Report Evaluates Scientific Capabilities of the EPA

Report Evaluates Scientific Capabilities of the EPA
Wed, 09/05/2012 – 11:02am
National Academy of Sciences

The National Research Council‘s newest report released today, SCIENCE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: THE ROAD AHEAD, assesses the EPA’s capabilities to develop, obtain and use the best available new scientific and technological information and tools to meet challenges and opportunities across the agency’s programs.


The stated mission of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment. Since its formation in 1970, EPA has had a leadership role in developing many fields of environmental science and engineering. From ecology to health sciences and environmental engineering to analytic chemistry, EPA has performed, stimulated, and supported research; developed environmental education programs; supported regional science initiatives; supported safer technologies; and enhanced the scientific basis of informed decision-making. Science has always been an integral part of EPA’s mission and is essential for providing the best-quality foundation of agency decisions. Today the agency’s science is increasingly in the public eye, federal budgets are decreasing, and job creation and innovation are key national priorities.

In anticipation of future environmental science and engineering challenges and technologic advances, EPA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to assess the overall capabilities of the agency to develop, obtain, and use the best available scientific and technologic information and tools to meet persistent, emerging, and future mission challenges and opportunities. The NRC was also asked to identify and assess transitional options to strengthen the agency’s capability to pursue and use scientific information and tools. In response, the NRC convened the Committee on Science for EPA’s Future, which prepared the present report.

Environmental Challenges and Tools to Address Them

The committee’s report highlights a few persistent and emerging environmental challenges and tools and technologies to address them. Although the topics discussed in the report are only illustrative, the report provides specific examples and gives context to the committee’s discussion of a broader framework for building science for environmental protection in the 21st century. Having assessed  EPA’s current activities, the committee notes that EPA is well equipped to take advantage of many scientific and technologic advances and that, in fact, its scientists and engineers are leaders in some fields.

Current and Persistent Environmental Challenges

There has been substantial progress over the last few decades in lessening many of the obvious environmental problems, such as black smoke coming from smokestacks, stench arising from rivers,  and fish kills in US lakes. But the challenges associated with environmental protection today are  complex, affected by many interacting factors, and no less daunting. They are on various spatial scales, may unfold over long temporal scales, and may have global implications. The problems are sometimes called “wicked problems”, and are often characterized by being difficult to define, unstable, and socially complex; having no clear solution or end point; and extending beyond the understanding of one discipline or the responsibility of one organization. Although the committee cannot predict with certainty what new environmental problems EPA will face in the next 10 years or more, it can identify some of the common drivers and common characteristics of problems that are likely to occur. Some key features of persistent and future environmental drivers and challenges are complex feedback loops; the need to understand the effects of low-level exposures to numerous stressors as opposed to high-level exposures to individual stressors; the need to understand social, economic, and environmental drivers; and the need for systems thinking to devise optimal solutions.

The following are a few examples of persistent and emerging environmental challenges that pertain to EPA and its mission.

Chemical Exposures, Human Health, and the Environment. New chemicals continue to be  created and enter the environment. Understanding what chemicals are in the environment, concentrations at which people are being exposed, pathways through which they are being exposed, and how different chemicals and stressors interact with one another encompasses some of the persistent challenges that EPA faces. Another challenge is to continue to elucidate the many factors that can modify the health effects of exposure to chemicals and other stressors. The chemical, biologic, and physical characteristics of an agent, the genetic and behavioral attributes of a host, and the physical and social characteristics of the environment are all influential.

Air Pollution and Climate Change. Emissions of major air pollutants were dramatically reduced from 1990 to 2010. Much of that success resulted from the establishment and enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Despite substantial progress, the agency’s efforts to improve air quality continue to have high priority because the economic costs that air pollution impose on society remain high. The Clean Air Act and other statutory mandates give rise to the need for improved scientific and technical information on health exposures and effects, on ecologic exposures and effects, on ambient and emission monitoring techniques, on atmospheric chemistry and physics, and on pollution-prevention and emission-control methods for hundreds of pollutants present in both indoor and outdoor environments. EPA also faces the critical challenge of helping to find efficient and effective approaches to mitigating climate change and improving understanding of how to adapt environmental management in the face of climate change.

Water Quality. The availability of clean water is essential for human consumption, personal hygiene, agriculture, business practices, recreation, and other activities. National water-quality policy has been driven primarily by the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. With increasing demands on freshwater supplies, particularly in the more arid regions of the western United States, the challenges of providing freshwater are prominent today and will probably continue to be a concern in the future, especially as climate change alters water supply. Furthermore, water-quality challenges remain pressing, including the need to monitor and understand the transport and fate of contaminants, the need to maintain and update aging water-treatment infrastructure, and the need to address the persistent problem of nutrient pollution.

As progress has been made in solving local problems and as more has been learned about the health and environmental consequences of chronic low-dose exposures to diverse and disperse physical and chemical stressors, environmental science and engineering has begun to focus on impacts over wider geographic areas. The spatial and temporal scales required to understand emerging environmental issues vary widely, and the range is widening as more is learned about the systems and feedback loops underlying the observed phenomena. These large-scale problems require improved understanding of the fate and transport of contaminants on international and global scales and of options for coordinated solutions. Long-term monitoring is also needed to identify and track changes and problems that develop slowly.

Developing Tools and Technologies to Address Environmental Challenges

Supporting the development of leading-edge scientific methods, tools, and technologies is  critical for understanding environmental changes and their effects on human health and for identifying solutions. In addition, addressing the challenges of the future will require a more deliberate approach to systems thinking and interdisciplinary science, for example, by using frameworks that strive to characterize and integrate a broad array of interactions between humans and the environment. Although new tools and technologies can substantially improve the scientific basis of environmental policy and regulations, many of the new tools and technologies need to build on and enhance the current foundation of environmental science and engineering. Some tools and technologies that EPA has used or could use to address environmental and human health challenges are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Many advancing tools and technologies are being used to understand the transport and fate of chemicals in the environment, to understand the extent of human exposures, and to identify and predict the extent of potential toxic effects. For example, advances in separation and identification of nucleotides, proteins, and peptides and advances in spectrometric methods have enabled a better understanding of molecular-level biologic processes. Those types of tools are an integral part of EPA’s computational toxicology program and are being applied to the development of new approaches to assess and predict toxicity in vitro. Advances in biomonitoring, sensor technology, health tracking, and informatics are improving the understanding of individual exposures and associated health endpoints. If EPA is to continue this work, it will need to maintain and increase its expertise in such fields as toxicology, exposure science, epidemiology, molecular biology, information technology, bioinformatics, computer science, and statistical modeling.

Advances in remote sensing since the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972 are continuing to improve the understanding of contaminant sources, fate, and transport and the understanding and monitoring of landscape ecology and ecosystem services. Using remotely collected data effectively to gain information also requires advances in modeling of various components of the Earth’s biogeophysical systems, including improved techniques for data assimilation and modeling. As an example in the air-pollution arena, active sensors, such as satellite sensors and aircraft-mounted light detection and ranging sensors, can provide information on the vertical distribution of clouds and aerosols and can provide important spatial, temporal, and contextual information about the extent, duration, and transport paths of pollution. Remote sensing is also being used to monitor fugitive releases of methane, hazardous air pollutants, and volatile organic compounds from landfills and other diffuse or dispersed sources. What had been thought to be an excessively expensive monitoring challenge is proving financially and practically manageable.

Methods for identifying and quantifying chemicals, microorganisms, and microbial products in the environment continue to improve. For example, the most recent advances in the detection of microorganisms in water include quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods, which can be designed for any microorganism of interest because it is highly specific and quantitative. In addition to updating water-quality standards and addressing health studies and swimmer surveys, EPA has begun to use PCR techniques to understand coastal pollution, address polluted sediments, decrease response time for detecting polluted waters, and improve protection of public health on beaches and coastlines. Such advances as the deployment of quantitative PCR require linking biology, mathematics, health, the environment, and policy to support substantial interdisciplinary research focused on problem-solving and systems thinking.

New tools and technologies are collecting larger, more diverse sets of data on increasing spatial and temporal scales. Knowledge and expertise in such fields as computer science, information technology, environmental modeling, and remote sensing are necessary to collect, manage, analyze, and model those datasets. One method for collecting information across larger geographic spaces and over longer periods is public engagement. For example, during massive on-line collaborations, participants can be invited to help to develop a new technology, carry out a design task, propose policy solutions, or capture, systematize, or analyze large amounts of data. EPA is already exploring crowdsourcing and citizen-science approaches. Improving capabilities of managing and ensuring the quality of very large datasets acquired through public engagement holds promise for EPA to be able to gather and analyze large amounts of data and input inexpensively.

Using New Science to Drive Safer Technologies and Products

The tools and technologies for handling scientific data have generally been thought of in the context of refined risk-assessment processes. That use of scientific information is focused in large part on detailed and nuanced problem identification—that is, a holistic understanding of causes and mechanisms. Such work is important and valuable in understanding how toxicants and other stressors affect environmental health and ecosystems, and at times it is required by statute. However, the focus on problem identification sometimes occurs at the expense of efforts to use scientific tools to develop safer technologies and solutions. Defining problems without a comparable effort to find solutions can diminish the value of applied research efforts. Furthermore, if EPA’s actions lead to a change in a chemical, technology, or practice, there is a responsibility to understand alternatives and to support a path forward that is environmentally sound, technically feasible, and economically viable. EPA has taken global leadership in three fields of innovative solution-oriented science: pollution prevention, Design for the Environment, and green chemistry and engineering. That suite of programs reflects non-regulatory approaches that protect the environment and human health by designing or redesigning processes and products to reduce the use and release of toxic materials. The programs emphasize education and assistance, alignment of environmental protection with economic development, and strong partnerships between agencies, industry, nongovernment organizations, and academic institutions. They require expertise in traditional environmental science, but there is also a critical need for behavioral and social sciences in advancing the development and adoption of safer chemicals, materials, and products. The  data that the behavioral and social sciences provide are important inputs for characterizing and making the economic case for new technologies, for understanding business and consumer behavior, and for effecting behavioral changes so that innovations for safer materials reflect consumer preferences.

A link to the full report can be found at

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