services evaluate programs for families and youth at risk.
“The social problems we face today are incredibly complex and will not be solved in isolation by policymakers, direct service workers, agency directors or the scientific community,” Ryan said. “The answers we pursue will only arise in productive and focused partnerships. The opportunity to help build these partnerships to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families is inspiring and incredibly rewarding.
“I feel honored to work at the University of Michigan, an institution that values public service and actively encourages and supports faculty to build bridges between research labs and communities around the world.
“Scientific inquiry and the advancement of knowledge are foundational activities on campus. This award reflects the university’s commitment to using that knowledge for the sole purpose of making life better for others.”
School of Social Work Dean Lynn Videka said Ryan is a great example of a scholar who makes a difference in people’s lives.
“Joe Ryan is a transformative public scholar,” she said. “His work informs better policies and services for the children of Michigan, Illinois and the nation. His research serves the public good for our nation's most vulnerable children and it is an exemplar of strong university-government partnerships.”
Bierbaum’s and Ryan’s awards will be celebrated at a March 21 event that will feature faculty public engagement experiences and create opportunity for faculty seeking ways to become engaged and to learn from others actively engaged in this space.