UTILIZING THE CAPABILITIES OF THE RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE

The EMSP is being established at a time of tumultuous change in the partnership between the scientific research enterprise and society. New public funds for scientific research are becoming scarce, and scientists are increasingly being held accountable for the benefits that their research conveys to society (NRC, 1993; Office of Science and Technology Policy, 1994). At the same time, the intellectual challenge of research on environmental problems, and the importance of such research to the nation, increasingly are being recognized by the nation's best scientists. A properly focused and managed EM scientific program could attract the nation's top researchers, promote the training of the next generation of environmental scientists, and thereby serve as an important driver for environmental research in the United States.

The strength of the U.S. research community lies in the depth and diversity of its talent and its institutions; this is particularly true in the disciplines relevant to DOE's cleanup mission. DOE, however, faces at least three significant challenges in bringing this considerable talent to bear in the EMSP and obtaining research that has long-term value to its cleanup mission:

  1. attracting the best researchers,

  2. obtaining the best research, and

  3. transferring research results to potential research users.

The committee plans to devote considerable attention to these issues during the course of its study, and it offers some preliminary comments on these points in the following sections.

Attracting the Best Researchers

The objective of the EMSP is to foster “knowledge breakthroughs”8 that will be of long-term value to cleanup of the weapons complex. Although a properly managed basic research program can produce such breakthroughs, it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict where these

8  

The committee uses the term “breakthrough” advisedly, because most advances in knowledge are incremental in nature.



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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT UTILIZING THE CAPABILITIES OF THE RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE The EMSP is being established at a time of tumultuous change in the partnership between the scientific research enterprise and society. New public funds for scientific research are becoming scarce, and scientists are increasingly being held accountable for the benefits that their research conveys to society (NRC, 1993; Office of Science and Technology Policy, 1994). At the same time, the intellectual challenge of research on environmental problems, and the importance of such research to the nation, increasingly are being recognized by the nation's best scientists. A properly focused and managed EM scientific program could attract the nation's top researchers, promote the training of the next generation of environmental scientists, and thereby serve as an important driver for environmental research in the United States. The strength of the U.S. research community lies in the depth and diversity of its talent and its institutions; this is particularly true in the disciplines relevant to DOE's cleanup mission. DOE, however, faces at least three significant challenges in bringing this considerable talent to bear in the EMSP and obtaining research that has long-term value to its cleanup mission: attracting the best researchers, obtaining the best research, and transferring research results to potential research users. The committee plans to devote considerable attention to these issues during the course of its study, and it offers some preliminary comments on these points in the following sections. Attracting the Best Researchers The objective of the EMSP is to foster “knowledge breakthroughs”8 that will be of long-term value to cleanup of the weapons complex. Although a properly managed basic research program can produce such breakthroughs, it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict where these 8   The committee uses the term “breakthrough” advisedly, because most advances in knowledge are incremental in nature.

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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT will occur, and the breakthroughs themselves may not even be recognized until long after the research is completed. The committee believes that the EMSP is most likely to stimulate knowledge breakthroughs of value to DOE through a “bottom-up” process in which the nation's best scientists are encouraged to submit research proposals. Thus, the committee notes, and endorses, DOE 's decision to encourage submission of proposals from researchers in a wide range of disciplines and institutions (Appendix B) in the FY 1996 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. The redirection of a research program is a significant undertaking with long-term career implications. It can require several years of sustained effort for one to become familiar with a new research field and conversant in its literature. In some cases, it can also require substantial financial commitments, both on the part of the scientists and their institutions, to upgrade equipment and facilities. The nation's top scientists will be unwilling to make such shifts without a high-level of confidence that funding will be available over the long term to support research and graduate student training. The nation's best scientists can be found in a broad spectrum of research institutions —universities, industry, national laboratories, and other federal agencies—and these researchers and their institutions have unique strengths that can be tapped for the EMSP: National laboratory researchers: Many national laboratory researchers are familiar with the weapons complex and the cleanup mission, and they possess specialized knowledge, equipment, and analytical and monitoring capabilities. Many of these researchers also are experienced in working in large teams that may be useful to address certain types of multidisciplinary problems. Industry researchers: Industry researchers share many of the talents of their national laboratory counterparts—access to specialized knowledge and equipment, and experience in working in multidisciplinary team environments. Some also have a familiarity with the cleanup mission and problems. In addition, many industrial researchers have experience working on mission-directed research and working at the interface between research and application.

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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT University researchers: University researchers are at the forefront in many of the fundamental scientific disciplines—biology, chemistry, engineering, geoscience, and physics—where advances in knowledge are likely to provide large future payoffs to the cleanup mission. Through their training of graduate students, university scientists will produce the nation 's future generations of researchers, which, if properly nurtured, could become a “committed cadre” of researchers for the EMSP. Researchers at other federal agencies: Many federal “mission” agencies have considerable research talent and capabilities in specific areas that are relevant to EM's research needs. Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), for example, are performing “cutting-edge ” research on many problems related to ground water monitoring and remediation, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers are at the forefront in certain areas of health effects research. In addition, other nations are dealing with radioactive waste and chemical cleanup problems, and the international research community has expertise in both generic basic research and site-specific, problem-oriented research of potential value to the EMSP. The long-term success and effectiveness of the EMSP will depend to a large extent on the degree to which the program is able to tap into this community of researchers, and a particular challenge for DOE will be to find ways to involve this community as the program evolves. In the near term, this community can be tapped by encouraging collaborative “networking” among researchers, which may or may not involve direct research funding from the program but could involve carefully targeted opportunities such as workshops, seminars, and fellowships. The committee notes that precedents for such collaborative activities already exist in many of DOE's programs. For instance, there is a long history of collaborations of university faculty and graduate students with national laboratory science groups. These collaborations were begun soon after the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, a precursor agency to DOE, for the very reason that it was deemed essential to train and educate new researchers in the fields of science opened by atomic energy. Graduate and postgraduate training in collaboration with university faculty is a longstanding tradition at many DOE research laboratories. National laboratory researchers have also established productive working relationships with a variety of federal agencies. The FY 1996 program notice (Appendix B) encourages collaborations among researchers in universities, national laboratories, and industry,

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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT where appropriate. The committee recognizes, and endorses in principle, the importance of collaboration between researchers, but points out that collaborations can extend beyond the university-industry-laboratory triad and can take a variety of forms—ranging from informal communication among researchers working on single-investigator projects, to teams of researchers working in close coordination on complex, multidisciplinary projects. The committee notes that much of the nation's best science continues to be done by single investigators working on individual projects. In order to build an effective EMSP, DOE must find ways to identify and encourage the appropriate types of value-added collaborations that will help it address the full range of its research needs. In future reports, the committee will consider ways to optimize the usefulness of collaborative activities to the EMSP. Obtaining the Best Research 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. The FY 1996 program notice (Appendix B) lists a broad range of generic research needs and serves as a good starting point for informing the research community. Some of ER' s reports and research solicitations—for example, Basic Research for Environmental Restoration (DOE, 1990) and the program solicitation Natural and Accelerated In-Situ Bioremediation Program (DOE, 1995d)—can also serve this function. Additionally, DOE has developed a great deal of written documentation on cleanup needs that could also serve to inform the research community—for example, Estimating the Cold War Mortgage: The 1995 Baseline Environmental Management Report (DOE, 1995b); the focus area reports (DOE, 1995e-i); and more problem-specific reports such as the Hanford Tank Cleanup: A Guide to Understanding the Technical Issues (Gephart and Lundgren, 1995). Much of the information in these reports, however, addresses near-term needs and is not organized or written to be easily accessible to researchers. To improve the communication of EM's problems to researchers, the committee recommends that DOE prepare concise written technical summaries of its basic research needs for the research community. Such summaries should contain information on the critical barriers to the solution of EM's problems, arranged both by site and by problem focus. In preparing these summaries, the DOE should seek the advice of the research

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BUILDING AN EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SCIENCE PROGRAM:: INITIAL ASSESSMENT and research-user communities to ensure that the summaries reflect EM's highest-priority needs and that the research questions are framed properly. These summaries should be produced for wide circulation to the research community and should be updated as appropriate to reflect current needs. The committee also recommends that DOE consider other ways to give researchers information about contaminated sites, for example, by providing site-specific briefings to researchers on problems and needs so that they can familiarize themselves with the cleanup challenges and establish lines of communication with the “problem holders” and potential users of their research, or by supporting informal interactions between researchers at national laboratories and those in universities who are studying similar problems, through mechanisms such as workshop and seminar programs at cleanup sites or national laboratories. In soliciting research proposals for the EMSP, DOE should take advantage of the potential value added from field research conducted at non-DOE sites. A number of DOE's waste problems are “generic” in nature, such as ground water contamination by chlorinated solvents, petroleum hydrocarbon mixtures, and certain heavy metals. Opportunities for field-scale research on these problems exist at sites managed by the USGS, EPA, and the Department of Defense (DOD), among others. Research projects that utilize appropriate non-DOE “testbeds” can provide understanding that can be transferred directly to cleanup of the weapons complex. Another significant management challenge for getting the best research is establishing a process 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. DOE faces a dual challenge in this effort: it must have a process that can identify research ideas that are both scientifically meritorious and relevant to EM's cleanup mission. Peer review, 9 of course, should be an integral part of identifying scientifically meritorious proposals, and the committee notes that this process is being used by DOE to evaluate the proposals it received in FY 1996 (Appendix A). The best process for establishing relevance to cleanup is less clear to the committee. The committee comments on this process in more detail later in this report. 9   The committee defines peer review as review by scientists who work in the same or related research fields and who are not employed by the funding agency. Such peer review is used in many of ER's programs and at other agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. See NRC (1995, p. 25) for additional discussion of the peer review process.