Since its formation in 1970, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has played a leadership role in developing the broad fields of environmental science and engineering. It has stimulated and supported basic and applied research, developed environmental-education programs, supported regional science initiatives, supported and promoted the development of safer and more cost-effective technologies, provided a firm scientific basis of regulatory decisions, and prepared the agency to address emerging environmental problems. The broad reach of EPA science has also influenced international policies and guided state and local actions. As a result of EPA’s scientific leadership, both the nation and the world have made great progress in addressing environmental challenges and improving environmental quality over the last 40 years.
As a regulatory agency, EPA applies much of its resources to implementing complex regulatory statutes that have been established by Congress. That regulatory mission can engender controversy and place strains on the conduct of EPA’s scientific work in ways that do not affect most other government science agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Amid this inherent tension, EPA generally, and the Office of Research and Development (ORD) specifically, strive to meet the following objectives in their research:
• Support the needs of the agency’s present regulatory mandates and timetables.
• Identify and lay the intellectual foundations that will allow the agency to address current environmental challenges and challenges that it will face over the course of the next several decades.
• Determine the main environmental problems on the US environmental-research landscape.
• Sustain and continually rejuvenate a diverse inhouse scientific research staff—with the necessary laboratories and field capabilities—to support the agency in its present and future missions and in its active collaboration with other agencies.
• Strike a balance between inhouse and extramural research investment. The latter can often bring new ideas and methods to the agency, stimulate a flow of new people into it, and support the continued health of environmental research in the nation.
In the present climate of tight federal budgets, EPA faces the challenge of how to set priorities and achieve as many of these research objectives as it can within a limited budget that, in some cases, is shrinking in real terms.
The committee has examined the agency’s capacity to obtain and apply the best new scientific and technologic tools to meet current and future challenges. For 4 decades, 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 multidisciplinary 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.
Thus, the foundation of EPA science is strong. However, the agency needs to successfully address numerous present and future challenges if it is to maintain science leadership and meet its expanding mandates. There is a pressing need to groom tomorrow’s leaders and prepare for the retirement of large numbers of senior scientists (some of whom have been with the agency since it was created in 1970). As this report has underscored, there is an increased recognition of the need for cross-disciplinary training and the expansion of the science base to strengthen capacity in social and information sciences. In addition, EPA will continue to need leadership in the traditional core subjects, including, but not limited to, statistics, chemistry, economics, environmental engineering, ecology, toxicology, epidemiology, exposure science, and risk assessment. EPA’s future success will depend on its capacity to address long-standing environmental problems, to recognize and respond to emerging challenges, to develop solutions, and to meet the scientific needs of policy-makers.
Figure 6-1 presents the committee’s approach for addressing science for EPA’s future. The following sections elaborate on the issues described above and bring together the principal findings and recommendations detailed throughout the report. In assessing the scientific opportunities and needs that the agency faces, the committee did not consider it appropriate to prioritize where EPA should invest its limited resources. Such an exercise will require detailed internal EPA deliberations and administrative guidance. Instead, the committee has focused on the statement of task, which asked for an assessment of EPA’s capabilities to develop, obtain, and use new science and technologic information to meet persistent, emerging, and future challenges.
Most of the committee’s recommendations, which are discussed in Chapters 4 and 5 and summarized in the sections below, are broad and are intended to help EPA enhance its ability to address environmental problems and their solu-
tions from a systems perspective and through strengthened leadership, communication, internal expertise, and internal and external collaboration. 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. EPA already addresses some aspects of the committee’s recommendations to some degree. It is the committee’s aim that this report will help the agency to choose where to enhance its ability to integrate its current science and to use new tools and technologies to address its mission challenges.
It is important for EPA to try to balance its capacity and resources to address complex environmental challenges, to address potential favorable and unfavorable health and environmental effects, and to apply emerging scientific information, tools, techniques, and technologies. Approaching problems from a systems perspective will allow EPA to meet those challenges and make the maximum continuing use of new scientific tools. The committee has suggested ways in which the agency can integrate systems-thinking techniques into a 21st century framework for science to inform decisions (see Figure 6-1). That framework will help EPA to stay at the leading edge of science by encouraging it to produce science that is anticipatory, innovative, long-term, and collaborative; to evaluate and apply emerging tools for data acquisition, modeling, and knowledge development; and to develop tools and methods for synthesizing science, characterizing uncertainties, and integrating, tracking, and assessing the outcomes of actions. If effectively implemented, the framework would help to break the silos of the agency and promote collaboration among different media, time scales, and disciplines. In supporting environmental science and engineering for the 21st century, there will need to be a move from using science to characterize risks, to applying science holistically to characterize both problems and solutions at the earliest possible time. ORD’s move toward embracing sus-tainability throughout its research program is a positive move in this direction.
Finding: Environmental problems are increasingly interconnected. EPA can no longer address just one environmental hazard at a time without considering how that problem interacts with, is influenced by, and influences other aspects of the environment.
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that EPA substantially enhance the integration of systems thinking into its work and enhance its capacity to apply systems thinking to all aspects of how it approaches complex decisions.
FIGURE 6-1 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-orineted 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).
The following paragraphs provide examples of some of strategies that EPA could use to help it set its own priorities and to enhance its use of systems thinking.
Even if formal quantitative life-cycle assessment (LCA) is not feasible, increased use of a life-cycle perspective would help EPA to assess activities, regulatory strategies, and associated environmental consequences. Placing more of a focus on life-cycling thinking would likely include increasing EPA’s investment in the development of LCA tools that reflect the most recent knowledge in LCA and risk assessment (both human health and ecologic). In addition, it may be more cost effective for EPA to provide incentives and resources to increase collaboration between LCA practitioners in the agency and those working on related analytic tools (such as risk assessment, exposure modeling, alternatives assessment, and green chemistry). EPA has some internal capacity for LCA, but could benefit from a more systematic use of such an assessment across the agency’s mission.
Continuing to invest intramural and extramural resources in cumulative risk assessment and the underlying multistressor data, including coordinated bench science and community-based components, would give EPA a broader and more comprehensive understanding of the complex interactions between chemicals, humans, and the environment. A challenge before the agency is the characterization of cumulative effects using complex, incomplete, or missing data. Even as EPA seeks to improve its understanding of risks, some prevention-based decisions may need to be made in the face of uncertainty.
In EPA’s science programs, environmental decisions will only be effective if they consider the social and behavioral contexts in which they will play out. Such decisions can substantially affect societal interests beyond those that are specifically environmental. Tradeoffs among environmental and other societal outcomes need to be anticipated and made explicit if decision-making is to be fully informed and transparent, and predicting economic and societal responses at various points in the decision-making process is necessary to achieve desirable environmental and societal outcomes. For these reasons, developing mechanisms to integrate social, economic, behavioral, and decision sciences would lead to more comprehensive environmental-management decisions. EPA can engage the social, economic, behavioral, and decision sciences as part of a systems-science perspective rather than as consumers and evaluators of others’ science. In addition, EPA would benefit from a long-term commitment to advancing research in a number of related fields, including valuation of health and ecosystem benefits.
Research centers that focus on synthesis research have demonstrated the power and cost effectiveness of bringing together multidisciplinary collaborative groups to integrate and analyze data to generate new scientific knowledge. Deliberately introducing synthesis research into EPA’s activities would contribute to accelerating its progress in sustainability science. A specific area where knowledge from systems thinking could be applied is in the design of safer chemicals, products, and materials.
The committee evaluated EPA’s capabilities and the needs that the agency will face given both large and complex future environmental challenges and the necessity of identifying, evaluating, and implementing a large number of new scientific tools in its science and decision-making. Based on that evaluation, it identified a need to substantially strengthen its 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, the Office of the Science Advisor may need further authority from the administrator or additional staff resources to continue to improve the integration and coordination of science across programs and regions throughout the agency. When the committee speaks of enhancing science leadership, it is not just referring to the strengthened capacity of someone in a higher-level position within EPA to whom the administrator has provided independence, authority, and resources, but also the internal support at all levels in the agency (including scientists, analysts, directors, and deputy and assistant administrators) to ensure that the highest-quality science is developed, evaluated, and applied systematically throughout the agency’s programs.
In the committee’s analysis of the strengths and limitations of an enhanced agency-wide leadership position, it has concluded that successful implementation of the systems-based application of emerging tools and technologies to meet persistent and future challenges cannot be achieved under the current structure. Success will require leadership throughout the agency, in the programs and regions as well as in ORD. There will need to be clear lines of authority and responsibility, and regional administrators, program assistant administrators, and staff members at all levels will need to be held accountable for ensuring scientific quality and the integration of individual science activities into broader efforts across the agency.
Finding: The need for improvement in the oversight, coordination, and management of agency-wide science has been documented in studies by the National Research Council, the General Accountability Office, and the agency’s own Science Advisory Board as a serious shortcoming and it remains an obstacle at EPA. The committee’s own analysis of challenges and opportunities for the agency indicates the need for integration of systems thinking, and the need for enhanced leadership at all levels is even stronger than it has been in the past.
Recommendation 2: The committee recommends that the EPA administrator continue to identify ways to substantially enhance the responsibilities of a person in an agency-wide science leadership position. That person should hold a senior position, which could be that of a deputy administrator for science, a chief scientist, or possibly a substantially strengthened version of the current science advisor position. He or she should have sufficient au-
thority 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.
Whatever administrative arrangement is adopted, the following are suggestions of the types of responsibilities that the committee thinks should be associated with this position:
• Chairing and assuring that the work of the Science and Technology Policy Council is comprehensive and effective.
• Promotion of systems thinking and systems-oriented tools to address complex challenges ahead and the integration of this approach into every aspect of agency science and engineering (as described in Chapter 4).
• Working to ensure that the scientific and technical staff throughout the agency (including program, regional, and research offices) have the expertise necessary to perform their duties whether in support of the agency’s research or in support of its role as a regulatory and policy decision-maker.
• Assuring that the agency has in place a system for quality assurance and quality control of its scientific and technical work (including a system for consistent high-quality peer review).
• Assuring that the best available scientific and technical information is being used to carry out the agency’s mission.
• Working to coordinate research and analytic efforts within and outside the agency to ensure that the best information is used in the most efficient manner.
• Encouraging and supporting interoffice and interagency science collaboration in order to solve problems and develop good solutions.
If the occupant of the position is to be successful, he or she will require sufficient staff and resources to act on behalf of the EPA administrator to implement a coordinated budget and strategic planning process for the regional, program, and research offices to ensure that appropriate scientific and technical expertise and capabilities are available and used. The person in this position would also oversee the policies and procedures that relate to the operation of the agency’s federal advisory committees. The committee specifically recommends that the person in this position and his or her staff create, implement, and periodically update an integrated, agency-wide multiyear plan for science, its use, and associated research needs. Such a plan would bring together ORD, program, and regional science initiatives while being cognizant of the flexibility that is imparted through bottom-up initiatives undertaken in ORD, the program offices, and the regions.
The strengthening of science leadership is not without its challenges. For example, whether or not the position is held by a political appointee could affect the ability of the person in the position to be effective throughout the agency, especially with the other political appointees who head the programs that rely on science (and supervise many of the agency’s scientists). There is also the possibility that new procedures established from the central administration could serve to discourage innovation in science if not carefully applied. To a certain extent, the recent EPA decision to re-establish the position of science advisor as a non-political position distinct from ORD (as had been the case in earlier EPA administrations) will provide a test of how to overcome some of these challenges. However, the revised role of the current science advisor does not fully implement the committee’s recommendation unless that person is empowered with the tools and support described above. 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.
Assessing and obtaining the proper scientific expertise within the agency is necessary to address complex environmental problems facing the nation and to create and implement solutions. That includes having the expertise to take advantage of new technologies that will improve the science basis of regulatory decision-making at the national, state, and local levels. It also includes having broad interdisciplinary expertise and engaging in collaboration to more effectively evaluate system-level impacts and sustainable solutions. In order to be prepared to address a wide array of environmental and health challenges and their complex interactions, EPA will need to continue to ensure that it has expertise in critical fields. In some cases, the agency will need to advance scientific understanding through inhouse research; in others, it will need to assimilate and influence scientific efforts that are undertaken elsewhere. However, even as the agency moves to increase the breadth and depth of its skills in new disciplines, and especially in light of an aging work force, continued support is needed to ensure that basic scientific disciplines are strongly represented. In order to have the capacity to address future environmental challenges, the agency will need to have enough internal expertise to identify and collaborate with the expertise of all of its stakeholders so that it can ask the right questions; determine what existing tools and strategies can be applied to answer those questions; determine the needs for new tools and strategies; develop, apply, and refine the new tools and strategies; and use the science to make recommendations based on hazards, exposures, and monitoring.
Finding: EPA has been a leader in environmental science and technology both nationally and internationally. If it is to retain that leadership in the coming dec-
ades, it must maintain its expertise in traditional scientific disciplines while enhancing the breadth and depth of its skills in new disciplines.
Recommendation 3: The committee recommends that the agency strengthen its scientific capacity by (a) continuing to cultivate knowledge and expertise within the agency generally, (b) hiring more behavioral and decision scientists, and (c) engaging mechanisms to draw on scientific research and expertise from outside of the agency.
Addressing the environmental challenges of today and the future requires forward-thinking and resourceful scientists and engineers. One of the keys to recruiting and retaining high-quality scientists who can help the agency to maintain its leadership role is for the agency to foster an environment where scientists and engineers have opportunities to work on interesting, challenging problems, interact synergistically with colleagues, have an impact, and earn recognition for their work. Furthermore, if the agency is going to address the problems of today and the future from a systems perspective, its scientists and engineers need to be able to optimize resources, create and benefit from scientific exchange zones, and lead innovation through transdisciplinary collaborations.
Finding: Expertise in traditional scientific disciplines—including, but not limited to, statistics, chemistry, economics, environmental engineering, ecology, toxicology, epidemiology, exposure science, and risk assessment—are essential for addressing the challenges of today and the future. The case of statistics is one example where the agency is facing significant retirements and needs to have, if anything, enhanced expertise. EPA is currently attuned to these needs, but staffing high-quality scientists in these areas of expertise who can embrace problems by drawing from information across disciplines will require continued attention if EPA is to maintain its leadership role in environmental science and technology.
Recommendation 3a: EPA should continue to cultivate a scientific workforce across the agency (including ORD, program offices, and regions) that can take on transdisciplinary challenges.
Some options that EPA might explore to fulfill the recommendation above include:
• Build a stronger mentoring and leadership development program that supports young researchers and fosters a culture of systems-thinking research.
• Recruit young scientists who have expertise and interest in scientific concepts and tools relevant to systems thinking and its supporting analytic tools.
• Promote rotations through its laboratories and through the laboratories of other federal agencies and scientific organizations as valuable training experiences for new scientists in the areas of environmental health, science, and engineering.
• Expand opportunities for internal networking, including opportunities for scientists and engineers to work between programs and offices.
• Encourage scientists and engineers to work in interdisciplinary teams and in new ways to provide expertise where it is needed in a timely fashion.
• Implement programs to help scientists and engineers to acquire new skills and expertise throughout their careers, including educational opportunities, sabbaticals, and other kinds of leave, and laboratory rotations.
• Provide opportunities for agency scientists to interact with colleagues in other agencies, in universities, in nonprofit organizations, and in the private sector; such opportunities could include workshops, roundtables, participation in traditional research conferences, and long-term exchanges with or as visiting scientists.
• Promote the visibility and recognition of scientific excellence across its divisions, programs, and locations by enhancing and highlighting its featured research and awards programs.
• Assess its current policies for retaining and hiring civil service employees. The agency must be nimble and must be able to easily hire or reassign employees to make sure it has specific expertise to understand emerging challenges and make use of new tools, technologies, and approaches in the appropriate offices, regions, and laboratories at the appropriate time.
Economic, social, behavioral, and decision sciences can make important contributions to improving environmental policy decisions within the emerging integrated systems-based approach to environmental management. They can also make contributions to supporting innovative strategies for achieving environmental goals efficiently, equitably, and cooperatively. Behavioral and decision sciences are particularly essential in dealing with such issues as “framing effects”, cognitive heuristics, risk communication, and the design and assessment of the likely effectiveness of alternative regulatory strategies.
Finding: EPA’s economic, social, behavioral, and decision science staff consists almost entirely of economists. The agency is without strong expertise in social, behavioral, and decision sciences, though it does support some research in these areas through outside grants, collaborations, and procurement.
Recommendation 3b: The committee recommends that EPA add staff who have training in behavioral and decision sciences and find ways to enhance the existing staff capabilities in these fields.
Options that EPA might explore to fulfill that recommendation include:
• Recruit several new staff who have earned advanced degrees in empirically based behavioral and decision sciences. The new staff would need to have strong communication skills and would need to work closely with economists, natural scientists, and engineers in the agency to help to make regulatory and other agency policies that promote environmentally protective behaviors that are more realistic. Their knowledge would assist the agency by helping it to make more informed choices when seeking outside contractors and advisers and to create stronger collaboration with academics in related fields. The committee suggests that the new staff be located within the National Center for Environmental Economics (NCEE). The reason for that suggestion is that NCEE currently staffs the largest number of social scientists within the agency. The large interest in behavioral and decision sciences that exists now in economics broadly, as exhibited by the fields of behavioral and neuroeconomics, will contribute to making NCEE a productive location. More importantly, behavioral economics is an essential source of new insight in environmental economics research pertaining to the benefits of environmental protection and the design of incentives for environmental management. Co-locating behavioral scientists within NCEE will increase the capacity of economics staff to participate in the advances in environmental economics emerging from the integration of behavioral economics.
• Provide mechanisms for cross-disciplinary training of staff in core disciplines that are relevant to behavioral and decision sciences. The committee acknowledges that the number of staff in EPA who have advanced training in these fields is likely to remain modest even with a concerted recruitment effort, and it is important for staff scientists who work in adjacent disciplines to have enough familiarity to know what questions to ask (and whom to ask).
• Develop improved mechanisms for integrating economic, social, behavioral, and decision science into the development of science to support environmental-management decisions.
Outside of EPA
EPA would be well-advised to continue to take advantage of such mechanisms as extramural funding to access the expertise that it needs. One example is the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, which is sponsored by EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research to support transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships through interactive and collaborative projects. It can also access experts through collaborations. Specifically, it could reestablish the collaborative research program between ORD and the NSF Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences program. That type of collaboration would allow EPA to harness the expertise that it needs to make informed judgments in behavioral and social sciences.
Most of the agency’s science needs will probably continue to be met by research and collaboration performed through existing means. However, EPA also has the potential to acquire more information through collaboration with the public. For example, the explosion of new Internet-based, wireless, and miniaturized sensing technologies provides an unprecedented opportunity to involve the public in research and in meeting data-collection needs in ways that were not possible in the past. The emergence of secure enterprise social networks also provides a host of opportunities for EPA to greatly enhance internal and external collaboration. There is potential for the collection of environmental information and the sorting and analysis of complex data to be accomplished through citizen science, crowdsourcing, and similar techniques. EPA will need to continue to follow new and emerging technologies closely and make anticipatory decisions for adoption where its mission can be addressed in a cost-effective way.
Even if resources were not a major constraint, EPA would still need the expertise to be able to harness the science, data, information, tools, techniques, equipment, and expertise available from research being done in other organizations domestically and internationally. As resources dedicated to research become more limited, tracking, gathering, and using such knowledge becomes even more essential.
Finding: Research on environmental issues is not confined to EPA. In the United States, it is spread across a number of federal agencies, national laboratories, and universities and other public-sector and private-sector facilities. There are also strong programs of environmental research in the public and private sectors in many other nations.
Recommendation 3c: The committee recommends that EPA improve its ability to track systematically, to influence, and in some cases to engage in collaboration with research being done by others in the United States and internationally.
The committee suggests the following mechanisms for approaching the recommendation above:
• Identify knowledge that can inform and support the agency’s current regulatory agenda.
• Institute strategies to connect that knowledge to those in the agency who most need it to carry out the agency’s mission.
• Inform other federal and nonfederal research programs about the science base that the agency currently needs or believes that it will need to execute its mission.
• Seek early identification of new and emerging environmental problems with which the agency may have to deal.
As with all of science and engineering, the fields of environmental science and technology continue to evolve. Tools and methods are becoming more powerful and sophisticated. In Chapter 3, the committee identified some examples of tools and technologies that have helped and will continue to help EPA to address challenges that are relevant to its mission. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the committee was not asked to and did not attempt to prioritize specific tools and technologies that EPA should invest in for the future. Those decisions will need to be made by EPA based on factors such as where it would like to develop its inhouse expertise in the future, where it would prefer to collaborate to gain the expertise it needs, and where it would like to leverage or incentivize outside expertise. Some specific areas the committee identified where EPA may want to consider maintaining or enhancing its expertise on in the future include:
• Extend collaborations with remote-sensing scientists.
• Find ways to engage in broader, deeper, and sustained support for long-term monitoring.
• Continue to promote methodologic development and application to rapid and predictive monitoring.
• Develop a quantitative microbial risk-assessment framework that incorporates alternative indicators, using genomic approaches, microbial source tracking, and pathogen monitoring.
• Collaborate with other agencies (for example, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Exposure Biology program; the NSF Environmental, Health, and Safety Risks of Nanomaterials program; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the European Commission’s Exposure Initiative) to build a greater capacity for exposure science.
• Improve exposure assessment for environmental-epidemiology studies.
• Continue modeling efforts to advance understanding of sources and environmental processes that contribute to particulate matter loadings and consequent health and environmental effects.
• Improve understanding of interactions between climate change and air quality, with a focus on relatively short-lived greenhouse agents, such as ozone, black carbon, and other constituents of particulate matter.
• Develop processes and procedures for effective public communication of the potential public health and environmental risks associated with the increasing number of chemicals.
• Improve understanding of the value and limitations of “-omic” technologies and approaches for environmental and human health risk assessment.
• Continue validation of high-throughput in vitro assays for the screening of new chemicals for potentially hazardous properties while continuing to recognize the limitations and strengths of current toxicity-testing approaches.
Regardless of the specific tools and technologies EPA intends to invest its resources on in the future, it must at least have knowledge of new technologies and tools that are emerging in the areas of environmental science and engineering. EPA’s efforts to anticipate science needs and emerging tools to meet these needs cannot succeed in a vacuum. As it focuses on organizing and catalyzing its internal efforts better, it will need to continue to look outside itself—to other agencies, states, other countries, academe, and the private sector—to identify relevant scientific advances and opportunities where collaboration that relies on others’ efforts can be the best (sometimes the only) means of making progress in protecting health and the environment.
Finding: Although EPA has periodically attempted to scan for and anticipate new scientific, technology, and policy developments, these efforts have not been systematic and sustained. The establishment of deliberate and systematic processes for anticipating human health and ecosystem challenges and new scientific and technical opportunities would allow EPA to stay at the leading edge of emerging science.
Recommendation 4: The committee recommends that EPA 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 called groups with a similar function in the past), 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.
Without good data that show the state of the environment, how it is evolving, and how it is affecting people and ecosystems, it is difficult to do an effective, science-based job of environmental protection. EPA is gathering and will continue to gather large amounts of data from a diverse array of sources and will need to deposit such data into data management systems that are both secure and accessible. EPA will need to have the capacity to systematically access, harvest, manage, and integrate data from diverse sources, in different media, across geographic and disciplinary boundaries, and of heterogeneous forms and scales. This capacity will depend on EPA maintaining and possibly increasing its current information-technology capabilities that support state-of-the art data acquisition, storage, and management. Capacity will also depend on having enough senior statisticians in the agency to analyze, model, and support the synthesis of data. EPA will need to continue to promote and engage in the development of informatics techniques for seamless data integration and synthesis and robust model development. As EPA continues to strengthen its informatics infrastructure, including data-warehousing and data-mining, it remains important to pay
attention to new analytic and statistical methods, the building blocks of informatics and backbones of data-mining; to address emerging modeling issues; and to bridge methodologic gaps.
Many of the issues being addressed by EPA are in the context of environmental factors whose effects are best characterized in terms of changing exposures, accumulating amounts of materials, and changing health and environmental conditions. Given the high levels of spatial and temporal variability of those factors, it is often critical to have and maintain long-term records of multiple parameters. Making data and samples accessible to future researchers is central to ensuring that the understanding of environmental phenomena continues to grow and evolve with the science. It is also important to develop sample archives where materials are appropriately stored and to have good metadata for analysis or reanalysis at a later date.
Long-term monitoring is essential for tracking changes in ecosystems and populations to identify, at the earliest stage, emerging changes and challenges. Without long-term data, it is difficult to know whether current variations fall within the normal range of variation or are truly unprecedented. It is also essential for knowing whether EPA’s management interventions are having their intended effect. Monitoring is a fundamental component of hypothesis-testing. All management interventions are based on explicit or implicit hypotheses that justify them and explain why they should yield the desired results. A hypothesis may focus on physical and biologic processes or on expected human behavioral responses. If it is made explicit and monitoring is designed specifically to test it, both the value of the monitoring and the details of its design will be clarified, and the importance of the monitoring will be evident.
Finding: It is difficult to understand the overall state of the environment unless one knows what it has been in the past, and how it is changing over time. Typically this can only be achieved by examining high-quality time series of key indicators of environmental quality and performance. Currently at EPA, there are few long-term monitoring programs, let alone programs that are systematic and rigorous.
Recommendation 5: The committee recommends that EPA invest substantial effort to generate broader, deeper, and sustained support for long-term monitoring of key indicators of environmental quality and performance.
To understand future environmental health problems and provide solutions, EPA will depend on innovations across different media (air, land, and water). EPA has an important role in addressing capacity and opportunities for innovation by providing information, technical assistance, platforms for information exchange, demonstration activities, and economic incentives and disin-
centives. It can play a role not only in promoting innovation in the agency but stimulating innovation by others. The agency also has the opportunity to leverage resources to support innovation. The committee does not recommend that EPA attempt to develop all such solutions itself. Rather, it would be more cost effective to partner and engage with others to support innovation. That can be supported through EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program or an award, such as the Presidential Green Chemistry Awards, which would nudge the entrepreneurial community to address problems of direct interest to the agency. EPA has taken a global leadership role by supporting efforts that focus on innovative solutions-oriented science, including the pollution prevention program, Design for the Environment, and the green chemistry and engineering program. They demonstrate the potential for innovative approaches to advance and use scientific knowledge to protect health and the environment through the redesign of chemicals, materials, and products. They also demonstrate the role that EPA can play in driving decisions by providing high-quality scientific information.
Finding: EPA has recognized that innovation in environmental science, technology, and regulatory strategies will be essential if it is to continue to perform its mission in a robust and cost-effective manner. However, to date, the agency’s approach has been modest in scale and insufficiently systematic.
Recommendation 6: The committee recommends that EPA develop a more systematic strategy to support innovation in science, technology, and practice.
In doing this, the agency would be well-advised to work on identifying much more clearly the “signals” that it is or is not sending and to refine them as needed. Clearly identifying signals could be accomplished by seeking to identify the key desired outcomes of EPA’s regulatory programs and communicate the desired outcomes clearly to the private and public sectors. The committee has identified several ways in which EPA could address this recommendation.
• Establish and periodically update an agency-wide innovation strategy that outlines key desired outcomes, processes for supporting innovation, and opportunities for collaboration. Such a strategy would identify incentives, disincentives, and opportunities in program offices to advance innovation. It would highlight collaborative needs, education, and training for staff to support innovation.
• Identify and implement cross-agency efforts to integrate innovative activities in different parts of the agency to achieve more substantial long-term innovation. One immediate example of such integration that is only beginning to occur is bringing the work on green chemistry from the Design for the Environment program together with the innovative work on high-throughput screening
in the ToxCast program to apply innovative toxicity testing tools to the design of green chemicals.
• Explicitly examine the effects of new regulatory and nonregulatory programs on innovation while ascertaining environmental and economic effects. This “innovation impact assessment” could, in part, inform the economic evaluation as a structure that encourages technologic innovation that may lead to long-term cost reductions. The assessment could also function as a stand-alone activity to evaluate how regulations could encourage or discourage innovation in a number of activities and sectors. It could help to identify what research and technical support and incentives are necessary to encourage innovation that reduces environmental and health effects while stimulating economic benefits.
This report has stressed the importance of sustaining and strengthening EPA’s present programs of scientific research, applications, and data collection while identifying and pursuing a wide array of new scientific opportunities and challenges. Both are needed to address the complexity of modern problems and both are essential to the agency if it is to continue to provide scientific leadership and high-quality science-based regulation in the years to come.
Specific recommendations related to agency budgets are outside the scope of this study, but the committee feels compelled to note, as did the report Science Advisory Board Comments on the President’s Requested FY2013 Research Budget (EPA SAB 2012b), that since 2004, the budget for ORD has declined 28.5% in real-dollar terms (gross domestic product—indexed dollars). The reductions have been even greater in a number of specific fields, such as ecosystem research and pollution prevention.
Finding: If EPA is to provide scientific leadership and high-quality science-based regulation in the coming decades, it will need adequate resources to do so. Some of this committee’s recommendations, if followed, will allow EPA to address its scientific needs with greater efficiency. But the agency cannot continue to provide leadership, pursue many new needs and opportunities, and lay the foundation for ensuring future health and environmental safety unless the long-term budgetary trend is reversed.
Recommendation 7: The committee recommends EPA create a process to set priorities for improving the quality of its scientific endeavors over the coming decades. This process should recognize the inevitably limited resources while clearly articulating the level of resources required for the agency to continue to ensure the future health and safety of humans and ecosystems.