The stated mission of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment. Since its formation in 1970, EPA has had a leadership role in developing many fields of environmental science and engineering. From ecology to health sciences and environmental engineering to analytic chemistry, EPA has performed, stimulated, and supported research; developed environmental education programs; supported regional science initiatives; supported safer technologies; and enhanced the scientific basis of informed decision-making. Science has always been an integral part of EPA’s mission and is essential for providing the best-quality foundation of agency decisions. Today the agency’s science is increasingly in the public eye, federal budgets are decreasing, and job creation and innovation are key national priorities.
In anticipation of future environmental science and engineering challenges and technologic advances, EPA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to assess the overall capabilities of the agency to develop, obtain, and use the best available scientific and technologic information and tools to meet persistent, emerging, and future mission challenges and opportunities. The NRC was also asked to identify and assess transitional options to strengthen the agency’s capability to pursue and use scientific information and tools. In response, the NRC convened the Committee on Science for EPA’s Future, which prepared the present report.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES AND TOOLS TO ADDRESS THEM
The committee’s report highlights a few persistent and emerging environmental challenges and tools and technologies to address them. Although the topics discussed in the report are only illustrative, the report provides specific examples and gives context to the committee’s discussion of a broader framework for building science for environmental protection in the 21st century. Having assessed EPA’s current activities, the committee notes that EPA is well equipped to take advantage of many scientific and technologic advances and that, in fact, its scientists and engineers are leaders in some fields.
Current and Persistent Environmental Challenges
There has been substantial progress over the last few decades in lessening many of the obvious environmental problems, such as black smoke coming from smokestacks, stench arising from rivers, and fish kills in US lakes. But the challenges associated with environmental protection today are complex, affected by many interacting factors, and no less daunting. They are on various spatial scales, may unfold over long temporal scales, and may have global implications. The problems are sometimes called “wicked problems”, and are often characterized by being difficult to define, unstable, and socially complex; having no clear solution or end point; and extending beyond the understanding of one discipline or the responsibility of one organization. Although the committee cannot predict with certainty what new environmental problems EPA will face in the next 10 years or more, it can identify some of the common drivers and common characteristics of problems that are likely to occur. Some key features of persistent and future environmental challenges are complex feedback loops; the need to understand the effects of low-level exposures to numerous stressors as opposed to high-level exposures to individual stressors; the need to understand social, economic, and environmental drivers; and the need for systems thinking to devise optimal solutions.
The following are a few examples of persistent and emerging environmental challenges that pertain to EPA and its mission.
Chemical Exposures, Human Health, and the Environment. New chemicals continue to be created and enter the environment. Understanding what chemicals are in the environment, concentrations at which people are being exposed, pathways through which they are being exposed, and how different chemicals and stressors interact with one another encompasses some of the persistent challenges that EPA faces. Another challenge is to continue to elucidate the many factors that can modify the health effects of exposure to chemicals and other stressors. The chemical, biologic, and physical characteristics of an agent, the genetic and behavioral attributes of a host, and the physical and social characteristics of the environment are all influential.
Air Pollution and Climate Change. Emissions of major air pollutants were dramatically reduced from 1990 to 2010. Much of that success resulted from the establishment and enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Despite substantial progress, the agency’s efforts to improve air quality continue to have high priority because the economic costs that air pollution imposes on society remain high. The Clean Air Act and other statutory mandates give rise to the need for improved scientific and technical information on health exposures and effects, on ecologic exposures and effects, on ambient and emission monitoring techniques, on atmospheric chemistry and physics, and on pollution-prevention and emission-control methods for hundreds of pollutants present in both indoor and outdoor environments. EPA also faces the critical challenge of helping to find efficient and effective approaches to mitigating climate change and improving
understanding of how to adapt environmental management in the face of climate change.
Water Quality. The availability of clean water is essential for human consumption, personal hygiene, agriculture, business practices, recreation, and other activities. National water-quality policy has been driven primarily by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. With increasing demands on freshwater supplies, particularly in the more arid regions of the western United States, the challenges of providing freshwater are prominent today and will probably continue to be a concern in the future, especially as climate change alters water supply. Furthermore, water-quality challenges remain pressing, including the need to monitor and understand the transport and fate of contaminants, the need to maintain and update aging water-treatment infrastructure, and the need to address the persistent problem of nutrient pollution.
As progress has been made in solving local problems and as more has been learned about the health and environmental consequences of chronic low-level exposures to diverse and disperse physical and chemical stressors, environmental science and engineering has begun to focus on impacts over wider geographic areas. The spatial and temporal scales required to understand emerging environmental issues vary widely, and their range is widening as more is learned about the systems and feedback loops underlying the observed phenomena. These large-scale problems require improved understanding of the fate and transport of contaminants on international and global scales and of options for coordinated solutions. Long-term monitoring is also needed to identify and track changes and problems that develop slowly.
Developing Tools and Technologies to Address Environmental Challenges
Supporting the development of leading-edge scientific methods, tools, and technologies is critical for understanding environmental changes and their effects on human health and for identifying solutions. In addition, addressing the challenges of the future will require a more deliberate approach to systems thinking and interdisciplinary science, for example, by using frameworks that strive to characterize and integrate a broad array of interactions between humans and the environment. Although new tools and technologies can substantially improve the scientific basis of environmental policy and regulations, many of the new tools and technologies need to build on and enhance the current foundation of environmental science and engineering. Some tools and technologies that EPA has used or could use to address environmental and human health challenges are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Many advancing tools and technologies are being used to understand the transport and fate of chemicals in the environment, to understand the extent of human exposures, and to identify and predict the extent of potential toxic effects. For example, advances in separation and identification of nucleotides,
proteins, and peptides and advances in spectrometric methods have enabled a better understanding of molecular-level biologic processes. Those types of tools are an integral part of EPA’s computational toxicology program and are being applied to the development of new approaches to assess and predict toxicity in vitro. Advances in biomonitoring, sensor technology, health tracking, and informatics are improving the understanding of individual exposures and associated health endpoints. If EPA is to continue this work, it will need to maintain and increase its expertise in such fields as toxicology, exposure science, epidemiology, molecular biology, information technology, bioinformatics, computer science, and statistical modeling.
Advances in remote sensing since the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972 are continuing to improve the understanding of contaminant sources, fate, and transport and the understanding and monitoring of landscape ecology and ecosystem services. Using remotely collected data effectively to gain information also requires advances in modeling of various components of the Earth’s biogeophysical systems, including improved techniques for data assimilation and modeling. As an example in the air-pollution arena, active sensors, such as satellite sensors and aircraft-mounted light detection and ranging sensors, can provide information on the vertical distribution of clouds and aerosols and can provide important spatial, temporal, and contextual information about the extent, duration, and transport paths of pollution. Remote sensing is also being used to monitor fugitive releases of methane, hazardous air pollutants, and volatile organic compounds from landfills and other diffuse or dispersed sources. What had been thought to be an excessively expensive monitoring challenge is proving financially and practically manageable.
Methods for identifying and quantifying chemicals, microorganisms, and microbial products in the environment continue to improve. For example, the most recent advances in the detection of microorganisms in water include quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods, which can be designed for any microorganism of interest because they are highly specific and quantitative. In addition to updating water-quality standards and addressing health studies and swimmer surveys, EPA has begun to use PCR techniques to understand coastal pollution, address polluted sediments, decrease response time for detecting polluted waters, and improve protection of public health on beaches and coastlines. Such advances as the deployment of quantitative PCR require linking biology, mathematics, health, the environment, and policy to support substantial interdisciplinary research focused on problem-solving and systems thinking.
New tools and technologies are collecting larger, more diverse sets of data on increasing spatial and temporal scales. Knowledge and expertise in such fields as computer science, information technology, environmental modeling, and remote sensing are necessary to collect, manage, analyze, and model those datasets. One method for collecting information across larger geographic spaces and over longer periods is public engagement. For example, during massive online collaborations, participants can be invited to help to develop a new technology, carry out a design task, propose policy solutions, or capture, systematize, or
analyze large amounts of data. EPA is already exploring crowdsourcing and citizen-science approaches. Improving capabilities of managing and ensuring the quality of very large datasets acquired through public engagement holds promise for EPA to be able to gather and analyze large amounts of data and input inexpensively.
Using New Science to Drive Safer Technologies and Products
The tools and technologies for handling scientific data have generally been thought of in the context of refined risk-assessment processes. That use of scientific information is focused in large part on detailed and nuanced problem identification—that is, a holistic understanding of causes and mechanisms. Such work is important and valuable in understanding how toxicants and other stressors affect environmental health and ecosystems, and at times it is required by statute. However, the focus on problem identification sometimes occurs at the expense of efforts to use scientific tools to develop safer technologies and solutions. Defining problems without a comparable effort to find solutions can diminish the value of applied research efforts. Furthermore, if EPA’s actions lead to a change in a chemical, technology, or practice, there is a responsibility to understand alternatives and to support a path forward that is environmentally sound, technically feasible, and economically viable.
EPA has taken global leadership in three fields of innovative solution-oriented science: pollution prevention, Design for the Environment, and green chemistry and engineering. That suite of programs reflects non-regulatory approaches that protect the environment and human health by designing or redesigning processes and products to reduce the use and release of toxic materials. The programs emphasize education and assistance, alignment of environmental protection with economic development, and strong partnerships between agencies, industry, nongovernment organizations, and academic institutions. They require expertise in traditional environmental science, but there is also a critical need for behavioral and social sciences in advancing the development and adoption of safer chemicals, materials, and products. The data that the behavioral and social sciences provide are important inputs for characterizing and making the economic case for new technologies, for understanding business and consumer behavior, and for effecting behavioral changes so that innovations for safer materials reflect consumer preferences.
BUILDING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING FOR ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN THE 21st CENTURY
As a regulatory agency, EPA applies many of its resources to implementing complex regulatory programs, including substantial commitments of scientific and technical resources to environmental monitoring, applied health and environmental science, risk assessment, benefit—cost analysis, and other activi-
ties that form the foundation of regulatory decisions. The primary focus on its regulatory mission can engender controversy and place strains on the conduct of EPA’s scientific work in ways that do not occur in most other government science agencies. Amid this inherent tension, science in EPA generally and in EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) in particular strives to support the needs of the agency’s present regulatory mandates and timetables, to identify and lay the intellectual foundations that will allow the agency to meet current and emerging environmental challenges, to determine the main environmental research problems on the US environmental-research landscape, to sustain and continually rejuvenate a diverse inhouse scientific staff to support the agency, and to strike an appropriate balance between inhouse and extramural research investment. In light of the inherent tensions, the current and persistent environmental challenges, and newly developed and emerging tools and technologies, the committee created a framework for building science for environmental protection in the 21st century (see Figure S-1). Environmental and human health challenges of the future and the tools and technologies that will emerge to address them cannot be predicted, but the committee offers the framework to help EPA to be prepared to respond to unknown challenges in the future and to bolster its ability to respond to current and persistent environmental challenges. The framework relies on four key ideas:
First, effective science-informed regulation and policy aimed at protecting human health and environmental quality rely on robust approaches to data acquisition, modeling, and knowledge development (see the “Analysis of Key Measures to Advance Knowledge” box in Figure S-1). Management and interpretation of “big data” will be a continuing challenge for EPA inasmuch as new technologies can generate large amounts of data quickly. In many instances, large amounts of data are acquired directly as a component of hypothesis-driven research. However, many new technologies generate large volumes of data that may not be derived from a clear, hypothesis-driven experiment but nevertheless may yield important new insights. That type of research is referred to as discovery-driven research. In both instances, the data must be analyzed and interpreted and then placed in the context of an appropriate problem or scientific theory. As depicted in Figure S-1, there must be iterations and feedback loops, particularly between data acquisition and data modeling, analysis, and synthesis. Knowledge generation, which can take many forms depending on the question being addressed and the nature of the data, ultimately serves as the basis of science-informed regulation and policy. The committee recognizes that scientific data constitute only one—albeit important—input into decision-making processes that alone cannot resolve highly complex and uncertain environmental and health problems. Ultimately, environmental health decisions and solutions will need to incorporate economic, societal, behavioral, political, and other considerations in addition to science.
FIGURE S-1 Framework for enhanced science for environmental protection. The iterative process starts with effective problem formulation, in which policy goals and an orientation toward solutions help to determine scientific needs and the most appropriate methods. Data are acquired as needed and synthesized to generate knowledge about key outcomes. This knowledge is incorporated into an array of systems tools and solutions-oriented synthesis approaches to formulate policies that best improve public health and the environment while taking account of social and economic impacts. Once science-informed actions have been implemented, outcome evaluation can help determine whether refinements to any previous stages are required (see the dotted lines in the figure).
Second, EPA can maintain its global position by staying at the leading edge of science (see the “Systems Thinking to Assess Implications of Decisions” box in Figure S-1). Staying at the leading edge will require consideration of existing and on-the-horizon challenges and efforts to predict, address, and prevent future challenges. The committee suggests the following overarching actions for addressing wicked problems:
• Anticipate. Be deliberate and systematic in anticipating scientific, technologic, and regulatory challenges.
• Innovate. Support innovation in scientific approaches to characterize and prevent problems and to support solutions through sustainable technologies and practices.
• Take the long view. Track progress in ecosystem protection and human health over the medium term and the long term and identify needs for course corrections.
• Be collaborative. Support interdisciplinary collaboration within and outside the agency, across the United States, and globally.
Third, maintaining leading-edge science requires the development and application of systems-level tools and expertise for the systematic analysis of the health, environmental, social, and economic implications of individual decisions (see the “Systems Tools and Skills” box in Figure S-1). Leading-edge science will produce large amounts of new information, and many multifactorial problems will require systems-thinking approaches. Over the years, EPA has become more accomplished in addressing cross-media problems and avoiding “solutions” that transfer a problem from one medium to another (for example, changing an air pollutant to a water or solid-waste pollutant). However, future problems will become more complex and will go beyond cross-media situations, such as global climate and land-use patterns. Many analytic systems tools can contribute to analyzing and evaluating complex scenarios, including life-cycle assessment; cumulative risk assessment; social, economic, behavioral, and decision sciences; and synthesis research. Regardless of the analytic systems tools used, it is important to characterize and integrate information on both human health and ecosystem effects.
Fourth, maintaining leading-edge science requires the development of tools and methods for synthesizing scientific information and characterizing uncertainties. It should also integrate methods for tracking and assessing the outcomes of actions (that is, for being accountable) into the decision process from the outset (see the “Synthesis and Evaluation” box in Figure S-1). Systems-level problems are rarely amenable to simple quantitative decision measures and may require multiple types of information and characterization of different types of uncertainty. Examples of approaches for synthesizing information to support holistic decisions include sustainability analysis, solutions-oriented approaches (such as health impact assessment, alternatives assessment,
and cost-benefit analysis), and multiple-criteria and multidimensional decision-making. Regardless of which analytic tools or indicators EPA uses to support decisions in the future, uncertainty will be an overriding concern. Consistent and holistic approaches to characterizing and recognizing uncertainty will allow EPA to articulate the importance of uncertainty in light of pending decisions and to avoid becoming paralyzed by the need for increasingly complex computational analysis.
The committee recommends that EPA consider the following actions to implement the elements underlying the framework in Figure S-1:
• Engage in a deliberate and systematic “scanning” capability involving staff from ORD, other program offices, and the regions. Such a dedicated and sustained “futures network” (as EPA has called groups in the past with a similar function), with time and modest resources, would be able to interact with other federal agencies, academe, and industry to identify emerging issues and bring the newest scientific approaches into EPA.
• Develop a more systematic strategy to support innovation in science, technology, and practice.
• Substantially enhance EPA’s capacity to apply systems thinking to all aspects of its approach to complex decisions.
• Invest substantial effort to generate broader, deeper, and sustained support for long-term monitoring of key indicators of environmental quality and performance.
ENHANCED LEADERSHIP AND CAPACITY IN THE US ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
To implement the key strategies described above and the framework illustrated in Figure S-1, strong science leadership and capacity in EPA are essential. The committee has identified four key areas where enhanced leadership and capacity can strengthen the agency’s ability to address current and emerging environmental challenges and to take advantage of new tools and technologies to address them.
Enhanced agency-wide science leadership. There has been progress toward agency-wide science integration with the establishment of the Office of the Science Advisor, and further progress might be made with the shift of the science advisor position from within ORD to the Office of the Administrator in early 2012. However, that office may need further authority from the administrator or additional staff resources to continue to improve the integration and coordination of science across the programs and regions throughout the agency. Someone in a true agency-wide science leadership position, with clear lines of authority and responsibility, could take the form of a deputy administrator for science, a chief scientist, or possibly an enhanced version of the current science
advisor position. He or she could direct efforts to extend ORD’s successful multiyear science plans to an agency-wide plan that integrates science needs of the programs and the regional offices with the scientific efforts of ORD, program offices, and regions. With such leadership in place, regional administrators, program assistant administrators, and staff members at all levels need to be held accountable for ensuring scientific quality and the integration of individual science efforts with broader efforts throughout the agency. Even with the full support of the administrator and senior staff, the effort will fail if the need to improve the use of science in EPA is not accepted by staff at all levels.
More effective coordination and integration of science efforts within the agency. Given the need for integrated, transdisciplinary, and solutions-oriented research to solve 21st century environmental problems, the existing structure focused on ORD as the “science center” that establishes the scientific agenda of EPA will not be sufficient; ORD only conducts a portion of EPA’s scientific efforts, and more than three-fourths of EPA’s scientific staff work outside ORD. Instead, efforts to strengthen EPA science will need to incorporate efforts, resources, expertise, and scientific and nonscientific perspectives of program and field offices. Such efforts need to support the integration of both existing and new science throughout the agency; avoid duplication or, worse, contradictory efforts; respect different sets of priorities and timeframes; and advance common goals.
Strengthened scientific capacity inside and outside the agency. Optimizing resources, creating and benefiting from scientific exchange zones, and leading innovation through transdisciplinary collaborations will require forward-thinking and resourceful scientific leadership and capacity at various levels in the agency. In such a situation, EPA would need to use all its authority effectively, including pursuing permanent Title 42 authority, to recruit, hire, and retain the high-level science and engineering leaders that it needs to maintain a strong inhouse research program. EPA would also need to maintain a “critical mass” of world-class experts who have the ability to identify and access the necessary science inside or outside EPA and to work collaboratively with researchers in other agencies. Mechanisms through which that could be achieved include sabbaticals and other leave, laboratory rotations, and the Science to Achieve Results fellowship program. The committee found that a particular area where EPA lacks expertise is in the social, behavioral, and decision sciences.
Support of scientific integrity and quality. Critics of EPA’s regulations (as either too lax or too stringent) have sometimes charged that valid scientific information was ignored or suppressed, or that the scientific basis of a regulation was not adequate. EPA’s best defense against such criticisms is to ensure that it distinguishes transparently between questions of science and questions of policy in its regulatory decisions; to demand openness and access to the scientific data and information on which it is relying, whether generated in or outside the agency; and to use competent, balanced, objective, and transparent procedures for selecting and weighing
scientific studies, for ensuring study quality, and for peer review. The need to describe methods clearly for selecting and weighing studies is evident given the criticisms of assessments prepared for EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Over the last decade, several NRC committees that reviewed IRIS assessments noted a need to improve formal, evidence-based approaches to increase transparency and clarity in selecting datasets for analysis and a greater focus on uncertainty and variability. Those points were reiterated in the 2011 NRC report Review of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Draft IRIS Assessment of Formaldehyde. EPA has announced that it is working to address the concerns raised in that report and is currently sponsoring, at the request of Congress, an NRC study to assess the scientific, technical, and process changes being implemented for IRIS.
Based on the four key areas identified above, the Committee on Science for EPA’s Future recommends that EPA strengthen its capability to pursue the scientific information and tools that will be needed to meet current and future challenges by
• Substantially enhancing the responsibilities of a person in an agency-wide science leadership position to ensure that the highest-quality science is developed, evaluated, and applied systematically throughout the agency’s programs. The person in that position should have sufficient authority and staff resources to improve the integration and coordination of science across the agency. If this enhanced leadership position is to be successful, strengthened leadership is needed throughout the agency and the improved use of science at EPA will need to be carried out by staff at all levels.
• Strengthening its scientific capacity. This can be accomplished by continuing to cultivate knowledge and expertise within the agency generally, by hiring more behavioral and decision scientists, and by drawing on scientific research and expertise from outside the agency.
• Creating a process to set priorities for improving the quality of EPA’s scientific endeavors. The process should recognize the inevitably limited resources while clearly articulating the level of resources required for EPA to continue to ensure the future health and safety of humans and ecosystems.
For over 40 years, EPA has been a national and world leader in addressing the scientific and engineering challenges of protecting the environment and human health. The agency’s multi-disciplinary science workforce of 6,000 is bolstered by strong ties to academic research institutions and science advisers representing many sectors of the scientific community. A highly competitive fellowship program also provides a pipeline for future environmental science and engineering leaders and enables the agency to attract graduates who have state-of-the-art training.
The foundation of EPA science is strong, but the agency needs to continue to address numerous present and future challenges if it is to maintain its science
leadership and meet its expanding mandates. There is a pressing need to groom the interdisciplinary-thinking and collaborative leaders of tomorrow and prepare for the coming retirement of large numbers of senior scientists. As this report underscores, there is an increased recognition of the need for cross-disciplinary training and of the need to expand the capacity in social and information sciences. In addition, EPA will continue to need leadership in traditional core disciplines, such as statistics, chemistry, economics, environmental engineering, ecology, toxicology, epidemiology, exposures science, and risk assessment. EPA’s future success will depend on its ability to address long-standing environmental problems, its ability to recognize and respond to emerging challenges, its ability to link broader problem characterization with solutions, and its capacity to meet the scientific needs of policy-makers and the American public.