Questions for David J. Brenner, Nolan Hertel, Jerry W. Hiatt, Kathryn A. Higley, and Michael Weber
How does epigenetics play a role in estimating radiation-induced risk?
D. Brenner: I can give you a simple answer, and that is that we don't know. We don't know how much genetics plays a role in radiation-induced cancer risks, and we know even less about how epigenetics affects radiation-induced cancer risks. It wouldn't surprise me if epigenetics played a significant role.
Bystander effects can be both protective and detrimental. How does this influence support for the LNT (linear no-threshold) model?
D. Brenner: The questioner is quite right: bystander effects can be killing effects, which at low doses would be protective, as well as mutagenic which might increase cancer risks. Which of those wins is something that we don’t know in the context of radiation-induced cancer. The other part of the answer is that we don't know if bystander effects are in any way significant in the radiation-induced cancer context. So we neither know whether bystander effects are going to reduce cancer risks or increase cancer risks, or even whether they are relevant to radiation-induced cancer risks. We've worked on bystander effects for quite a long time, and it's a bit disappointing to say that's as much as we know - or don't know.
Can you comment about the effect of dose rate on radiation risk?
D. Brenner: Dose rate was on my list of topics right at the beginning of my talk that I said were relevant but that I wouldn't have time to talk about. It's a key area. The gold standard for low dose radiation cancer risk estimation is of course data from Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and of course that's at high dose rate. We have some studies at low dose rate, and it would appear that the radiation-induced cancer risks don't differ dramatically from the high dose rate data, which is why BEIR VII (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) came up with a dose rate effectiveness factor of just 1.5—in other words, a minimal dose rate effect. But I’m not sure a one-size-fits-all dose rate factor is appropriate.
Are you advocating a de minimis radiation dose limit, and how would this work in the ALARA (as low as reasonable achievable) regulatory world?
D. Brenner: I don't think I was advocating anything beyond the need for more research! My own view is that, if linearity truly holds at low doses, then you shouldn’t ignore the population effects of a large number of people exposed to very low radiation doses. So this is a very different approach from use of a de minimis dose concept. I don't think I was advocating anything more than to suggest that if the questions I raised were answered, I think we would know better whether a de minimis approach is reasonable or not.
What about health damage other than cancer?
D. Brenner: That's a good question, looking at effects other than cancer. I don't think there is convincing evidence, as far as I see, that health damage such as cardiovascular effects and others are going to be relevant at the very low doses. As far as we can know, these sorts of effects kick in at doses above ~0.5 Gy. You could argue, as I did in the context of radiation carcinogenesis, that these effects may be there at low doses but we just can’t detect them. That might be, but these do seem to be effects that require an organ response as opposed to a single cell exposure. It's certainly possible there are other health effects at very low doses beyond carcinogenesis, but I think the main detriment at low doses is radiation-induced cancer. That's not to say we shouldn't look at other endpoints.
What are the populations in which to study cancer risk at 10 mGy?
D. Brenner: In general, I would think the best populations are ones where there is a very low background level of cancer. Childhood cancer is one of these because, happily, not many children get cancer. The big Oxford study of in utero radiation exposure was a study of childhood cancer—and the reason, I think, that they were able to get some statistically significant results is because there are not many childhood cancers. You'd want to look around; it seems to me, to any situation where the background is low. The other approach, as per John Boice’s million worker study, is just to look at very, very many people.
I've got several questions on different cards but they're similar in fashion, talking about the selection of the model from what we know down to what we don't know. One is mentioning possible demonstration of hormesis; the other is the applicability of the linear threshold model regarding the upper limit on risk estimates at low dose. I'm kind of combining them together because they're so similar.
D. Brenner: What I was trying to get at is that I don't think any model of low-dose radiation carcinogenesis is directly testable. If you set out to test linearity as BEIR VII tried to do based on epidemiological data, you can only do it at relatively high doses because, as I discussed, at low doses you are very limited by the background cancer “noise.” That would be true of hormesis as well as any other model. I think you have to be a bit smarter than that and really ask what are the fundamental biological or biophysical assumptions that go into any of these models, and then try and test these assumptions. I think you need to test the underlying assumptions rather than doing more direct tests involving this low dose and that many mice getting cancer. I don't think that's the right way to go about validating or rejecting models at very low doses.
Does a “saturable” dose response imply any information about mechanism of action?
D. Brenner: That’s a very good question. Broadly speaking any particular shape of dose response does not necessarily “prove” any particular mechanism, though it might rule out some. For example, a downwardly curving “saturable” dose response might be caused by a bystander mechanism, but it might also be caused by a mechanism in which just a small proportion of the population were very radiosensitive. Of course if we really knew that this was the “true” shape of the dose effect curve for carcinogenesis, it would have implications for radiation protection and for dose rate effects.
This is another timing question as it relates to exposure. The question is using 1 mGy as an example, is there a difference in the damage to a cell if that dose was applied over a long time like hundreds of seconds or in a short time period like a millionth of a second?
D. Brenner: It depends a little on what type of radiation we're talking about, but in general at 1 mGy of low-LET (linear energy transfer) radiation, you are talking about single cell exposure. Here a cell may experience a single hit but won't know anything about what's going on the rest of the time. Cells will either feel no hits at all or will feel one hit, so they don't know about whether the overall exposure was over a long time or a short time. That said, if it's true, and I’m sure it is, that cells talk to each other, then these arguments wouldn't necessarily tell the whole story.
Do you have any comments about implications of areas with high natural radiation background?
D. Brenner: The question is whether you can usefully do radiation epidemiology in areas of high natural background. These are very difficult studies to interpret because you normally don't have individual doses—and when you are doing low-dose studies and don't have individual doses, your power goes down dramatically. So in general you can't get that much information from epidemiological studies in these high natural background areas unless you can do individual dose reconstruction and also focus in on evaluating potential confounding factors. The experience of measuring domestic radon risks provide a vivid illustration of just how difficult these studies are to do and to interpret.
Which biological endpoint should be used for estimation of radiation risk in humans (for low doses)?
D. Brenner: As I mentioned before, I don’t think it’s possible to directly estimate radiation risks in humans at very low doses. Our 40% natural cancer background means that the signal-to-noise ratio issues become insuperable at very low doses. So an alternate approach is to tease out the assumptions that are made in, for example, the argument for dose linearity, or the arguments for dose saturation, and test them.
Can uncertainty in risk at low doses be estimated? Can you comment on the meaning of the upper bound of a risk estimate at low doses?
D. Brenner: I am quite enthusiastic about the use of upper bound risk estimates at low doses. In other words “the risks cannot be more than “x,” because if they were then we would have seen them.” I like this approach because it’s a way of communicating low dose risks that doesn’t require assumptions about LNT, thresholds, etc. So we can avoid these “its safe/it’s not safe” arguments which so confuse the public, for example in Fukushima.
According to the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), more than 50% of all faculty are part-time appointments. Your talk focused on tenured faculty. How do you see the role of part-time faculty in CARP (Consortium for the Advancement of Radiation Protection)?
N. Hertel: My experience is not to have very many part-time faculty in the programs I've been in. I think the bottom line is the part-time faculty we hire get paid by the course and they don't get a fraction of what full-time faculty members get. It's something that most of our part-time faculty members do because of their pure love of the topic and they're wanting to engage with students. I know there are a lot of people who are towards the end of their careers who say I have a wealth of experience to share. I think that would fit well into a CARP thing, particularly in training and practicums and internships. For instance, if we brought people to the operational side of health physics and nuclear safety at Oak Ridge, I think they would say, “Well, I don't have enough time to really work this student this summer like they should be worked.” That would be an outstanding place for people with past experience who are willing to do something part-time to come in and mentor those people in those situations. I don't know how that would fit into my university's approach to this, but we do use part-time people some in our medical physics program mainly for their memory.
How has the national lab funding model affected the research dollars in the radiological sciences?
N. Hertel: I'll speak from what little experience I have. I'm fortunate, I hold a joint faculty appointment so a lot of money is subcontracted to Georgia Tech and I don't have to fill out a timecard or anything like that. What I observe is this. Everything is billable. There's no longer the situation where, at least in my vision of national labs 20 y ago, there was generic funding in a research area, and as long as you stayed within that, there were places you could go to get what I call more of a blanket funding. Here all I see is stuff now contracted for deliverables, and there's no commitment to more than a year at a time, so it's hard. In our case, we now have four staff members. If they want to travel to any meetings, that's about $2 million a year budget that has to come in. The difficulty is you don't get a commitment that says here's a 5 y contract even with deliverables. You get like here's a year's contract, and so it makes it really hard to “sustain the effort.” I think that's a big challenge and other people maybe can speak to that even better than I can; those who actually balance the books.
Should Masters students be required to write a thesis (or journal article)?
N. Hertel: The selfish answer is yes, at least two journal articles, because body count matters. I think there's room for MS coursework-only degree programs; particularly I think if there's an operational component that people are going to look to hire, but I think I prefer Masters students who work for me to write a thesis and then publish a paper off of it but that's a selfish goal.
To me this looks more like a comment, but certainly you can elaborate. I like the idea of CARP and it reminds me of a statement this morning about societies circling the wagons. I think consolidation/collaboration as a theme in all aspects of our profession will make us stronger. In addition to CARP, perhaps the NGOs (nongovernment organizations) need to gather, render a single meta-organization, like American Institute of Physics.
N. Hertel: Thank you for that comment. I sense that among the academic colleagues, and some of the lab people I've talked to say hey we're probably stronger together. There are still certain specialties that exist at different locations and schools and one group doesn't do the whole thing. I think a collaboration well thought out and fair, and I think people don't want anybody to corner the market in such a collaboration if we have a consortium, so I'm game to work on that. I would say this, I have the support of the environmental sciences division director at Oak Ridge to do this, and he recognizes this is a critical need. We also have a challenge there, just to ramble on, in that we're in the environmental sciences division and he doesn't feel like we do science. He feels like we do applied science, which interestingly enough never entered my mind as an engineer. There's a challenge there, but I think we have him educated now.
How is your suggestion different from the old program operated originally by ORAU (Oak Ridge Associated Universities)?
N. Hertel: I'm not sure what program we're referring to. Maybe I'm not old enough. I think on the training side a lot of people in this room probably said how many of you have actually had a degree that said health physics on it. We probably have more people who didn't, particularly in a certain age group. So a lot of people did their training in health physics at ORAU or ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education), and I would say that would be a thing. I've already talked to Eric Abelquist a little bit about this a few months ago. If we move ahead with an attempt to form a consortium, I'll align with him. I think the difference may be if you look at the CASL (Consortium for the Advancement of Simulation of light water reactors) there's a big grant of $25 million a year, and it's been extended for another 5 y so there's going to be 10 y of that. What happens is that there's a committee that says here's some general research agendas, and now we will ask for proposals in those areas and fund those. I don't know that that happened with ORAU before in terms of university participation. I was going to say something, but it's probably politically incorrect so I won't say it. I think if somebody wants to clarify whether I'm wrong on that I'd be happy to receive that correction.
Is CARP networked with the Radiation Research Society to make sure radiobiology is included?
N. Hertel: The answer is no, but I'd welcome the networking opportunity. It’s not as if there's something already off the ground and going. I’m thinking that in the current set-up I’m in, I can serve as a launching platform to help get things started. I encourage any input and collaboration possible. My experience wouldn't direct me toward radiation biology funding, so if we want to expand it there, I think that's an opportunity that someone would have to help me with.
The hub participants look like mostly academic, engineering, research institutes. Since the best engineers also do hands-on and know how to use a wrench, where is the practical hands-on experience? Do they learn how to do a measurement?
N. Hertel: See, now you've pointed to a weakness in a lot of academic programs nowadays. We turn out Masters students, Ph.D. students, who can simulate a detector but maybe not use one. We work on that aspect. I think that's one of the things we'd want to do is push toward having a more measurement-based set of internships and continued training to meet that need. I have a friend at another national lab who tells me that his boss said, “We need to hire some new operational people.” He said, ”We need to hire people who are certified health physicists.” She said, “How can that be, we've always hired people who are 22 y old and trained?" He said, “We don't have enough people left to train them because we're too busy.” His big challenge is that he's pushing me on the operational side to say, “We need people who can make decisions based on measurements, things that probably aren't taught in a classroom.” So here's the idea of this practicum. DOE hires 20 health physics (that's a made-up number) a year, why don't we send them through several different stations operationally. Just like my daughter's a pharmacist who worked in a hospital, worked retail, worked in a nuclear pharmacy. So you have a flavor of everything, and I think that will address some of that problem. But no, I think on the measurement side, the place we need to play off is DNDO (Domestic Nuclear Detection Office) and Homeland Security because there is funding from NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) to do that, but also to get people who ultimately want to go into radiation protection involved in those kinds of detector problems but they need some practical training there too.
What roles could technology play in increasing the productivity of (and thereby reducing the shortage of) health physicists?
J. Hiatt: There are some technologies out there, such as the telemetry systems, which can be used to remotely monitor workers as they go into areas that are playing a role. One of the areas that the industry is embarking on is a process called the “delivery of the nuclear promise.” Under the delivery of the nuclear promise, the research and the new technologies are the major things that are going to be looked at, and the use of remote monitoring technology, the use of robotics, can certainly help.
K. Higley: One of the technologies that I find particularly useful is GoToMeeting. I’m working with colleagues in Japan and China and Canada and Russia and the United Kingdom and in Australia and you do multi-continent conversations about radiation protection issues. As health physics kind of shrinks, you find this cohort of colleagues who you work with across time zones. That's how technology helps us.
Could you elaborate on the details of the economics of small programs in higher education, return on investment, more than one student, >300–350 credit hours, ≥$300,000–350,000 sponsored research?
K. Higley: I'll have to go back and touch bases on all the subparts on that question, but fundamentally it costs money to deliver educational content. Most of that money now comes from tuition dollars (also known as “butts in seats”). Depending on the university, depending on the program, school administrators will say something like, “for a class to be sustainable it has to have, at the undergraduate level, 20 students in any single class.” Similarly, an academic program may have to graduate 20 students a year for that program to be viewed as viable. Those numbers can be tweaked a little bit, but these are in the ballpark across U.S. academic programs. In contrast, graduate programs are viewed as cost-sinks. If you're a research-intensive institution you have to pay graduate students as research or teaching assistants. This means you've got to have grant funds to cover these costs, or otherwise the funds come out of program overhead. A student on an assistantship will cost a program somewhere between $45,000 to $70,000 a year, depending on what is covered: tuition, wages, health insurance benefits, overheads, and other associated costs. Consequently, to maintain academic programs (undergraduate or graduate) boils down to a budgetary consideration. When you hire a faculty member, you have to pay their salary, and also cover their fringe benefits, as well as cover some portion of costs to run the facility where they teach or do research. Assume you have a faculty member who gets a salary between $70,000 (which is low for faculty) and $100,000 or more. By the time you add all the other costs (benefits, etc.) it can reach $200,000 a year. It takes a lot of tuition dollars to cover that salary. Research-intensive academic institutions also compare faculty productivity quite a bit as a way to determine viability of programs. In some institutions faculty are expected to bring in half their salary or more through research grants, in addition to paying for graduate students. If they can't do that, then they're not considered successful and they won't be granted tenure. With all these cost constraints, university administrators are struggling with the issue—do we hire more instructors and fewer tenured faculty? If so, what does that do to the institutions research reputation and portfolio? Or do they get rid of small academic programs, because for a $200,000 cost per faculty member it might be possible to hire (for example) a mechanical engineering professor and educate 50 mechanical engineers instead of 10 health physicists. It's simply a cost argument.
I have often heard the phrase "radiological engineer" as an alternative to health physicist. Is this a defined specialty and if so how does this impact the health physics market?
K. Higley: There have been some radiological engineering programs, although Texas A&M just closed theirs. There can be considerable overlap between radiological engineers and health physicists, but typically health physicists have more training in the biological sciences. In my particular school, we have a combination of both nuclear engineering and health physics. Radiological engineers are engineers first with a robust radiation protection component. Texas A&M had (to my knowledge) the only ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accredited radiological engineering program in the country.
How would upgrading OPM (Office of Personnel Management) standards impact academic curriculum? It seems like requiring more rigor would require more courses that can't be supported by academia and small programs.
K. Higley: I think it's a little bit of a chicken and egg situation. Moving to an upgraded set of requirements for health physicists under OPM 1306 could be challenging for some academic programs. However, I think that it is crucial that we discuss, both as academic institutions and as radiation protection organizations, what really constitutes a well-rounded health physicist. We need to specify what knowledge, skills and abilities are needed. Admittedly, very few, if any, academic programs offer all of the domains of practice considered by the American Board of Health Physics in the certification exams. However, I believe that through cooperation across academic programs, we can share curriculum, and that may be what we need to go to in order to be able to survive. For example, OSU (Ohio State University) has a number of courses that we offer through distance education that other schools could allow their students to take to round out a degree. I know that CSU (Colorado State University), under the auspices of Tom Johnson, has offered laser safety classes online. When my students want to go for certification, I tell them go to talk to Tom to get their laser and microwave safety education. This is the kind of cooperation that academic institutions might want to consider.
How should we encourage high schoolers to be interested in studying nuclear and radiation health physics in college or university?
K. Higley: I think that you probably need to try and get them interested in this field at an even earlier age, particularly if you're concerned about diversifying your students in terms of gender. Health physics is not a name, I'm sorry, that rolls off the tongue. When I introduce myself as a health physicist, people look at me and they wonder, “Are you working in an exercise studio, are you a dance instructor?” Maybe we need to rebrand ourselves, health physics 2.0, and come up with something really cool to appeal to a younger audience.
D. Brenner: I would very much agree. We have a fair number of high school students. Once they know what we're about, they find it very interesting, but they really don't know what we're about because we don't describe ourselves very well. If we can get people at the high school level, we can keep them.
Is there ample opportunity for graduates of traditional sciences, such as physics and engineering, to become trained as health/medical physicists? What percentage of practicing health/medical physicists has received health physics or medical physics degrees?
K. Higley: I can't give you an answer to the statistics. I know, and earlier this morning they talked about the fact that the accrediting bodies for medical physics decided just a few years ago that they were really going to tighten the entry points into the profession. I must confess I kind of mocked the medical physics profession when they first made these changes. I thought it was sort of a self-inflicted wound. But in retrospect, I think they did it out of an abundance of concern for quality in the medical physics ranks. They wanted to make sure that everybody coming into a graduate program in medical physics had adequate preparation, including quantum physics, anatomy and physiology, and the like. The accrediting body established very rigorous entrance policies, specified the range of didactic (coursework) in an accredited graduate institution, and then required an accredited clinical residency. Only once a student got through all of that were they eligible for board certification. This approach has created some choke points, most notably at the required residency. But the end product ensures quality of the people who are coming into the field. There have been past instances of pretty horrific accidents where people were not adequately trained or educated in medical physics principles. They made some pretty dumb, and in some cases almost criminal, mistakes that wound up injuring or killing people. This is why I think the accrediting bodies went through this difficult process to constrain admission to the field. I think the health physics profession needs to consider a similar system. Thirty years ago there was much more opportunity for individuals from other disciplines to be mentored by health physicists within their workplace. I think that model has largely disappeared. Health physicists are now an “army of one” within organizations. We need to ensure they have the necessary foundation to function in that solo role.
Given the research needs, one could say that we need interdisciplinary teams to solve the big questions, yet the academic institutions have concentrated on turning out individuals with expertise in a single area—medical physics, nuclear engineering, etc. How do we break down these silos?
K. Higley: I'm a scientist in a college of engineering and there is a seismic shift taking place in academic institutions. They recognize that being stove-piped is no longer serving the needs of the students or the people who employ them. There is a big focus on collaboration within the college, across the colleges and the universities, and outside of the university. How exactly that's going to play out is not completely clear. There is considerable interest in interdisciplinary degrees, joint degrees, and dual degrees, as a way to create, what the engineering community calls the “T”-shaped engineer. This refers to someone who is very technically deep in a particular area but has a broad swath of other skills that make them very versatile and able to collaborate with others.
D. Brenner: I would agree with that. We shouldn't be breaking down silos just for the sake of it, but certainly the talk that I gave before suggested that there are people from many different disciplines which really have to bring themselves together to really address these not-very-easy problems. I think the questioner is right that using just one of these disciplines to try and address these problems has been tried and hasn't worked. It's incumbent on us to look for more multidisciplinary approaches.
Could you please clarify how you see the difference between education and training?
K. Higley: As I said, education gives you the fundamental knowledge of how things work. An example might be looking at parameters for radiation attenuation, μen/ρ or how you use Monte Carlo methods to estimate drops in radiation intensity from a range of sources. An example of training would be to provide a copy of NCRP Report No. 147 (Structural Shielding Design for Medical X-Ray Imaging Facilities), and teach an individual how to utilize the figures and tables in the report to estimate the shielding requirements for their facility. With education, you really understand where those tables come from, but the training just simply shows you how to work within very specific parameters; how to read off that table and work with that data to build your facility.
Perhaps the examinations were challenging, but can you disagree with the motivation for introducing students to challenges?
K. Higley: Not at all. I think you grow through being challenged. Is this question coming from one of my past professors? I think that you grow by being challenged. It's like exercising a muscle, and you need that. You can't just have an easy path.
Do you envision that the academic need to collaborate would be enhanced by online courses and a joint degree?
K. Higley: I think that the very small number of students that will be graduating from health physics programs will require the programs to be very creative just to stay in existence. Online courses. Shared summer experiences. Academic consortia. All of these need to be on the table.
Any idea how to “green” up the field of health physics in the minds of 20‐somethings? Competing now with “sustainable energy,” vegan lifestyle, and yoga. HP is not cool anymore.
K. Higley: I think I stopped being cool when my kids became teenagers. But maybe we need a new mascot. Something like Bart Simpson’s “Radioactive Man.” That’s cool.
Has the NRC considered leveraging OPM to make the 1306 Health Physicist submission critical occupation? This indicates a shortage.
M. Weber: NRC is identifying its strategic workforce planning needs right now. That's the first step. I suspect that once we've done that, again because we did that back in the late 1990s, we would interact with the Office of Personnel Management to raise their attention. I thought the question was going to ask are we going to try to change the definition of health physicist under the 1306 series. I also took note of that earlier today, so I'm planning to take that back and discuss it with my colleagues at NRC.
Without an increase in fellowships or money, with things staying as they are, what solutions do you propose to deal with this potential shortfall of people?
M. Weber: I highlighted a variety of potential solutions at the end of my presentation, such as identifying and supporting research projects that are more modestly sized, focusing academic programs and continued education that are responsive to current and projected needs, and emphasizing acquisition of practical, hands on experience throughout careers. I think there are practical ways that we can continue to supply the needs. I am sensitive to what was discussed. We previously talked about how sometimes the federal government can hire away very qualified, competent state regulators. That's not necessarily good for the country. It is part of our merit-based selection process, however, and it does support the development of a broader perspective. It doesn't necessarily need to just go in one direction. We have, for example, Frank Costello, who worked for many years for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and when he retired from the NRC, he went back to work for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I think it can work in both directions and that same model can work at the local level too.
How will the NRC hire new health physicists? More pay?
M. Weber: I don't see our health physicists coming off the federal pay schedule and going on our own pay scale. To date we have not had difficulty hiring people with the right skills to do radiation protection and apply themselves in other radiation professional positions. That doesn't mean that that will remain the case. I think there are many things that we can do to make the agency more attractive to aspiring employees. Not just the pay, but also the kind of work that they get to do, the opportunity to do a variety of things, to broaden themselves, to acquire knowledge across different regulatory programs, or in the other extreme to remain focused in a narrow niche and develop expertise in a particular field. I think both of those are viable approaches. You may be aware we conduct a federal government employee viewpoint survey on an annual basis. We do a triennial survey that's looking at our safety culture and climate survey. Generally, the feedback we get from our employees is positive, but every time we look at one of those surveys there are areas that we see room for improvement, and we really focus in on those areas. There is some frustration now in the middle grades of our employees, and we need to deal with that. We need to find meaningful ways that people have opportunities to grow, if they're not getting paid more, that they find the NRC a very friendly and nurturing environment. This focus on improving the working environment and engaging our employees does not just occur at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. You will find this focus across the federal government.
Given the funding and organizational constraints that radiation protection programs at universities and federal labs face, is there a larger role for private sector radiation protection specialists (e.g., Dade Moeller and Landauer)? If so, what do you envision, if not why?
N. Hertel: I think the success of Dade Moeller and Associates points the answer to that question. Mainly, that there is room for that and a need for it. I think one of the things we want to maintain in the national lab setting is the corporate memory of what was done 15 and 20 y ago so that it can be recovered if needed. I don't know whether that's going to be as easy to reach back and pull information into a current need if we rely on a consulting firm, and I know it's not going to work in a university. For example, if you ask me a question about a dissertation done 5–7 y ago, I'd say let me find the student and ask them. Then they'd say well I haven't thought about that in 7 y. So I don't know that we could generate the records to reproduce past work quickly and find out what was done. I think there's obviously a role for consulting firms and it's expanding and probably is price-driven I would think, in terms of overhead costs.
M. Weber: Yes, in developing radiation protection professionals, we need industry support. The research that we conduct and we fund at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or that DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) funds are not going to be enough to build and maintain the pipeline for developing radiation protection specialists. There has to be private sector support. We don't do the research to support the industry. The industry carries its own burden to demonstrate the safety of its use of radioactive materials and the operation of nuclear facilities. It's got to be a mix. There are some things that need to be federally funded because it's going to be really difficult for the private sector to come up with the financial resources and the sustained funding for some of these projects that cost tens of millions of dollars over a sustained period of time. I don't know if Jerry Hiatt's in the room, but since he did not get a question before, maybe he would want to answer that question.
J. Hiatt: From the commercial nuclear side, there's competition for these organizations because they're not going to be successful vs. their competitors unless they provide the most experienced and professional consultants. So, the answer is “Yes” I can envision a larger role.
I have two questions that are so similar I'm going to read them together. Where are the younger people involved in these conversations? We have a shortage of health physics radiation professionals. We need support and funding. Even if we had sufficient funds and support, you don’t have awareness. Any suggestions to inform the younger generation of health physicists?
N. Hertel: I will say if you come tomorrow morning, we do have one millennial on the agenda. So Shaheen [Dewji] will explain how to capture knowledge from us older folks before we ride off into the sunset. Anecdotally, we now have a medical physics program at Georgia Tech instead of a Health Physics MS degree program because 10 y ago our program chair decided we would convert our health physics program to medical physics program. Why? Because people come and pay their own tuition and won't expect to be funded as graduate research assistants, anticipating a high salary coming out as a medical physicist. What I found this semester is that there's a young woman who is a PhD student in medical physics but she worked in the Radiation Safety Office and now she wants to be a radiation protection person. I think internships are a big thing in terms of luring young people in and real internships, not like here's a dustpan and broom you need to sweep this up. The problem I see as an educator is these young people often want to start not sweeping the floors like some of us did, but actually with important tasks. So I think when you do an internship times have changed. When you get an intern you really need to give them something that they'll feel challenged by rather than something mundane and you need to pay attention to them. This is probably where these part-time seasoned professionals who are retired could come back and help part-time and really mentor those people on a day-in and day-out basis.
J. Hiatt: The Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) is one of the member organizations of the industry Workforce Working Group. The CEWD sets an excellent example for all organizations on how to attract the younger generation — via web-links and videos of individuals performing various energy related jobs. To promote health physics as an occupation organizations such as the Health Physics Society have to take advantage of social media.
M. Weber: One of our newer employees is actually with us here. She joined us last October and she's been given a number of assignments. We want to get them engaged very early on in meaningful work so that they not only have that sense of satisfaction with the pay, but also accomplishing meaningful progress is very important early on, and also learning from other more experienced employees is very important. That's part of knowledge management and that's essential to maintaining the pipeline. We need to hang on to people like that and we need to give them meaningful opportunities for growth and development. I'm sure we can do that.
Multiple speakers keep discussing the university requirements for professors to bring in research funding to support their programs. It is commonly known the cost of higher education is increasingly becoming unattainable to many middle class students. When is it time for the nuclear sector to object to universities focusing on research over educating people for jobs?
N. Hertel: I guess you could do it any time you want to. I think you have to keep in mind that the reputation of universities often depends on their research productivity. I would argue that if I went down to the Georgia legislative session and said what do you expect of Georgia Tech? They would say to teach well. I think that mission isn't scrapped. What we're fighting is the fact that the states no longer want to increase their funding of the academic institutions. You'll see this trend nationwide as people refer to their schools as state-sited rather than state-supported institutions. If you're a visionary, you may say maybe the business plan at the university is going to evolve to the point that we have professional teaching faculty who have no research component in their job descriptions. At Georgia Tech, we have people with the job description of academic professional whose key job is to teach and to help administer some of the things such as laboratories and other supporting facilities since “traditional” faculty members no longer want to do such tasks because their research mission puts so much pressure on them. I don't know who to go to in order to make that happen, but we'd welcome it.
M. Weber: I would only add, and I'm not speaking for the industry because we regulate the industry, but I think we need education and research. There are research needs that the nation has, and I should have pointed out at the beginning of my talk. I'm now the director of NRC’s (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission) Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research. That would have been a shorter title. I'm really for research. That's not just in the field of radiation protection, but more broadly we do research at the NRC to confirm and anticipate what the uses are going to be because with the long lead time to research, we can't wait until the issue is identified and an applicant comes to request something. We actually need to ensure that the safety basis is established well before that. We also need students. The number of students we would hire in any given year might rise or fall based on those needs, but there needs to be a pipeline and that's not just a NRC or a state issue, that's a much broader issue. I think we need both education and research.
According to OPM data, DOE is 14 y older than industry and NRC is 10 y older than industry. Is the government providing adequate internships and jobs to new grads to support the HP academic programs? Are they providing enough to prepare for their future retirements?
K. Higley: I think the government and industry need to provide many more health physics internships—with a focus on developing skills necessary for the job. Academic programs provide the essential foundation—but the employers are the ones with the ability to teach the necessary skills. And no, I don’t think either the government or industry is doing enough to prepare for impending retirements. There is going to be a huge loss of institutional knowledge. That scares me.
N. Hertel: There are some fellowships and scholarships available, through NRC programs and some DOE/NEUP (U.S. Department of Energy/Nuclear Energy University Programs), although they may be more skewed to nuclear engineering students. However, the continued existence of most HP academic programs will require research funding for faculty members. Low program enrollments, i.e., a low number of student contact hours per HP faculty, is a problem that research universities (and almost all universities aspire to that labeling) will tolerate only if the faculty are highly productive in terms of securing research funding. Fellowships will be useless if there is no one to teach the courses. Of course, large gifts from industry and other organizations to maintain the programs can help. As to internships, there seems to be plenty available although the quality of the student experience may vary dramatically and I have very little feedback on that.
As for the replacement work force, we should not forget that a large fraction of those of us over 50 y of age in this room probably did not graduate from an academic program that had a degree that explicitly said “Health Physics.” It would seem that if there are jobs, young people with acceptable backgrounds in physical and life sciences could find ways to ready themselves for the job openings without returning to a degree program, i.e., ORAU/ORISE (Oak Ridge Associated Universities/Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education), has provided courses to prepare such people over the last few decades, and several existing academic programs provide distance learning courses that could help interested young people gain the additional knowledge they need to fill such positions. A larger problem may be the need to ensure overlap between the retiring seasoned professionals and the new hires to insure that much of the corporate knowledge and professional experience is passed on, i.e., capture the knowledge of the retiring professionals. The supply has always responded to a true upswing in demand; the difficulty is that it is not readily obvious that there is an upswing in demand based on the recruiting efforts at universities, or rather the lack of it. I will ask the tough question, “How many programs do we need” or “Do we need any uniquely health physics academic programs, or can the need be filled by adding tracks in other disciplines, e.g., nuclear engineering and environmental engineering degree programs, to meet the need?”
M. Weber: Yes. At the NRC, we are conducting strategic workforce planning and have identified health physics as one of our core capabilities. We are examining our workforce of the future to ensure that we will maintain the skills needed to accomplish nuclear safety and security. This includes recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining talented and competent employees. In addition, since its inception in 2009, the NRC’s Integrated University Program has provided grants to academic institutions to support education in nuclear science and engineering, including health physics, to develop a workforce capable of supporting the design, construction, operation, and regulation of nuclear facilities and the safe handling of radioactive materials. On average, each year the NRC has issued about 50 grants. To date, NRC has developed more than 100 faculty members and over 2,700 students. DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration operate comparable and complementary grant programs. Further, the NRC funds about $50 million of research annually, which also contributes to developing and maintaining people and facilities and resolving technical issues to accomplish our nuclear safety, security, and safeguards mission.