Thomson studies the politics of science

Assistant professor Vivian Thomson splits her study time between environmental science and politics.

By Linda J. Kobert
This is an image of Vivian Thomson

Photo by Stephanie Gross.

Vivian Thomson (PhD, Government ’97) rides through the streets of Charlottesville, rain or shine, on a bicycle.

As an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Environmental Sciences and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, Thomson rides the edge between two ways of thinking professionally, too. Along with Thomas Smith, she co-directs the new interdisciplinary major Environmental Thought and Practice.

“I wind up teaching students who come at environmental issues from a number of different perspectives,” Thomson said. “That’s one reason I wanted to help create the program.”

Thomson reflects a confluence of interests in her own background as well. She holds degrees in ecology and biology and a doctorate in American politics, and her teaching and research are a continuation of this interdisciplinary focus. They are also informed by her first career. For 10 years spanning the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, Thomson worked as a senior policy analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency. It was her job to analyze data and advise political appointees on the health, environmental, economic and scientific implications of environmental policy.

She is quick to point out that, in order to create successful policy, one needs not only the technical expertise but also some understanding of the ways in which these issues relate to the social, ethical, historical, political and cultural context in which they are played out.

Thomson spent the last academic year on a Fulbright fellowship, teaching American studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. She found the experience extraordinarily informative on a number of levels.

“One of the lessons that will be with me for the rest of my life is what it’s like for a Dane to look at America in terms of environmental protection,” she said. “My Danish students did not regard Americans as environmentalists. It was humbling.”

Still, when it comes to creating a system that supports environmentally conscious policy, Thomson is filled with unflagging optimism. “We are the richest country in the world,” she declared. “We can do this.”