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Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1991. Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2000.

Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development


This report provides an overview of several fundamental issues and priorities in applied environmental research and development. Specifically, it identifies detailed topics for investigation in the following four areas:

  • Waste reduction.

  • Ecosystem and landscape change.

  • Anticipatory research.

  • Long-term chemical toxicity.

Research topics in each area were developed in a series of four workshops during 1989; the selection of workshop topics and participants and the identification of themes and issues were carried out by the National Research Council's Committee on Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development. This report, in part, attempts a look into the future—which not all persons see with equal definition and clarity. This report is a summary of the joint expert opinions of specialists in several fields. Only the first section of this document is the report of the committee; the appendices seek to capture the broader range of ideas suggested during workshop meetings.

As a matter of historical policy, research supported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been linked closely to its mission. In 1981, the chairman and staff director of a congressional research oversight subcommittee expressed this principle as follows:

One of our fundamental premises is that EPA should conduct or fund only such research activities as will support its mission. That mission ... is well defined [by federal statutes], and the need is to translate legislated regulatory objectives into criteria for managing research .... The problems facing the agency exist now; so the question for EPA research managers becomes . . . how to plan and operate a program that will be supportive of the immediate agency mission. (Brown and Byerly, 1981)

Although these authors acknowledged the need for more basic research and argued strongly against tying research too closely to the mediate needs of EPA's regulatory programs, the intent of Congress at that time was to restrict EPA's research program to support of its current regulatory agenda. That approach tended to prevent anticipation of new environmental problems and to rule out research on emergent environmental problems that were not yet the subject of regulatory attention, research on alternative policies and incentives for environmental protection other than those specified in existing regulatory statutes, and research on topics that were not advocated by EPA's regulatory program managers.

EPA's research program has also been heavily influenced by the exigencies of the annual budget process. Over the years, research has commonly been the EPA budgetary element that is funded last and reduced first, and research funding was cut severely over the past decade (EPA, 1988). This pattern of giving low priority to funding research has produced serious unpredictability and has disrupted the year-to-year continuity that is necessary to produce good research. Investigator-initiated requests for grants, a key instrument for supporting innovative research by the broader environmental research community and for training new environmental professionals and researchers, must compete with the EPA's pressures to maintain its in-house laboratories. A substantial portion of the modest funding

Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1991. Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2000.

allocated to extramural research is often used to support contractors who work for EPA laboratories, rather than researchers in university-based programs. What increases have occurred in EPA's research budget have frequently been targeted for programs on high-visibility issues—such as acid rain, hazardous waste site cleanups, and the greenhouse effect. Although these issues are important, they are no substitute for a balanced and sustained research program.

In the spring of 1987, EPA Administrator Lee Thomas requested the EPA Science Advisory Board's (SAB's) advice on ways to improve strategic research planning in the agency. The board appointed a research strategies committee, which was chaired by former Deputy Administrator Alvin Alm and included five subcommittees on major research subjects. The committee completed its report in September 1988. This report, entitled Future Risk: Research Strategies for the 1990s (EPA, 1988), found that EPA's research priorities had been dominated by regulatory imperatives and pollution control technologies. The committee concluded that future research priorities at EPA should be directed more broadly to the prevention or reduction of environmental risks (EPA, 1988): ''EPA's R&D program has to be expanded and reoriented to include much more basic, long-term research not necessarily fled to the immediate regulatory needs of EPA's program offices.'

Specifically, the SAB committee made 10 recommendations for EPA's research program, including new emphasis on pollution prevention and waste reduction at its sources, anticipation of new environmental problems (not just regulatory support for known problems), a national core program for ecological research and monitoring improved understanding of human exposures to pollutants, epidemiological research, and improved education and training for environmental scientists and engineers and for society as a whole.

In September 1988, the National Research Council (NRC) established a Committee on Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development at the request of EPA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The committee's charge was to identify and evaluate important needs, opportunities, and capabilities in applied environmental research and development and to conduct up to four workshops on selected topics to augment the work of the research strategies committee of EPA's SAB.

The committee devoted substantial effort from the outset to identify previous studies related to its charge and to selecting topics for workshops. Over the two decades of EPA's existence, numerous studies on environmental research needs have been carried out by the NRC, by other agencies, and by EPA itself (NRC, 1975a,b, 1977a,b,c,d, 1985, 1986; EPA, 1980, 1987, 1988; CEQ, 1985; GAO, 1979, 1987, 1988; NIEHS, 1988).

The present committee developed a list of over a dozen possible research topics for workshops. It also solicited suggestions from members of NRC commissions, boards, and staff, the sponsoring agencies (EPA, NIEHS, and ATSDR), EPA's Science Advisory Board and its research strategies committee, and other colleagues. In October 1988, the committee sponsored a public briefing by the SAB research strategies committee, to which it invited more than 50 other environmental scientists and representatives of business, government, academe, and other or organizations to assist it further in identifying topics.

The committee eventually selected four subject. Three were chosen initially for workshops: waste reduction (with emphasis on research needs in applied social sciences, engineering aspects having already been considered in recent workshops), ecosystem level risk assessment (later called ecosystem and landscape change), and anticipatory research (to


The BEST committee discussed environmental epidemiology at length, but did not choose it as a subject of a workshop. A previous NRC committee had recommended that EPA establish a program of epidemiological research as an element of long-term research on air pollution (NRC, 1985), and the research strategies committee reached a similar conclusion. The BEST committee considered carefully what additional recommendations it might make to strengthen EPA's presence in epidemiological research. It agreed with the finding of the earlier NRC committee and the Research Strategies Committee that a strong epidemiological research program is essential to EPA's mandate; this need was reiterated by

Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1991. Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2000.
Page 1
Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 1991. Opportunities in Applied Environmental Research and Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2000.
Page 2
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Research is the foundation of environmental protection. This volume reviews four areas of opportunity in applied environmental research and development: waste reduction, ecosystem and landscape change, anticipatory research, and long-term chemical toxicity. It presents the consensus of workshops held to explore these four areas as well as an introductory chapter that summarizes the committee's view of environmental research and development.


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