Executive Summary

In order to provide the knowledge needed to solve environmental problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must continue to support and maintain a strong research effort. An evolving understanding of the complexity, magnitude, and inter-relatedness of environmental problems leads us to conclude that a new balance of research programs will be helpful in achieving this goal.

The charge to this committee was to provide an overview of significant emerging environmental issues; identify and prioritize research themes and projects that are most relevant to understanding and resolving these issues; and consider the role of EPA's research program in addressing these issues in the context of research being conducted or sponsored by other organizations. After careful deliberation, the committee decided to go beyond simply presenting a limited list of important issues. Such an exercise would provide a mere snapshot in time, based on the insights of one particular collection of individuals. Instead, this report provides a broad overview of many important current and emerging environmental issues. It then presents a useful framework for thinking about and planning environmental research and describes major research themes and programs of relevance to EPA. (This committee was not asked to, and did not, address issues concerning EPA's research infrastructure, the appropriate balance between internal and external research, or appropriate mechanisms for peer review. A second NRC committee is examining these sorts of questions. Its report will be available later in 1997.)

This report defines two kinds of environmental research—problem-driven research and core research. Problem-driven research is targeted at understanding and solving particular, identified environmental problems. Core research aims to provide broader, more generic information that will help improve understanding of many problems now and in the future. Core research includes three components:



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 1
Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions Executive Summary In order to provide the knowledge needed to solve environmental problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must continue to support and maintain a strong research effort. An evolving understanding of the complexity, magnitude, and inter-relatedness of environmental problems leads us to conclude that a new balance of research programs will be helpful in achieving this goal. The charge to this committee was to provide an overview of significant emerging environmental issues; identify and prioritize research themes and projects that are most relevant to understanding and resolving these issues; and consider the role of EPA's research program in addressing these issues in the context of research being conducted or sponsored by other organizations. After careful deliberation, the committee decided to go beyond simply presenting a limited list of important issues. Such an exercise would provide a mere snapshot in time, based on the insights of one particular collection of individuals. Instead, this report provides a broad overview of many important current and emerging environmental issues. It then presents a useful framework for thinking about and planning environmental research and describes major research themes and programs of relevance to EPA. (This committee was not asked to, and did not, address issues concerning EPA's research infrastructure, the appropriate balance between internal and external research, or appropriate mechanisms for peer review. A second NRC committee is examining these sorts of questions. Its report will be available later in 1997.) This report defines two kinds of environmental research—problem-driven research and core research. Problem-driven research is targeted at understanding and solving particular, identified environmental problems. Core research aims to provide broader, more generic information that will help improve understanding of many problems now and in the future. Core research includes three components:

OCR for page 1
Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions acquisition of a more systematic understanding of the physical, chemical, biological, geological, social, and economic processes that underlie environmental systems at various spatial and temporal scales, and the biochemical and physiological processes in humans that are affected by environmental agents; development of broadly applicable research tools, including better techniques for measuring variables of interest (including both structural and functional attributes), more accurate models of complex systems and their interactions, and new methods for analyzing, displaying, and using environmental information in science-based decision making; and design, implementation, and maintenance of appropriate environmental monitoring programs, with evaluation, analysis, synthesis, and dissemination of the data and results. These monitoring programs are essential for understanding the status of, and changes to, environmental resources over time, and for conducting retrospective evaluations of the costs and benefits of environmental policies. Retrospective evaluations are critical to ensuring that environmental policies are achieving their intended goals at a reasonable cost without creating unpredicted, undesirable side-effects. EPA should establish an approximately even balance between problem-driven and core research. The distinction between core and problem-driven research is not always clear-cut. Research programs can have multiple goals and motivations. Yet history, experience, and political realities indicate that there is value in defining and re-emphasizing the importance of core research at EPA. (Specific examples that illustrate how a more comprehensive core research agenda would assist in understanding environmental issues are presented in shaded boxes throughout the report.) Because the task of protecting the environment and minimizing environmentally-related human health impacts is so vast and available resources are so limited, this report suggests criteria that can be used to identify and prioritize among important research areas. The approaches for making these choices will be different in the core and problem-driven portions of the research program. Core research should seek better understanding of fundamental phenomena and generate broadly applicable research tools and information. These goals will not vary much over time and thus core research priorities will stay relatively constant. Choices between research areas should be made based on their broad relevance to EPA's mission and on scientific merit. Cross-cutting, interdisciplinary studies that draw on findings from different fields will be of particular value. After broad program areas are selected, a key criterion for selecting core research projects is the quality of the proposed science and the ability of the investigators, as determined by a peer-review process. Problem-driven research will be more responsive to regulatory activities and other immediate needs and should be targeted at maximizing reduction of risks. Evaluation of problem-driven research areas should focus on the risks and uncertainties

OCR for page 1
Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions associated with each problem. Although risk assessment and management provide a good framework for choosing among issues, the methodology must be refined to achieve more accurate assessments. Problem-driven research should be re-evaluated and refocused on a regular basis to ensure that the most pressing problems are being addressed. Unlike core research priorities that may not change much over time, for problem-driven research EPA must develop adaptive feedback capabilities to allow the agency to change directions when new issues arise and old issues are ''solved" or judged to pose less risk than expected. A thorough identification of environmental and human health issues is the necessary first step in selecting the right issues for attention. For this reason, a continuous, internal mechanism for identifying current and emerging environmental issues from a wide range of sources, including an analysis of the implications of the latest core research findings, is critical to EPA's research endeavor. With its limited budget and staff, and broad mandate, it is not possible or reasonable for EPA to act alone in understanding and addressing all environmental problems. Many other federal agencies, state agencies, academic institutions, and private companies have played and will continue to play important roles in environmental research. Cooperation with others will be particularly needed in the areas of human health assessment, environmental monitoring (a complex and costly undertaking), and in the investigation of global-scale issues. In order to facilitate cooperation with others and improve internal planning EPA should compile, publish, and disseminate an annual summary of all research being conducted or funded by the agency. Good science is essential for sound environmental decision-making. By implementing the recommendations contained in this report, EPA can increase the effectiveness of its research program and thus continue to play an important role in efforts to protect the environment and human health into the next century.

OCR for page 1
Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions This page in the original is blank.