Environmental research has led to technologic advances and improved policies that have resulted in enormous improvements in environmental quality and public health which may have saved lives and reduced healthcare costs nationwide. However, many complex environmental challenges remain, and new ones are emerging that are associated with interacting technologic, sociologic and economic factors, including changes in energy production and use, development of new chemicals and nanomaterials, geographic shifts in the US population, the growth of metropolitan areas, and demands for affordable agricultural products.
Major research challenges involve understanding the potential responses of environmental systems and effects on public health that might occur on various spatial scales (from local to global) and temporal scales (from acute to chronic). Stemming from discussions presented in Burke et al. (2017) and NRC (2012a, 2013a), examples of environmental research challenges include:
- How would the wide-scale use of new energy options and emerging technologies affect water availability and quality, land use patterns, and air quality?
- How would ecosystems services (for example, buffering against coastal storms and pollinating food-bearing plants) be affected by habitat losses resulting from supplying the resource demands of a dynamic population?
- How would changes in biogeochemical cycles resulting from agricultural nutrient runoff affect aquatic ecosystems and human well-being?
- How could adverse health effects from exposure to hazardous chemicals and other materials be avoided through safe product design and appropriate consumer use?
- What societal abilities are needed to respond quickly to address environmental consequences of disasters arising from natural events (such as storms), accidents at major industrial facilities (such, mines and wells), and terrorism events?
Does the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program contribute to shedding light on those problems? The discussion of the STAR program’s public benefits in Chapter 3 suggests that it can, but could the program have been doing more? To answer that question, the committee first considered what scientific disciplines are needed to produce knowledge for addressing important scientific issues related to protecting human health and the environment. The disciplines include the more basic subjects—such as the earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, life sciences, ecology, and toxicology—and the more applied domains, such as environmental engineering, sustainable energy, human exposure and health effects, and human behavioral studies.
Figure 4-1 provides a layered view of the contributing fields of knowledge, from basic research along the bottom row (in yellow) to the kinds of scientific considerations that are integrated into environmental management, public policy, and decision-making, including considerations such as innovative technologies, innovative strategies for risk management, and innovative approaches to communication and citizen participation along the top row (in green). As suggested by the arrow on the left in Figure 4-1, knowledge from the fundamental domains is adapted and refined as it moves upward to practical application, building environmental science capacity. Similarly, knowledge gaps and research needs identified in the applied fields inform and motivate new directions in fundamental research, as suggested by the arrow on the right.
The committee found that STAR has supported almost all of these disciplines. The subjects of requests for applications (RFAs) were in almost every discipline with the exception of those in the bottom row (Appendix C). Human exposure and health effects, toxicology, risk analysis, innovative risk management, and systems modeling and decision support were some of the fields most commonly represented by the RFAs. The committee also noted that the RFA topics were highly interdisciplinary and few fell neatly into a single category. Examples of subjects in RFAs that arguably fell into a single field were valuation for environmental policy, case studies and experimental testbeds in environmental economics (environmental trading programs and methodologic advances in benefit-transfer methods), the development of environmental health outcome indicators, and sources and atmospheric formation of organic particulate matter (Appendix C).
STAR-supported research also contributed to a wide variety of these fields. The committee categorized the papers that it identified as having been cited more than 100 times in Google Scholar according to the fields of knowledge in Figure 4-1 (Appendix D). The papers extended across a wide spectrum of basic to applied fields needed for the generation and application of environmental knowledge; only the field of earth sciences was not covered. Some of the most common fields addressed by the papers were ecology, atmospheric sciences, climate sciences, human exposure and health effects, risk analysis, systems modeling and decision support, environmental economics, environmental engineering, and innovative risk management. The results of the
categorization of papers identified funding in fields that often provided a clear pathway toward protecting human health and the environment—including the development of innovative technology (for example, Lee and Sigmund 2003; Cao et al. 2005; Karnik et al. 2005), innovative methods for risk management (for example, Salzman et al. 2001; Cason and Gangadharan 2004; Weber and Matthews 2008; Plevin et al. 2010), and innovative methods for communication and public participation (for example, Anton et al. 2004; Gunningham, et al. 2005; Teisl et al. 2008).
The committee found that STAR’s distinguishing characteristics lie not in the research topic areas that it supports, but that the program is used strategically by EPA to address critical gaps in knowledge related to human and ecosystem health issues. This strategic focus is important because the challenges associated with environmental protection comprise many interacting factors, on various spatial and temporal scales, often characterized by being difficult to define, and socially complex (NRC 2012a). Therefore addressing those challenges requires multi-disciplinary research that strives to understand social, economic, and environmental drivers that inform the approaches needed to devise optimal solutions. STAR has been distinctively targeted on these research needs.
Two major STAR supported efforts that have been used by EPA to address critical knowledge gaps are the various Air Research Centers (Box 4-1) and the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research
Centers (Box 4-2). Both of these research endeavors began in response to a critical research need having been identified by Congress or Federal Executive Order and have evolved over time as a result of the changing understanding of these topic areas. For example, the Air Research Centers began with looking at the health effects of exposure to airborne particulate matter, then expanded to evaluating exposure-response relationships to different concentrations of particulate matter, multi-pollutant interaction (such as particulate matter and gaseous pollutants), and are now looking at the influence of broad factors on local air quality and health. The Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers began with examining at the influence of the chemical-physical environment on asthma and neurodevelopment, but over time many of the centers investigated new questions about possible relationships between environmental factors and other health outcomes such as obesity (NIEHS/EPA 2013). The flexibility of the STAR program allowed EPA to address these critical research gaps.
In addition to these large sustained efforts, STAR has been used by EPA to fill many other scientific knowledge gaps. An example occurred in 2006 when the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) recommended changing the indicator in the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) from PM10 (PM <10 µm) to PM10-2.5 (PM 10µm-2.5 µm) (CASAC 2006). However, significant uncertainties were identified in understanding the links between PM10-2.5 exposure and adverse health effects. As a result, EPA released a STAR RFA on the Source, Composition, and Health Effects of Coarse Particulate Matter in 2006, which awarded five grants which compared the heterogeneity, composition, sources and toxicity of PM10-2.5.
STAR research helped address scientific issues identified in an international public health effort in 2012. In 2010, the United Nation’s Alliance, with backing from the U.S. government, launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which aimed to foster the adaptation of clean cookstoves and fuels in 100 million households by 2020 (Martin et al. 2011). However, as more in-
vestment was being made in cookstove interventions, there were significant uncertainties about the feasibility of decreasing overall emissions and the real-world benefits of interventions for health and climate (Hanna et al. 2012). STAR responded to these questions with the 2012 RFA, Measurements and Modeling for Quantifying Air Quality and Climatic Impacts of Residential Biomass or Coal Combustion for Cooking, Heating, and Lighting. As a result of the RFA, STAR is currently funding 6 research teams led by U.S. institutions working with a variety of academic, community, and government organizations in Alaska, China, India, Nepal, Mongolia, Ghana, Uganda, and Honduras. This research aims to generate technologies that will inform global efforts to decrease the impacts of household air pollution on health and the role of climate on as a modifying factor. Moreover, understanding cookstoves and residential energy demands may help answer questions about broader issues of sustainable energy development and consumption in the United States and in the developing world (EPA 2015a).
STAR has also addressed how new and emerging technologies may impact human health and the environment. For example, in the early 2000s, as the use of engineered nanoparticles became more prevalent, STAR, in collaboration with other federal research programs, released several RFAs aimed at understanding the potential health effects of the new materials. From 2003 to 2015, STAR released 9 RFAs on this topic which supported 78 grants. The research funded by these grants has evaluated the impacts of engineered nanoparticles very broadly in different environments, such as soil, water (aquifers), the food chain, and wastewater, and how alterations in the chemistry of engineered nanoparticles influence the potential for adverse human health and ecosystem impacts (NRC 2013b; EPA 2017).
STAR also has addressed new technologies through the evaluation of air sensors for citizen science. Recently, low-cost, portable sensors to measure air pollutants have allowed individuals and community groups to measure concentrations of various air pollutants. While these sensors can potentially provide helpful information, the accuracy and durability of these sensors have not been widely tested in a community framework (Vallano et al. 2012). In response to this, EPA issued an RFA in 2014 titled Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities and awarded six grants which funded research teams to work with community groups to understand how low-cost, portable air sensors perform in real-world conditions.
The STAR program has addressed knowledge gaps that are identified on the basis of environmental emergencies. For example, after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in 2010, STAR released an RFA in 2011 on the environmental effects and mitigation of oil spills. EPA has awarded STAR research grants to strengthen public health and ecosystem protection from oil spill contaminants in the Gulf of Mexico. From this RFA, STAR funded four grants, all of which partnered with Gulf state universities. The research teams collaborated with affected communities who helped identify risks posed by oil spills and obtained their input in the design of their research strategy. The goal of this effort was to
minimize the risk of delays in treating oil spills and empower Gulf communities to participate in the decision-making process related to mitigation of environmental impacts.
The STAR program has also been used to address exposure science research needs and collaboration among agencies identified in the National Academies Exposure Science in the 21st Century report (NRC 2012b). The STAR program released an RFA that resulted in five grants related to New Methods in 21st Century Exposure Science in 2015. The research supported by these grants is focused on developing new methods to characterize exposure to chemicals associated with consumer products in indoor environments (EPA 2015b). This program is complementary to the much larger Exposure Biology and the Exposome program at NIEHS, which has generally focused on creating tools and research capacity for detection of biomarkers and wearable sensor technology (NIEHS 2016).
STAR announced an RFA on Indoor Air and Climate Change RFA announced in 2012 in response to the growing awareness that climate change may both introduce and worsen indoor environmental problems, and that there was a significant gap in knowledge between the intersection of indoor air quality, climate change, and health (IOM 2011). The research supported by the grants awarded under this RFA aims to develop more energy efficient designs and ways to adapt buildings to climatic changes.
To encourage small water systems (systems that serve 10,000 or fewer people) to try novel approaches to addressing drinking water challenges, STAR has released two RFAs focused on innovation in small drinking water systems, Research and Demonstration of Innovative Drinking Water Treatment Technologies in Small Systems (2011) and National Centers for Innovation in Small Drinking Water Systems (2013). Research and Demonstration of Innovative Drinking Water Treatment Technologies in Small Systems led to 11 different grants which aimed to develop technologies that are sustainable and able to treat or mitigate groups of contaminants or contaminant precursors in drinking water sources and systems. The RFA National Centers for Innovation in Small Drinking Water Systems led to the creation of two National Research Centers which aim to develop and demonstrate innovative technologies to better reduce, control, and eliminate chemical or microbial contaminants in small water systems (EPA 2016).
STAR research can also evaluate the possible adverse consequences of resource conservation practices aimed at environmental protection; in 2014, STAR released an RFA on human and ecologic health effects associated with water reuse and conservation practices. From this RFA, STAR awarded five grants; the goals of the grants are to measure health and ecological impacts of water conservation practices such as potable reuse and agricultural water reuse (EPA 2014).
The examples show how EPA uses the STAR program to address important environmental challenges facing the nation. While other federal agencies can and have supported research in disciplines and topic areas that are somewhat
similar to STAR, that research is often not directed toward addressing scientific questions related to clean air and drinking water, toxic substances, and ecosystem health. The ability of EPA to use STAR to address a variety of important research questions has decreased in recent years because STAR has not had the ability to release as many RFAs. In 2003, STAR released 12 individual investigator grant RFAs and one center RFA. In 2013 and 2014, STAR released five individual-investigator RFAs and two center RFAs each year. In 2015, it released only one individual-investigator RFA. Additionally, EPA reported instances in recent years where an RFA was developed, but grants were not awarded due to lack of available funds. Examples include an RFA titled “Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers: understanding environmental factors to improve children’s health in child care environments” (RFA developed in 2010 but never released), Developing the Next Generation of Air Quality Measurement Technology (RFA released in 2011, but cancelled during grant award phase), and Air Pollution Meteorology (RFA announced as upcoming on EPA website in 2012, but cancelled before applications were received). This lack of funding clearly limits the number of topics in which the STAR program can invest.
EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment allows the agency to identify address complex questions about human health and the environment. STAR has been used strategically to support multidisciplinary research which addresses these questions. However, given the declining budget of STAR noted above and in Chapter 1, its ability to support research is being diminished. For example, STAR has released fewer RFAs in recent years and thus not been able to address as many knowledge gaps. The committee is concerned this may impair our nation’s ability to tackle important persistent and emerging complex environmental challenges.
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