“Our basic premise is that for people to be healthy, the environment needs to be healthy,” Shaw says. “We know that there are over 100,000 chemicals registered for use to manufacture the goods that we buy, but we’ve only done safety testing on about 5 percent of those compounds. When I talk about this in class, I juxtapose this with what we know about DNA. With chemicals, we’ve just kind of flatlined. And with Mapping the Chemosphere we can advance our knowledge.”
Mapping the Chemosphere brings together international experts who are working on technologies to proactively map chemicals in the environment, determine which of those chemicals cause harm, and find patterns to predict problems before they happen. More than 50 researchers involved are from Indiana University. “I don’t do this because I want to lead Mapping the Chemosphere,” Shaw says.
“I do this because when I look at how my work can impact my kids, this is the biggest positive impact that I can make.”
The group’s goal is to develop a toxicity database of 10,000 chemicals and chemical mixtures with a scalable system capable of providing a complete picture of the chemosphere to drive global solutions. These solutions will not only benefit human health, but the health of the planet and the economic health of industries that understand making safer products is not just good for the world, it’s good for their bottom line.
To achieve this, the Consortium has developed five work packages:
Making it happen
“To get all of this cooking takes a huge investment,” Shaw acknowledges. But, once adequately funded Shaw feels, like the Human Genome Project, Mapping the Chemosphere could be largely completed within a decade and deliver a huge return on investment.
In 2016, the project, then referred to as “Transforming Environmental Protection and Health for Indiana and Beyond,” was one of five finalists selected for IU’s Grand Challenges research program, which offered up to $300 million over five years to address urgent issues facing Indiana and the world.
As “Mapping the Chemosphere,” the Consortium also applied to the 100 & Change Programme, a global competition for a single $100 million grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation, and again the project landed among the top.
Ultimately, Mapping the Chemosphere did not receive a grant from either multi-million dollar opportunity. The exposure from those applications, though, has increased interest in their project as they continue looking at other philanthropic opportunities for funding.
Shaw says the IU Foundation has been working overtime in identifying avenues for revenue, and he feels the support from Indiana University and SPEA.
“Mapping the Chemosphere will advance our understanding of chemicals in our environment on a scale never before achieved,” says SPEA Dean John D. Graham. “It completely aligns with the mission of SPEA, and we support the project wholeheartedly.” “If there were ever a place for this project to come together, it’s SPEA,” Shaw says. “There’s just something about this idea of doing your research and science for the greater good that really rings home.”