SUMMARY

In 1995, the 104th Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE; see Appendix E for list of acronyms) to establish a basic research program to support its mission to clean up the nation's nuclear weapons complex. DOE established the Environmental Management Science Program (EMSP) in response to this mandate. This program is managed jointly by the department's Offices of Energy Research (ER) and Environmental Management (EM) and is designed to bridge the gap between “fundamental research ” and “needs-driven applied research” in order to promote the development of new and improved cleanup technologies.

At the request of the DOE, the National Research Council established the Committee on Building an Environmental Management Science Program to advise DOE on ways to increase the effectiveness of this new research program. This report, the first of three that will be issued by the committee over the next seven months, provides an initial assessment of the EMSP that focuses on the fiscal year (FY) 1996 proposal competition and the FY 1997 program plan.

Given the size, scope, and long-term nature of the cleanup mission —DOE estimates that this effort will cost $230 billion and require 75 years—the committee views the establishment of this mission-directed, basic research program as both an urgent and a prudent investment for the nation. Although the EMSP will not solve all of EM's cleanup problems, a properly structured and managed program could help address many of EM's technical challenges by stimulating the development of new waste characterization, remediation, and management technologies or reducing the uncertainties in the application of current technologies; by enabling the development of new methods to reduce the volume or toxicity of secondary wastes; and by providing a better understanding of risk to help prioritize cleanup activities and reduce hazards to people and the environment.

The DOE faces at least three significant challenges in establishing a basic research program that has real long-term value to the cleanup mission:



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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT SUMMARY In 1995, the 104th Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE; see Appendix E for list of acronyms) to establish a basic research program to support its mission to clean up the nation's nuclear weapons complex. DOE established the Environmental Management Science Program (EMSP) in response to this mandate. This program is managed jointly by the department's Offices of Energy Research (ER) and Environmental Management (EM) and is designed to bridge the gap between “fundamental research ” and “needs-driven applied research” in order to promote the development of new and improved cleanup technologies. At the request of the DOE, the National Research Council established the Committee on Building an Environmental Management Science Program to advise DOE on ways to increase the effectiveness of this new research program. This report, the first of three that will be issued by the committee over the next seven months, provides an initial assessment of the EMSP that focuses on the fiscal year (FY) 1996 proposal competition and the FY 1997 program plan. Given the size, scope, and long-term nature of the cleanup mission —DOE estimates that this effort will cost $230 billion and require 75 years—the committee views the establishment of this mission-directed, basic research program as both an urgent and a prudent investment for the nation. Although the EMSP will not solve all of EM's cleanup problems, a properly structured and managed program could help address many of EM's technical challenges by stimulating the development of new waste characterization, remediation, and management technologies or reducing the uncertainties in the application of current technologies; by enabling the development of new methods to reduce the volume or toxicity of secondary wastes; and by providing a better understanding of risk to help prioritize cleanup activities and reduce hazards to people and the environment. The DOE faces at least three significant challenges in establishing a basic research program that has real long-term value to the cleanup mission:

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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT Attracting the best researchers to the program: Many of the nation's top scientists and their graduate students currently are not involved in research of direct relevance to the EMSP, although they have the background and skills necessary to do work at the forefront in this area. Fundamentally, the DOE will need to demonstrate a long-term commitment to this research program before scientists will redirect their research and graduate student training activities to the program 's concerns. Obtaining the best research ideas: In order to obtain the “best” (i.e., meritorious and relevant) basic research in the EMSP, researchers must become knowledgeable of EM's research needs, both its generic needs and its site-specific needs. Additionally, a process must be established for identifying meritorious proposals for funding and, as a corollary, a process for providing useful feedback to researchers who are unsuccessful in obtaining funding for their research ideas. Transferring research results to potential research users: For the EMSP to contribute to the long-term cleanup mission, effective mechanisms must be found to transfer the results of the research to the “users”—technologists in government, industry, and academia who can utilize this knowledge to develop new or improved cleanup methods. The DOE initiated the EMSP on an accelerated schedule in response to congressional actions, and the 1996 proposal competition is well under way. The review process that DOE has outlined to the committee seems reasonable and should lead to the support of scientifically meritorious proposals that are relevant to the long-term cleanup mission. The committee offers the following advice to DOE as it completes the review process: In making award decisions in this first round, DOE should focus first on scientific merit and then on potential relevance to the cleanup mission, and should place less emphasis on the “anticipated” institutional funding allocations announced in the program notice. In this regard, DOE should relax its initial allocation of $20 million for proposals from national laboratories and $20 million for proposals from academia and industry to the extent allowed by the law, and, instead, should allocate funds to support the most scientifically meritorious and relevant work, regardless of the institution of origin. Similarly, in evaluating the merit of collaborative research proposals, DOE should focus on the potential value added by the nature and scope of the proposed collaborations, not only on the number or size of institutional or researcher commitments to a particular project.

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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT Successful proposals should be funded fully “up front” to help ensure the stability and continuity of the research projects and to establish a solid foundation on which a stable, long-term program can be built. The committee believes that the FY 1997 program plan will be a major —and perhaps the defining—step in shaping this program. In particular, it will be important for DOE to establish a focus for the EMSP that builds on, but does not duplicate or divert funding from, existing ER programs in order to improve the usefulness of the research to the long-term cleanup mission. To ensure the program's long-term success, the committee recommends that DOE with the advice of the research and research-user communities, prepare concise written technical summaries of the critical barriers to the solution of cleanup problems and basic research needs for wide circulation to the research community; postpone until later this year the release of the 1997 program notice until it has had time to identify and incorporate the “lessons learned ” from the FY 1996 proposal competition and to think more carefully, using the advice of this committee where appropriate, about how the program should be structured and managed; and seek to increase the budget for this program to FY 1996 levels, recognizing that the additional funds are likely to be reallocated from existing programs within DOE-EM, in order to provide level funding, which is necessary to establish a stable, long-term research program. In the committee's judgment, the long-term success of this program is highly dependent on the continuing partnership between EM, which understands the cleanup problems and research needs, and ER, which, through its mission to manage the department's basic research programs, understands how to select and manage research. The committee strongly endorses the efforts made by EM and ER staff to work together and encourages them to continue their efforts to build an effective Environmental Management Science Program.

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