"It was a talk given by someone from the California Department of Health Services," Gold recalls. "He said, 'If you in academia don't make recommendations on technical issues, just remember, elected officials will. If you stay in that ivory tower, those multimillion-dollar decisions that impact public health are going to be made without you.' "
The statement reaffirmed what Gold had concluded while getting his master's degree in biology at UCLA. "I decided I was a big-picture kind of guy and, rather than pure science, I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference in protecting the environment," he says.
He found his calling in 1986, shortly after entering the policy-oriented ESE Program. One of the guest speakers he heard in class was Dorothy Green, who had just founded a nonprofit organization to fight coastal pollution in Santa Monica. Gold, who had been raised in Santa Monica, began volunteering at Heal the Bay. Two years later, he was hired as the organization's first employee, in the position of staff scientist. Since 1994, he has served as executive director.
Heal the Bay was formed at a time when the Santa Monica Bay was, in Gold's words, "a mess." Pollution from sewage and storm drains was causing reproductive problems and tumors in fish, and a large section of the bay had become essentially lifeless. Sewage spills were a regular event. An alarming number of surfers and swimmers were complaining of stomach flu, sinusitis and other illnesses.
Meanwhile, Gold had heard too many politicians use the lack of sound science as an excuse not to protect the environment and public health. He vowed to fight back with data. Gold calls it "impact science" — timely research designed to assist decision-makers in acting in the public interest. "I think our use of science to educate the public and advocate on issues is what sets us apart from most groups," he says.
Today, Gold says, the Santa Monica Bay is in much better shape than when Heal the Bay began its efforts. Gold estimates that there has been a 90% reduction in sewage solids discharged to the bay since the mid-1980s, restoring plant and animal life to previous "dead" zones. Among its successes, Heal the Bay coauthored legislation setting the first statewide bathing-water standards, along with a protocol for health warnings and beach closures. Gold is quick to point out that there's still work to be done, particularly in reducing storm-water pollution, where little reduction has occurred despite Heal the Bay's best efforts to push for tougher regulations.
Gold finds that his D.Env. degree has been a key to his success. "It gives you the diversity of skills necessary to tackle complicated problems," he says. "That's critical, because environmental issues are a great deal more complex than a lot of other research issues."