Professor emerita wins prestigious lifelong achievement award for her work assessing environmental injustice

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, O’Neill Family Professor Emerita in the University of Notre Dame Department of Philosophy, who had a concurrent appointment in the Department of Biological Sciences, has won the 2023 Cosmos International Prize for her decades of research and pro-bono work to quantify, assess, and stop environmental injustice.

Shrader-Frechette, one of the major developers of methods of quantitative risk assessment, measured and 

Kristin Shrader Frechette

confirmed how heavier air, soil, and water pollution affects areas with higher proportions of people of color, people who earn their living doing manual labor, and people with limited means. She coined the phrase “ecological justice” more than 40 years ago, with the term changing to “environmental justice” over time.

The Cosmos International Prize, awarded by The Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden and Greenery Exposition, Osaka, Japan, 1990 (The Expo ‘90 Foundation), has been granted to researchers including Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Georgina Mace, Estella Leopold, Jane Goodall, and David Attenborough, and comes with a 40-million yen purse, which equates to about $288,000. She plans to donate her winnings to environmental justice charities.

“I was totally surprised to receive this award, and there are at least five other environmental-justice researchers I can think of who deserve it more,” said Shrader-Frechette, whose mother was a Civil Rights leader and instilled the concept early and often. “I don’t think about awards … I spent my life trying to do what I could to help people, and I had no idea that this would be the result.”

She began her career as a mathematician, graduating from Xavier University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a physics concentration. She received a fellowship in philosophy of science and mathematics from Notre Dame and graduated with her doctoral degree in philosophy. She worked as a professor at Xavier, the University of Louisville, the University of Florida, and the University of South Florida before joining the faculty at Notre Dame in 1998. Her work focuses on mathematical and statistical approaches to showing how public health conditions are often tied to where people live and work. She frequently took her undergraduate students at Notre Dame to the south side of Chicago as part of their research projects.

The distinction is prestigious for both Shrader-Frechette and the University of Notre Dame, said Jason Rohr, the Ludmilla F., Stephen J., and Robert T. Galla College Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences.

"Dr. Shrader-Frechette is now in the company of international household names that dedicated their lives to the harmonious coexistence between nature and humans,” he said. “This is the kind of award that most researchers studying the natural world can only dream of winning."

Shrader-Frechette stressed the importance of using mathematics and statistics when talking about environmental justice, and said more students should be required to take science, computational science, and other mathematics courses.

“To the extent that this work is successful, it’s because we were able to use quantitative risk assessment,” said Shrader-Frechette, who received funding from the National Science Foundation for 28 years. “We needed to use modeling—and put numbers, costs, and benefits on these issues, so people were forced to listen.”

She pointed out that people cannot control where they were born or live, or whether they had parents who read to them and helped them with homework.

“I hope this award means that people will pay attention to the way people of color, and working-class people, are treated in all countries of the world,” she said. “ They breathe air that’s anywhere from 2-5 times dirtier than what most others breathe, and most people don’t realize this fact.

“Government and industry get away with this injustice unless there’s somebody, usually an academic, who will help them for free.”Established to commemorate International Horticultural Expo 1990 in Osaka, the Expo ’90 Foundation is responsible for the management of commemorative funds and the promotion of activities that develop the theme of the Expo: "The Harmonious Coexistence of Nature and Mankind."

Originally published by Deanna Csomo Ferrell at on July 21, 2023.