The stated mission of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment. EPA seeks to fulfill its mission by using the best available science to inform the decisions that it makes. It also seeks to ensure that federal laws related to human health and the environment are enforced fairly and effectively. The agency plays a major role in providing environmental and human health information to all members of society and works with other nations to facilitate the protection of the global environment (EPA 2011a).
EPA is carrying out its mission at a time when science is increasingly in the public eye and controversial, science budgets are decreasing, and job creation and innovation have high political priority. Science has always been an integral part of EPA’s activities, and scientific assessments of factors that affect human health and the environment are as important as ever. In addition, the effects that humans continue to have on the environment are profound and widespread. An increased use of new scientific knowledge and technical information is necessary to understand increasingly complex environmental problems; to understand rapidly evolving advances in such fields as microbiology, information technology, and medicine; to set priorities for research and regulation; to identify emerging and future environmental and health concerns (NRC 2000); and to support policy, management, and technical innovations that prevent undesirable effects in the first place.
Some of the challenges and opportunities that EPA faces include new and persistent environmental problems, changes in human activities and interactions, changes in public expectations, new models for decision-making, new scientific information, and the development of new agency mission requirements that require doing more with less. EPA can meet those challenges only by using high-quality science. The present report discusses current environmental challenges and recent scientific and technologic developments, and it provides guidance to the agency as it prepares to meet the challenges of the future.
Earthquakes, floods, fires, droughts, blizzards, dust storms, natural releases of toxic gases and liquids, diseases, and other environmental variations affect hundreds of millions of people each year. Many such events are exacerbated or mitigated by human activities. In addition, humans affect the environment and natural biodiversity by adding contaminants to air and water, changing land use, reducing and fragmenting the habitat of some species, introducing non-native species, and changing natural fluxes and cycles of energy and materials. It is increasingly clear that human activities are driving many changes in Earth’s global environment; indeed, some scientists refer to this human-dominated period as the Anthropocene to indicate a new geologic epoch that succeeds the Holocene. The term Anthropocene has also recently come into use in the popular press (for example, New York Times 2011 and The Economist 2011) and a proposal to define and formalize the term is being developed by the Anthropocene Working Group for consideration by the International Committee on Stratigraphy (SQS 2012).
The challenges associated with environmental protection today are multi-faceted and affected by many interacting factors. The challenges operate on various, often large, spatial scales, unfold on long temporal scales, and usually have global implications (for example, carbon dynamics, nutrient cycles, and ocean acidification). Dealing with these problems will require systems thinking and integrated multidisciplinary science.
Achieving solutions to these challenges requires increased sustainability, the pursuit of which has been called a wicked problem. The term wicked problem has been used in the field of social planning to describe a problem that is difficult to solve because it is difficult to define clearly, resistant to resolution, and inadequately understood; it has multiple causes that interact in complex ways; it attracts attempted solutions that often result in unforeseen consequences; it is often not stable; it usually has no clear solution or endpoint but rather solutions that are considered better, worse, or good enough; it is socially complex and has multiple stakeholders who must consider the changing behavior of others; and it rarely sits conveniently within the understanding of one discipline or the responsibility of any one organization. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems (Rittel and Webber 1973; DeGrace and Stahl 1990). There is no doubt that the environmental pollution problems of today fit the characteristics of wicked problems.
The environment is variable, complex, and difficult to predict. That difficulty is in part due to imperfect scientific knowledge about environmental processes, but it is also a consequence of imperfect knowledge about economic, demographic, and social processes that drive environmental change and the feedback effects of environmental change on economic, demographic, and social processes. Sustainable pathways to address environmental and human health challenges will only emerge if societies choose to pursue sustainable solutions
and devote resources to successfully designing sustainable policies. Fully integrating sustainability as it relates to the environment and human health requires identifying and contending with tradeoffs within complex economic, cultural, and political systems. Addressing the emerging challenges that EPA faces will require not only good science and technologies, but data and information from disciplines such as social, behavioral, and decision sciences and the integration of broader frameworks that will allow a systems approach to assessing and managing issues.
Frameworks for Incorporating Human—Environment Interactions
To respond effectively to complex and rapidly changing problems, it will be important for EPA to strive toward incorporating a broader array of interactions between humans and the environment into its regulatory and decision-making processes, identify optimal ways to advance core human development and sustain-ability goals, understand the tradeoffs that necessarily accompany decisions about specific ways to use environmental resources, and align response options with the level of governance at which options can be most effective. Several frameworks have been developed to identify and incorporate the full array of interactions between humans and the natural environment into planning and evaluation. The framework proposed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) (MEA 2003, 2005) is useful because it includes the intrinsic value of biodiversity and ecosystems and recognizes that people use multiple criteria when making decisions about how to use the environment. The MEA framework focuses particular attention on the linkages between ecosystem services and human well-being (Figure 1-1) and also stresses the roles of science and engineering as direct and indirect drivers of environmental change. Similar frameworks have been developed by committees of the National Research Council (NRC) (NRC 2000, 2004) and EPA’s Science Advisory Board (EPA SAB 2002, 2009). The Heinz Center (2002, 2008) also developed a comprehensive framework for assessing the state of the nation’s ecosystems.
The frameworks highlight the importance of a comprehensive conceptual model of the environmental system that includes its structural elements, compositional elements, and dynamic functional properties. They also all direct attention to the supporting services (primary production, nutrient cycling, and soil formation) that are necessary for the generation of all other ecosystem services. EPA can draw upon those frameworks and increase its use of systems thinking as it incorporates new knowledge and technical tools into its science and management activities. Taking advantage of those types of frameworks will require scientific consortia that can provide an improved understanding of the problem, create opportunities for interactions between diverse areas of specialization, and integrate knowledge to identify effective solutions. This is a large job for any single agency or organization, so it will be imperative that networks and partnerships be created or enhanced. It will also be necessary for EPA to communicate
with a wide range of experts, particularly for integrating emerging work in social sciences and information technology with advances in exposure assessment and risk assessment.
EPA has been aware of the implications of the rapid growth of scientific data, concepts, and technical tools and has begun to incorporate many scientific advances into its major activities. It has also made substantial efforts to comprehend the unprecedented complexities of emerging environmental problems and to prepare to respond appropriately to the challenges that these developments pose for both its research and its regulatory responsibilities. However, because EPA is a regulatory agency and is not fundamentally a science agency, the role EPA plays supporting science to protect the environment and human health can sometimes be challenging.
FIGURE 1-1 The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment conceptual framework. Indirect drivers of change (such as demographics, economic factors, science, and technology) can cause changes in ecosystems, which in turn can have direct effects on human well-being. These interactions can exist on local, regional, and global scales and can cause changes in both the short term and long term. Direct and indirect feedbacks among drivers are common. For more information on this particular framework, see MEA 2003 and MEA 2005. Source: Adapted from MEA 2003.
Since its formation in 1970, EPA has played 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, supported, and stimulated academic research; developed environmental education programs; supported regional science initiatives; supported the development and application of new technologies; and, most important, enhanced the scientific information that creates a basis for regulatory decisions (NRC 2000, 2003; Collins et al. 2008; Darnall et al. 2008; Kyle et al. 2008; Sanchez et al. 2008; NRC 2011). The broad reach of EPA science has also influenced international policies and guided state and local actions. Some examples of traditional EPA science-based and engineering-based initiatives are identifying emerging ecologic and health problems, monitoring trends in ecologic systems and pollution, identifying human health hazards, measuring and modeling population exposures, developing pollution-control technologies, supporting health-based enforcement and standard-setting, tracking environmental improvement, and incorporating green chemistry concepts and pollution prevention solutions.
Environmental Protection Agency Successes
EPA has successfully contributed to the reduction of pollution and improved public health, human welfare, and environmental and ecosystem quality. Its success has stemmed largely from the establishment and enforcement of its regulatory programs under the Safe Drinking Water Act; the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (also known as Superfund); the Toxic Substances Control Act; and other statutes. Such success would not be possible without scientific and engineering support within the agency and outside by universities, colleges, and partnering agencies and companies. An example of EPA’s success involves the regulation of air pollutants. Many conventional air pollutants have been dramatically reduced over a 20-year period (Figure 1-2)—a demonstration of the remarkable success that the United States has achieved by amending and enforcing the Clean Air Act. It is expensive to implement the Clean Air Act, but it has resulted in improved economic welfare, including better health, improved labor productivity, and less morbidity and mortality due to air pollution (EPA 2011b).
As shown in Table 1-1, there have been large declines in the emissions of nitrogen oxide gases, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, and particulate matter smaller than 10 μm in diameter and smaller than 2.5 μm in diameter over the last 30 years. Despite a doubling of the US gross domestic product during that period and large increases in vehicle-miles traveled, population, energy consumption, and carbon dioxide emissions, regulation of the transportation and industrial sectors has reduced emissions of conventional air pollutants and brought about cleaner air (see Figure 1-2).
|Carbon monoxide (CO)||-71||-60||-44|
|Nitrogen oxides (NOx)||-52||-48||-41|
|Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)||-63||-52||-35|
|Direct particulate matter less than 10 μm in diameter (PM10)||-83a||-67||-50|
|Direct particulate matter less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5)||---b||-55||-55|
|Sulfur dioxide (SO2)||-69||-65||-50|
a Direct PM10 emissions for 1980 are based on data since 1985.
b --- Trend data not available.
In 2010, in recognition of the agency’s 40th anniversary, a distinguished group of environmental professionals representing government, nongovernment organizations, and the private sector assembled to identify EPA’s key achievements (Aspen Institute 2010). The list included removing lead from gasoline to improve air quality and children’s health, reducing acid rain to improve water quality in lakes and streams, reducing exposure to second-hand smoke by identifying environmental tobacco smoke as a human carcinogen, spurring improvements in vehicle efficiency and emission control, testing requirements and encouraging “green chemistry”, banning widespread use of dichlorodiphenyltri-chloroethane (DDT), encouraging a shift to rethinking of waste as materials, and highlighting concerns about environmental justice. EPA scientists and engineers have been at the center of each of those accomplishments, developing cutting-edge tools for modeling and monitoring natural and engineered environmental systems, designing regulatory approaches to encourage private-sector innovation, and interpreting health and ecosystem science that is generated by external sources to inform policy decisions (EPA 2012b,c).
EPA’s role in advancing environmental science and engineering continues. The agency leads research and development efforts, such as codevelopment of a system that provides early warning for water utilities to detect potential contamination (EPA 2011c). The agency is leading efforts to transform chemical toxicity testing by developing a cutting-edge computational toxicology center via unprecedented trans-federal collaborations with the National Institutes of Health (especially the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program) and the Food and Drug Administration (EPA 2012d). This interagency cooperation has resulted in the development of Tox21. The agency also leads work with Canada to assess the condition and protection of the Great Lakes (EPA 2009). EPA is the only major agency that is supporting the development of new molecular methods for assessing viruses in groundwater, Cryptosporidium and other emerging pathogens in water, and microbial source tracking tools for addressing impairment. And EPA continues to play a leading role internationally in advancing the scientific understanding of continental-scale and global-scale atmospheric chemistry and transport with recent efforts to refine models for short-term forecast applications and efforts to understand how air-quality problems might be affected by long-term climate change.
Challenges Facing the Environmental Protection Agency
EPA scientists and engineers are addressing some of the nation’s most complex technical challenges, such as standard-setting for chemical pollutants, dealing with emerging waterborne pathogens, and protection of air and water resources. Owing to its legislative mandates, EPA investigations are often initiated in response to a crisis or new information that identifies a hazard to human health or the environment. Much of EPA’s science has been reactive, addressing problems after they have become widespread and focusing on cleanup or “end of
pipe” solutions, rather than proactive and oriented toward long-term goals that will help the agency to address and possibly prevent environmental problems in the future.
Today, despite its considerable successes, science at EPA is facing unprecedented challenges. An NRC report, Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment, identified new approaches to formulate environmental problems, assess risks, and evaluate decision options (NRC 2009), which would facilitate systems thinking and innovative problem-solving discussed in the current report. Another recent NRC report, Sustainability and the U.S. EPA, identified broader tools incorporating economics and social sciences for evaluating decision options and formulating research programs (NRC 2011). By acknowledging past achievements and current efforts but also recognizing the many challenges that EPA faces, the current report seeks to provide advice on the initiation of new directions and approaches for science at EPA to ensure that the agency continues to generate and make effective use of the world-class science and engineering that are needed to accomplish its mission. Specific challenges that EPA faces today and will likely face in the future and tools and technologies to address them are elaborated on in Chapters 2 and 3 of this report.
EPA asked NRC to assess independently 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. Those challenges and opportunities include new and persistent environmental problems, changes in human activities and interactions, changes in public expectations, new risk-assessment and risk-management paradigms, new models for decision-making, and new agency mission requirements. EPA asked that special consideration be given to a potentially increasing emphasis on transdisciplinary approaches, systems-based problem-solving, scientific and technologic innovation, and greater involvement of communities and stakeholders. NRC was also asked to identify and assess transitional options to strengthen the agency’s ability to pursue the aforementioned scientific information and tools. In response, it convened the Committee on Science for EPA’s Future, which prepared the present report. The committee’s full statement of task is provided in Appendix A, and biographic information on the committee is in Appendix B.
To accomplish its task, the committee held six meetings from June 2011 to April 2012. The first two meetings included public sessions during which the committee heard from several EPA staff and from a principal investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In writing its report, the committee gathered information through communication with EPA staff, from resources on EPA’s website, peer-reviewed scientific literature, and reviews and
reports written by numerous other government agencies, nongovernment organizations, and independent advisory groups.
The committee’s report covers a broad array of topics that reflect EPA’s expansive scope to protect human health and the environment and its leadership role in local, state, and international science. In addition to EPA’s need to provide scientific information that will act as the basis of regulatory decision-making, it plays a role in stimulating and supporting academic research, environmental-education programs, and regional science initiatives and in providing support for safer technologies. Science is needed to support EPA as both a regulatory agency and as a leader in environmental science and engineering. While this report focuses on the issues of science, data, and information management, it recognizes that the policy changes facing EPA and environmental protection more broadly are important.
This report is organized into six chapters and four appendixes. Chapter 2 discusses persistent challenges that EPA is facing now and emerging challenges that may be important to EPA in the future. In the context of those challenges, Chapter 3 aims to provide information on emerging tools and technologies for environmental protection and the application of those emerging tools and technologies. Chapter 4 addresses approaches for EPA to remain at the leading edge of environmental science and engineering, to evaluate and synthesize leading-edge science to inform decisions, to deliver science within and outside the agency, and to strengthen its science capacity. Specific details related to “–omics” technologies and information technology are elaborated on in Appendixes C and D, respectively. Chapter 5 specifically addresses enhanced science leadership and scientific capacity at EPA. Chapter 6 summarizes the committee’s main findings and recommendations.
The committee uses the word science in this report in two distinctive ways. One refers to the processes—collectively called the scientific method—by which new information is generated (that is, research). The second way refers to the body of knowledge produced by scientific methods—that is, the resulting data. EPA both conducts high-quality research and uses scientifically generated information in many ways. The challenges and tools and technologies that the committee discusses are meant to be examples of the types of problems EPA faces now, the types of problems EPA could potentially face in the future, and the types of tools and technologies that could help to solve current, persistent, and emerging environmental challenges. The committee cannot anticipate all of the problems of the future and the tools and technologies that will be needed to address those problems, so it has focused on describing a framework that will help EPA to be better prepared in the future. Some of the committee’s findings and recommendations concern the agency’s science programs, and many are
related to EPA’s role in synthesizing data to inform policy decisions and the establishment of regulations, and to stimulate thinking in new ways. The mechanism or mechanisms through which EPA chooses to address the recommendations will depend on its funding, its priorities, and what environmental science and engineering areas it wants to focus its efforts on in the future. Because the committee’s report will become dated as science evolves and as lessons continue to be learned about best practices for protecting human health and the environment, it may be beneficial for EPA to carry out a similar type of exercise at regular intervals in the future.
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