The mysterious voice on the phone warned Michael Walsh, who was waiting for a flight to Germany at Dulles International Airport, that he had “extremely urgent” news to convey. The anonymous caller instructed Walsh, an engineer and technical consultant living in Arlington, to find a quiet place to sit and swore him to secrecy.
To Walsh’s great relief, the caller brought neither reports of calamity nor a tale of international intrigue. Instead, Walsh learned he was a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur fellowship, which bestows a $500,000 grant to an individual to further their professional work, with no strings attached.
“I’m still not sure I fully comprehend it,” said Walsh, after returning from his business trip to Europe last week. He advises governments and industries on ways to reduce vehicle emissions standards to improve air quality. “It’s an unbelievable award,” he added. “I’m shocked, flabbergasted and pleased all at once.”
Every year the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gives approximately 25 awards, often dubbed “genius grants,” on individuals who are pioneers in their field and display exceptional originality in their endeavors.
Recipients use the money at their own discretion and the foundation requires no project reports or accountability. The fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but is viewed as an investment in the individual’s potential, said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program and the source of the enigmatic phone call. The stipend is paid in quarterly installments over five years.
OTHER RECIPIENTS of this year’s fellowships, which were announced on Sept. 20, include author Jonathan Lethem, Marin Alsop, the new musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a biologist who documents endangered plants in Madagascar and a Maine lobsterman.
Walsh is an independent consultant and policy analyst whose clients have included the United Nations Environment Program, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the governments of Brazil, China and Mexico, among others.
“My personal goal is to help governments develop good pollution control strategies,” said Walsh, who received degrees from Manhattan College and Princeton University and spent seven years working for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Walsh, 62, lives in north Arlington with his wife, Evelyn, and has three grown children. In June Walsh became a grandfather for the first time and the MacArthur fellowship “continues this blessed year.” He has worked as an independent consultant for the past 24 years, striving to improve public health and preserve the environment by reducing the impact of internal combustion engines.
“He is extraordinarily creative in the way he approaches problems and an important global resource,” Socolow said. “He exudes the kind of relevance we look for. Michael is one of a kind.”
Since 1985 Walsh has produced a bi-monthly newsletter, called Car Lines, which has become the bible of vehicle pollution control for government officials and manufacturers. The thick volume includes stories on a range of issues, such as alternative fuel sources, new vehicle technology and regulations in developing countries.
“People in India had no idea what was going on in Europe,” Walsh said, when asked why he started the publication. “Everyone was dealing with the same issues but in a vacuum. It was so hard to get information. So I thought it would be really useful.”
THERE ARE currently one billion cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road worldwide and the figure increases by 5 percent every year, Walsh said. The rise is much more dramatic in the developing world, especially China.
Decreasing air pollution will be an imperative global challenge in the coming years and Walsh hopes governments will heed his recommendations. This will require a mix of improved vehicle technology, the production of cleaner fuel and encouraging populations to use motor vehicles less frequently, he said.
Recently Walsh has been working to reduce sulfur emissions from diesel engines and improve fuel efficiency in American vehicles.
“We’re the world’s laggards in fuel efficiency,” he added. “There’s been no improvement since the mid-1980s. It’s bad for the environment and for industry. U.S. companies are falling behind and won’t be able to compete with the Japanese and European manufacturers.”
Walsh has yet to decide how he will spend the money from the MacArthur Foundation. He is thinking of using it to organize fuel efficiency seminars or to establish a scholarship program for students interested in reducing vehicle emissions.
“It is such a magnificent gift and will enhance my work,” Walsh said. “I need to think about it more… but it’s a signal to expand what I’ve been doing.”
Evelyn Walsh, Michael’s wife, said she hasn’t yet had the chance to discuss the award with her husband since he returned from his European trip. She was unsure how best to utilize the grant, but said she was confident her husband would devote the money to “doing something positive for people” as he has his entire career.
“I feel he has been rewarded for years of hard, quiet and impressive work,” Evelyn Walsh said. “It is a wonderful accomplishment.”