Our nation is confronted with old and new environmental challenges that require strategic investigation and better integration between the health, ecologic, economic, and social sciences (Samet et al. 2017). The present report has shown that through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created a vehicle that fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing, which have produced research that has supported interventions that protect public health. STAR allows academic and nonprofit institutions to use new ideas and methods to solve environmental problems; it stimulates a flow of new people into environmental-research careers, and it supports the continued robustness of environmental research (NRC 2012). The importance of research findings from STAR grants are expected to grow as the interdisciplinary nature of environmental problems gains wider recognition. EPA is not the only organization that reaps STAR’s benefits. Many other institutions that work directly or indirectly to protect human health and the environment also benefit. Two examples of other entities that STAR grants benefit are regulated industries that can use new technologies to more effectively reduce pollution at lower costs and state governments that can use improved environmental monitoring and modeling methods to meet Clean Air Act mandates.
The key findings and recommendations that the committee thinks will help STAR to remain an important research program are summarized below. They are organized by scientific merit, public benefits, and research priorities.
The committee found that the STAR program used procedures, for priority setting, soliciting, awarding, and administering grants support research of high scientific merit. Having compared STAR’s procedures with those of other research programs, the committee found no major deficiencies in the STAR’s procedures for priority-setting, development of requests for applications (RFAs), awarding of grants, or management of grant performance (Chapter 2). The priority-setting procedures for STAR are integrated within four of the EPA Office of Research and Development national programs; this allows STAR to be flexible in light of the nation’s changing research priorities and avoids duplication of EPA’s internal research. STAR was the only research program included in the
comparison that allowed neither submission of research topics by the general public nor submission of unsolicited proposals; this may limit the creativity of the program.
The committee’s review of the RFAs led it to note that the STAR program’s RFAs are generally of good quality and address a wide variety of topics. STAR has strong peer-review procedures, and it is a highly competitive program, with a median grant application award rate of 16% from 2003-2014 (Chapter 2). After peer review, EPA staff review grant applications for relevance to the intent of the RFA, but it is unclear whether applicants receive feedback on their applications’ relevance review.
Finding 1. EPA has high-quality procedures for priority-setting that allow STAR to be integrated within EPA’s research program.
- Recommendation 1. EPA should continue to use its procedures strategic planning and for setting priorities for STAR research. However, EPA should consider developing a mechanism to allow for public input to the STAR research agenda or the submission of unsolicited proposals.
Finding 2: STAR’s procedures to develop funding announcements and award grants ensure that the program sponsors research of high scientific merit.
- Recommendation 2. The STAR program should maintain the procedures that it has in place. However, it should provide comments to applicants whose applications were not awarded because of lack of relevance so that they can improve their ability to prepare future grant proposals.
The STAR program is productive. In 2003-2015, STAR awarded 541 individual-investigator grants, 53 center grants, and 800 fellowships (Chapter 1). From October 2002-April 2017, EPA reported there were 5,760 STAR journal publications that acknowledged STAR funding (Chapter 3). The committee found that STAR research is used by many organizations in developing decision documents, such as federal, state or local government documents, international guidelines, and documents of academic or nonprofit organizations, such as National Research Council reports and American Public Health Association guidelines. In 2012, at least 104 STAR-funded papers were cited in those documents. The committee found that STAR outputs and outcomes have led to numerous public benefits (Chapter 3). Some examples are the development of an environmental-science workforce, the development of human-resources and research infrastructure around the country nation, reduction in the costs of compliance with environmental regulation, provision of a scientific basis for decisions required to protect public health and the environment, and study of new methods to improve environmental management.
Support of Public-Health Decisions
STAR research results have supported numerous public-health decisions (Chapter 3). The STAR program supported several large initiatives focused on the human-health effects of air pollution, such as the Particulate Matter Centers, the Clean Air Research Centers, and now the Air, Climate, and Energy Centers. Studies supported by the centers have shown that increased exposure to air pollution leads to a decrease in life expectancy; examples include a followup of the Harvard Six Cities Study (Laden et al. 2006) and a large epidemiologic study of PM2.5 exposure and mortality in 51 US cities (Pope et al. 2009). The findings supported those of earlier research and led to the development of a more scientifically justified PM2.5 national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) (EPA 2012).
Another initiative that has had a major public-health impact is the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers. These STAR center grants are funded in partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and aim to evaluate the impacts of environmental exposures on child health and development. In 2016, a research project partially supported by a STAR grant recognized that infants could be exposed to arsenic through rice cereal (Karagas et al. 2016), and this recognition led the Food and Drug Administration to propose regulations to protect infant health (FDA 2016). Another example is the discovery by the University of Washington Children’s Center that farmworker children had increased exposure to the pesticide ingredient azinphos-methyl which is a neurotoxicant (Curl et al. 2002), which informed EPA’s decision to phase out the use of azinphos-methyl (EPA 2006).
Examples of STAR research to improve environmental management include experiments in market-based incentives to lower emissions, studies that evaluate the potential reduction in costs of pollution abatement (Anton et al. 2004), and auctions in which landowners and land sellers compete to obtain part of a fixed budget allocated by the regulator to subsidize pollution abatement (Cason and Gangadharan 2004).
Reducing the Cost of Compliance with Regulation
Some STAR research grants have led to reductions in the cost of complying with environmental regulations (Chapter 3). The cost reductions benefit regulated industries and states and localities that need to comply with environmental regulations. An example of STAR research that may benefit industry is the development of a tissue-based method for evaluating the thyroid effects of chemical exposures (Hutson et al. 2016); this may reduce the cost of chemical testing compared with animal-based approaches. STAR research has expanded the capability of air-pollution models by identifying key chemical species and reactions that occur in cloud droplets that lead to PM formation; the improved models reduce the costs of compliance with PM2.5 NAAQSs (Carlton et al. 2008). Another research project supported by STAR discovered a potentially cost-effective method for removing nitrate from drinking water (Berquist et al. 2016).
In 2003-2015, STAR awarded 800 graduate fellowships. Many former STAR fellows continued in environmental and environmental-health sciences careers. Of former STAR fellows who reported to EPA on their career trajectories, 34% in postdoctoral positions, 21% in teaching positions, 16% in research positions, 12% in the federal government, 5% in consulting firms, 4% in state, local, or tribal governments, 4% in private industry, and 3% in nonprofits. The committee found evidence that STAR fellows had produced high-quality science: it found in a Google Scholar search for STAR publications with more than 100 citations, that about one-fourth were at least partially supported by STAR fellowships (Chapter 3).
In FY 2014, the STAR program had grantees or fellows in all but two states (Vermont and South Dakota) (Chapter 3). Engagement with EPA in institutions throughout the United States has created communities of scientists and engineers working in the human health and environmental sciences that might not have existed without support from STAR grants. Research grants also help to improve facilities for data collection and analysis in the supported grantees’ institutions.
Tracking of Public Benefits of Research Supported by the Science to Achieve Results Program
Tracking of the public benefits of research is difficult; all research programs struggle with tracking and then attributing public benefits to specific research projects. One issue that made it difficult for the committee’s evaluation of STAR is that the EPA grantee project results Web site was not up to date. In many cases, annual or final reports for grants that had long been completed or were in operation for a number of years were unavailable (see Chapter 2). That may seem like a minor criticism, but the grantee project results site is used as a resource by academic researchers who are conducting literature reviews and to the public to understand the benefits of the STAR program’s research (Yuen et al. 2015).
STAR has made efforts to translate research results for a broader audience and to synthesize information on a given RFA topic by having investigators on different grants collaborate to create summary reports, but the efforts have been somewhat inconsistent (see Chapter 3). Relaying the overall benefits of the research could be strengthened if center grantees consistently created synthesis reports and held more public webinars to discuss their research results.
The committee acknowledges that many other research programs struggle with such challenges (see Chapter 3). Evaluations like the present one would be improved if there were more robust electronic databases that could be easily
searched to detect linkages between grants, fellowships, and public benefits. There have been advances throughout the federal government to mine existing data in reports, literature, administrative records, and so forth, to identify intermediate outcomes more effectively, to link federally funded projects to long-term effects, and to track career outcomes of graduate students supported by fellowships or graduate research assistantships. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has created the High Impacts Tracking System. The system loads progress reports and program officers’ notes about grants into a searchable system and allows structured tagging of outputs and effects. Another NIH example is RePARS, which permits automatic retrieval of sources of NIH funding of publications in any list, such as the bibliography of a National Academies report (Drew et al. 2016). Those efforts have recently been used to show the effects of the National Toxicology Program, for example, to evaluate the program’s impacts on a water-quality standard for hexavalent chromium in California (Xie et al. 2017). EPA could make strides in this regard by collaborating with other organizations.
EPA would benefit from working with other federal agencies that are advancing ways in which the value of research is communicated to the public. NIH has found that the links between research studies and benefits to human health are described best in stories or case studies that resonate with those outside the research community. EPA should consider reporting stories more prominently on its Web site and blogs. STAR should also consider requiring grantees to report the potential influence and public benefits of their awards as part of their final reports and even 5-10 years after their research has been completed.
The Fellowship Program
As discussed previously, the STAR fellowship program supported students who continued careers in environmental and environmental- health sciences. The STAR fellowship program was distinctive in that it covered both environmental and environmental-health research. The two other agencies that support predoctoral fellows will not fill the gap left by the discontinuation of the STAR program: National Science Foundation (NSF) training programs do not cover environmental health effects and are focused on basic science projects while NIH training programs are geared toward overall health sciences, not specifically the environment on human health. In addition, it appears that the move to centralize graduate fellowships in NSF has led to a large reduction in the support of students interested in environmental research. In 2017, after the STAR fellowship program was terminated, the number of NSF fellows in environmental science and ecologic research were essentially unchanged at 176, thus cancel-ling the STAR fellowship program resulted in many fewer fellowships in environmental and environmental health sciences (Chapter 1). The need for federally supported fellowship programs in the environmental arena is important as the United States is projected to have considerable human-resources needs in the science, engineering, and policy fields (NAS/NAE/IOM 2007).
Finding 3. The STAR program has generated research that has many public benefits. However, these public benefits are not consistently tracked and synthesized.
- Recommendation 3. The STAR program should partner with other federal agency efforts to improve communication of the benefits of its research to the public. In addition, EPA should update the grantee project results Web site.
Finding 4. The STAR fellowship program was critical for training future generations of scientists who pursue environmental careers.
- Recommendation 4. The STAR fellowship program should be restored to EPA given the continued and growing need for scientists in environmental research and management.
The committee found that STAR supports work in almost every field identified that contributes to environmental knowledge and capacity. The most common fields identified were the atmospheric sciences, climate sciences, ecology, environmental economics, environmental engineering, human exposure and health effects, risk analysis, systems modeling and decision support, and innovative risk management (Chapter 4). Many other federal research programs support scientific study in those fields. What distinguishes STAR from the other programs? The committee found that STAR’s distinguishing characteristics lie not in the research topics that it supports but in the fact that it is used strategically by EPA to address critical knowledge gaps that need to be filled to protect human and ecosystem health.
Examples of how EPA has used STAR to address knowledge gaps strategically or to respond to emerging challenges are numerous (Chapter 4). STAR has been called on to address human health and environmental concerns related to new technology, to address problems identified in the event of environmental disasters, and to evaluate potential consequences of resource-conservation technologies. Some recent examples are the release of RFAs that cover health effects of engineered nanoparticles, environmental effects and mitigation of oil spills after the Deepwater Horizon spill, and human and ecologic effects associated with water reuse and conservation practice (Chapter 4, Appendix C).
The ability of EPA to use STAR in those ways has declined in recent years; EPA has not had the ability to release as many STAR RFAs. In 2003, there were 12 STAR individual-investigator grant RFAs and one center RFA. In each of 2013 and 2014, there were five individual-investigator STAR RFAs and two center STAR RFAs. In 2015, EPA released only one individual-investigator STAR RFA. The reduction in RFAs limits the number of topics in which the EPA is investing in through the STAR program.
Finding 5. STAR plays a distinctive role in the nation’s overall environmental-research portfolio.
- Recommendation 5. The committee recommends that EPA continue to use STAR to respond to the nation’s emerging environmental challenges.
The STAR program was born out of the need for EPA to have access to environmental researchers in academic and nonprofit organizations through extramurally funded projects, centers, and fellowships. STAR has had numerous successes, such as in research on human health implications of air pollution, on environmental effects on children’s health and well-being, on interactions between climate change and air quality, and on the human health implications of nanoparticles. Those are just a few examples; many more could be cited. As the committee looks to the future, it sees a pressing need for environmental research to address complex emerging and persistent environmental challenges. The STAR program supports research that is aimed at improving decision-making, problem detection, and problem-solving; it is an important mechanism through which the nation can gain the knowledge needed to respond to these challenges.
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