Science is essential to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) mission to protect human health and the environment. EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) provides the scientific bases for regulatory and public health policies that have broad impacts on the nation’s natural resources and quality of human life and that yield economic benefits and incur compliance costs for the regulated community. In addition, ORD develops the agency’s core research capabilities, providing tools and methods that can be applied to address complex environmental challenges. ORD research aids in the development of responses to emerging threats, provides scientific methods for ecological and human health risk assessment, and serves as a national and international resource for the advancement of environmental science. Those activities require the integration of scientific evidence across many disciplines including biology, chemistry, ecology, engineering, toxicology, air quality, water quality, exposure science, social science, and environmental health. Meeting the agency’s research needs is complicated by EPA’s regulatory role in often controversial policy decisions and challenged by ORD’s steadily declining budgets and workforce capacity.
As a part of fulfilling its role, ORD conducts innovative and forward-looking research that improves EPA’s capability of addressing emerging, complex environmental problems. It pursues that endeavor while meeting the need for reactive, problem-driven research to support EPA’s implementation of statutory requirements and other decision-making.
ORD recognizes that continued accomplishment of EPA’s mission requires research that anticipates the most challenging problems, develops and adapts emerging scientific tools, and identifies and implements innovative solutions. In that light, ORD asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to form a committee to identify emerging scientific and technological advances from across a broad range of disciplines, such as environmental monitoring and data science, that ORD should consider in its research planning to support EPA’s mission, provide advice on how ORD might strategically position its research and development enterprise to anticipate and respond to the future research needs of the agency, and consider advances that help EPA better incorporate systems thinking into interdisciplinary approaches.
The key challenges associated with environmental protection today are complex and affected by many interacting factors, requiring a host of new scientific tools and methods. Three of the key challenges facing EPA ORD—interconnected human and ecological risks, environmental justice and cumulative risk, and the health and environmental impacts of climate change (see Box S-1)—illustrate the need for a substantially broader and better integrated approach to environmental protection. Based on its review of those illustrative challenges and consideration of others, the committee has described and calls for EPA ORD to pursue all of its scientific aims in a new framework—to apply systems thinking to a One Environment−One Health approach in all aspects of ORD’s work. To accomplish this, the committee provides actionable recommendations on how ORD might consider incorporating emerging science and systems thinking into the agency’s research planning, so that ORD can become an increasingly impactful organization. Those actions include enhancing strategic planning and foresight significantly, integrating a culture of innovation throughout ORD; increasing collaboration with its external partners, expanding and improving the quality and accessibility of ORD’s communications and outreach; and enhancing the integration of scientific and technological advances and innovative approaches through leadership, its people, and the effective application of resources. And in recognition that there has been an emergence in recent years of a broad range of advanced tools, including radically enhanced sensors and other means to assess exposure, new genetic and analytical tools to anticipate potential effects on human health and ecosystems, (starting at the molecular level), and rapidly evolving tools for analyzing and modeling massive amounts of data, the committee has identified a
number of high-priority recommendations for ORD to pursue in taking advantage of those advances, in concert with collaborators in other federal agencies and the broader scientific community.
A ONE ENVIRONMENT–ONE HEALTH APPROACH FOR ORD
The challenges presented in Box S-1 are illustrative of complex and multi-dimensional problems that are better addressed through systems-level thinking and application of new technologies. In the context of environmental research and decision-making, systems thinking is a holistic, scientific approach to environmental issues that involves consideration of complex interactions and feedbacks between the environment and society at multiple spatial and temporal scales, often across multiple levels of organization from molecules to organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems. A systems-based approach can lead to emergent solutions to problems that would not have been identified through a more narrowly drawn pollutant-by-pollutant approach, and it facilitates an understanding of the broader impacts of the solution to be implemented.
The committee has found that while systems thinking is a critical component, it needs to be implemented in concert with a One Environment–One Health approach. One Environment–One Health builds on the strong base built by the public health communities for One Health (which integrates the interactions between human and animal health) but expands it to provide a comprehensive ecological and human framework to enhance ORD’s scientific capability for considering the complex interactions among environmental, social, and economic systems in support of EPA’s mission. In setting priorities for the pursuit of the most important scientific capabilities, ORD will need to consider tools and approaches for clarifying the multiple ways in which societal activities are sources of significant environmental stressors; the multiple paths by which exposures from those stressors can occur to humans and other organisms; and the effects of those exposures at the cellular, organismal, population, community, and ecosystem levels. At the same time of course, such a comprehensive assessment may identify many possible directions for the next stage of research, not all of which can be pursued. But having taken a systematic approach to the full range of stressors and community impacts would best position ORD to systematically identify the highest-priority research to be pursued.
EPA has begun to consider a broadened view of the One Health approach developed by public health communities and folded a number of its existing initiatives under this umbrella. The One Environment–One Health framework (see Figure S-1) can help ORD integrate the One Health concept into the research context in which it must do its work; enhance ORD’s scientific capability for considering the complex interactions among environmental, social, and economic systems; and lay the groundwork for continuing innovation and advances in support of EPA’s mission.
Recommendation S-1: ORD should extensively incorporate a systems-thinking One Environment –One Health approach into providing environmental protection science to address current and future challenges. Incorporating that approach will require a number of actions to ensure that ORD not only effectively supports EPA in carrying out its environmental protection roles but leads the agency toward better anticipating what integrative science capabilities will be needed to meet environmental challenges of the future. (See Chapter 3.)
INTEGRATING SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES INTO THE EPA SCIENTIFIC ENTERPRISE
So that it is better able to provide the science EPA needs, the committee identified major actions ORD should take to ensure that it can implement systems thinking for a One Environment–One Health approach in the most effective way.
Enhanced Strategic Planning
Each of ORD’s six national research programs develops a Strategic Research Action Plan (StRAP) to organize its research efforts over the ensuing 4 years and beyond. The strategic directions and outputs identified in each of the six StRAPs serve as planning guides for ORD’s four centers to design specific research products to address partner and stakeholder needs. ORD engages with EPA’s programs and regional offices and external partners during the development of the StRAPs.
The rapid pace of scientific developments, the increasing transparency and availability of data, and the growing recognition that individual health and environmental problems are themselves subsets of larger, systemic-related challenges all point to the need for rethinking—and reimagining—the strategic planning process. This consideration will require conducting planning over a longer time horizon and with enhanced stakeholder involvement. In its newest StRAPs, EPA has taken first steps to integrate across the specific StRAPs to address cross-cutting themes. The committee identifies a series of further enhancements that could better apply systems thinking to a One Environment–One Health approach.
Recommendation S-2: To strengthen future research, ORD should continue providing data to inform regulatory decision-making. Simultaneously, ORD should build on its valuable StRAPs process to adopt a broader, proactive stakeholder model of research planning and management than is used in its current development processes for StRAPs. (See Chapter 3.)
Recommendation S-3: At the mid-point in the period of each StRAP’s existence, the relevant ORD national program director should establish a strategic foresight assessment team that evaluates emerging factors and trends, which may have an important bearing on EPA’s decision-making for protecting human health and the environment. The assessment team should aim to identify emerging, over-the-horizon issues (5-10 years into the future) which the national program director could use for developing preliminary assessments that lead to hypothesis formulation and targeted, early-stage research investments. The assessment team could involve foresight experts from outside the agency, if needed. (See Chapter 3.)
Integrating Innovation into ORD
Innovation comprises a set of structured and more informal relationships within a supportive network of institutional relationships, resources, and personnel comprising a highly diverse set of skills. Although it has historically developed a number of innovative research initiatives, ORD often lacks consistency or larger-scale planning in how it approaches research design or investments for innovation.
Recommendation S-4: ORD should re-energize the role of innovation and expand its capacity for innovation to better support EPA’s mission. ORD should create and maintain an innovation network that embodies both hardware and software advancements, management system improvements, systems thinking, and multi-institutional collaboration for research and development of scientific tools for direct application to newly emerging health and environmental priorities. (See Chapter 4 for a discussion of additional attributes.)
While ORD has a history of collaboration with external research partners, the increased pace and scale of health and environmental challenges present the need for ORD to reconceptualize its approach to collaboration. By leveraging the talents and assets of a broad set of experienced partners, ORD can partly compensate for the limited resources and personnel that ORD has available, and more effectively provide scientific information, assessments, and technologies for problem identification and solutions development.
Recommendation S-5: ORD leadership should create the expectation that collaboration represents a core feature of how ORD will provide support to EPA in carrying out its mission. ORD should institute an approach to research collaboration that expands and strengthens collaboration with its partners, establishing shared goals, and enabling and fostering open innovation toward achieving them. (See Chapter 4 for a discussion of additional attributes of a reconceptualized approach to collaboration. See Box S-2 for a list of areas of ORD collaboration that are included in recommendations provided in Chapter 5.)
Science communication performs a significant role in the rebuilding of public confidence in nonpartisan, high-quality, EPA-funded science and is a critical component to addressing high-priority public health and environmental problems. ORD faces a daily challenge to communicate effectively to the scientific community, stakeholders, and the general public on all aspects of science and its application to standard setting, enforcement, policy guidance, and other decisions. At the same time, the era of quick-reaction social media directly challenges the more deliberative pace of scientific inquiry, and most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in contemporary science debates on social media platforms. ORD’s current approach to scientific communications can be significantly improved through a multi-pronged effort to upgrade
communications skills and tools, including a full array of social media utilization and collaborations with other organizations to promote good science.
Recommendation S-6: ORD should develop and implement an organization-wide communications plan to expand awareness and understanding of its scientific results. The elements of such a plan include fostering an open science system for the benefit of the scientific community and the public. Each of ORD’s six national programs should develop a specific communication plan (a subset of the ORD-wide plan) relevant to expanding public awareness of their work. (See Chapter 4 for a discussion of communications planning.)
ACQUIRING AND APPLYING EMERGING TOOLS AND METHODS
There are a host of new and emerging tools and methods that will become increasingly important to the scientific impact of ORD in the years to come. The committee identified a number of scientific and technological advances that ORD should consider in its research planning under the topics of measurements to inform exposure assessments, biotechnology, participatory research, and data science and machine learning.
The tools and methods identified by the committee are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather illustrative of a range of advances ORD should consider in its research planning to support EPA’s mission. The committee recognizes that there are other new methods and tools that will emerge and require attention from ORD, and expects that its recommendations on strategic planning, innovation, and collaboration can provide the tools for evaluating and pursuing these other advances as they arise.
Measurements and Databases to Inform Exposure Assessments
Recent advances, including more portable instruments and new techniques in biological and environmental monitoring, present opportunities to develop more rapid, cost-effective, and relevant exposure assessments. Collection of better exposure data can provide more precise information regarding human and ecological risk estimates within a One Environment–One Health framework and lead to improved public-health and ecosystem protection, such as better characterization of high-risk populations, including pregnant women, children, older adults, and sensitive wildlife species.
Integrating Data from Remote Sensing and Surface Monitoring
Remote sensing refers to the use of sensor technologies on satellites or aircraft for detecting and monitoring characteristics of Earth’s surface, including its solid crust, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Upcoming satellite missions will provide air quality information for the conterminous United States at unprecedented spatial and temporal detail.1 EPA is a key partner in these missions. In addition, ground instruments combined with aircraft sensors and satellite sensors provide important estimates of greenhouse gas fluxes that could inform EPA’s national inventory as well as state and local inventories and mitigation efforts.
Realizing the full potential of surface monitoring networks and remote sensing data depends on their fusion and assimilation into statistical and mechanistic modeling frameworks.
1 The conterminous United States does not include Alaska and Hawaii.
Expanding the Use of Local-Scale and Personal Monitoring Data
Local-scale and personal monitoring is becoming increasingly sophisticated, enabling more-comprehensive assessment of exposure. Sensors for cardiovascular health, water contaminants, air pollutants, and other indicators will provide real-time and targeted monitoring. New developments in sensors to measure specific exposure biomarkers with lower limits of detection will provide an additional data stream for individuals and researchers to assess environmental exposure and risk. New applications are including the use of nontargeted analyses which involve the use of qualitative analytical techniques to provide information on unstudied or infrequently monitored pollutants in environmental media (air, water, and soil) and human biospecimens (such as blood and urine).
Recommendation S-8: ORD should expand its use of available data on stressor exposures collected from local-scale and personal exposure monitors to improve exposure and risk assessment for humans and ecosystems. This includes partnering with other agencies and nongovernmental organizations that fund and have expertise in researching and managing projects providing air and water exposure measurements for terrestrial and aquatic biota and humans at a community level. ORD should enhance its efforts to apply nontargeted analyses to such data to ensure that the broadest range of possible exposures of concern can be identified. (See Chapter 5.)
Developing a Water Quality Data System
EPA has a leadership role in developing analytical tools and methods for drinking water systems, ambient water, and ecosystem health, as well as maintaining relevant nationwide databases. Sufficient and robust data are critical for water research to inform future regulatory action and protection measures for drinking water and ambient water quality.
Recommendation S-9: ORD should collaborate with the U.S. Geological Survey and other organizations to develop a water quality system that integrates databases for public drinking water systems, domestic wells, and ambient water from across the United States to boost water surveillance and research nationwide. The development of an integrated, curated database that is continuously maintained for water quality monitoring and research should be a major goal of EPA in the coming years. EPA’s Air Quality System, which has played a major role in boosting air quality research in the last decades, could be used as a model for this effort. (See Chapter 5.)
An Integrated Database on Environmental Quality, Exposure, and Pollutant Toxicity
Large-scale observations of air quality, temperature, greenhouse gas concentrations, river flows, bio-logging of wildlife movements, temporal trends in LandSat data, and others can provide information valuable for addressing the major challenges described by the committee. In this era of big data, EPA has the opportunity to gain new insights into air and water quality, chemical exposures and hazards, and cumulative risk.
Recommendation S-10: ORD should play a major role in developing integrated databases with collaborating organizations, such as USDA, NOAA, and USGS, for water, air, and soil quality from across the United States; pollutant toxicity; exposure to humans and other organisms; human health data; and other parameters that are mission-relevant. Development of this integrated database will require, however, considerable planning for and implementation of capabilities that ORD is beginning to develop but will need to bring to a next level of expertise and capacity. (See Chapter 5.)
Biotechnology continues to evolve rapidly and it will likely be used for a variety of purposes that may include altering microorganisms to metabolize specific contaminants in waste sites, creating novel plants and organisms for a variety of purposes, including applications designed for the built and natural environment and many more uses that fall both under EPA’s regulatory purview and potential research areas within ORD. In the context of this discussion, “biotechnology” refers to methods, products, and processes other than selective breeding and sexually crossing organisms to produce new characteristics in organisms. It usually involves the introduction of or change in genetic information of plants, animals, or microorganisms for making or altering products or processes.
Advanced tools are becoming available for monitoring the distribution of genetically modified microorganisms in the open environment and the occurrence of the modified genetic materials outside of the host organism.
At its core, participatory research contributes to scientific knowledge, similar to institutionalized science. The main distinction being that researchers may not necessarily have obtained accredited formal research training from accredited institutions. Participatory research methods and the environmental justice movement have come to the central stage in environmental health sciences, with the recognition that community input and engagement are essential to address the major environmental injustice challenges affecting society, including investigation and mitigation strategies. Indigenous communities in the United States have developed a series of research codes and tools to regulate the collection and circulation of information about their members.
Big Data and Machine Learning
Machine learning is an application of artificial intelligence and computer science that uses data and algorithms to imitate human learning. Trained machine learning algorithms can be used as integrating tools for rapid assessment by decision-makers. Novel algorithms and tools could be developed for rapid predictions of the complex interactions between human systems and natural systems, and for assessing the compound climate-pandemic health risks, including among low socioeconomic status communities.
Recommendation S-13: To improve modeling of the complex interactions across human and natural systems and across different spatial and temporal scales, ORD should utilize recent advances in causal approaches and machine learning models, and leverage the machine learning capabilities of existing supercomputing facilities at government agencies, universities, and other organizations. In addition, it should continue to develop in-house computational, analytical, and data storage capabilities for managing diverse datasets. ORD should foster the development of collaborative machine learning frameworks that train algorithms to integrate diverse datasets rapidly for use in assessing combined risks from different stressors. (See Chapter 5 for additional discussion of approaches.)
ENHANCED INTEGRATION OF SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES INTO ORD
The success of ORD in integrating scientific and technological advances into its research and development enterprise depends on strong support from EPA leadership and involvement of personnel from agency program offices and regional offices in the planning and implementation of research, as well as the adaptation of research results.
Recommendation S-14: To ensure an inclusive, agency-wide approach to the integration of scientific and technological advances, EPA leadership should consistently involve the Assistant Administrator for ORD and Chief Scientist as active participants in agency decision-making. Those efforts also should include active representation of EPA national program and regional managers in the stages of early planning through to the science implementation and regulatory applications. (See Chapter 4.)
Workforce for Science and Innovation
ORD is a global leader in environmental science, with outstanding scientific personnel. However, most of the science staff is trained in traditional disciplines in biological and other natural sciences. Science to support EPA’s mission in the future will require a greater mix of disciplines, reflecting rapidly evolving needs for expertise. In addition, research in support of environmental decision-making is most effective when scientists, stakeholders, and decision-makers collaborate to develop research priorities that jointly reflect the sociological, psychological, ecological, and political context of environmental problems.
Recommendation S-15: ORD should conduct an evaluation of current and future scientific staff needs, including the greater diversity of disciplines to address the social, ecological, public health,
and data sciences to better account for pollution sources and risk factors such as location, demography, income, gender, race, and education. (See Chapter 4.)
Recommendation S-16: ORD should further enhance its efforts in acquiring and building staff skills in the social and behavioral sciences. ORD should engage those scientists at every stage of the scientific enterprise, including the application of systems-thinking methods internally and externally as a part of planning solutions-driven research and understanding the systems impacts of the solutions implemented. (See Chapter 3.)
Recommendation S-17: ORD should enhance and maintain expertise in the areas of analytical chemistry (for nontargeted analyses) and data science and modeling to supplement its existing strengths in human toxicology, ecotoxicology, and exposure science. It should also develop and maintain enough expertise in areas, such as biotechnology and epidemiology, to provide the agency with competent scientific guidance and identify collaboration opportunities, including grants that leverage expertise outside EPA. (See Chapter 4.)
Recommendation S-18: ORD should review and identify data management infrastructure needs. It should maintain and enhance expertise enabling it to take full advantage of data management technologies as well as strengthening and leveraging partnerships with organizations across the network of state and local agencies, researchers, and other experts from public and private sectors, including academic institutions. (See Chapter 5.)
Identifying Strategic Resources for the Future of EPA Science
ORD has had a steep decline in total funding, personnel, and the amount of extramural research support it can provide. Current funding levels and continual uncertainty about future funding restrict ORD’s capacity to provide critical science support to EPA for addressing future environmental threats.
Reductions to the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program have significantly limited ORD’s ability to make initial investments in the most cutting-edge science for which ORD does not currently have in-house capability. The transfer of the STAR fellowships to other agencies has limited ORD’s ability to train, develop, and recruit emerging science leaders.
Funding limitations also undermine ORD’s ability to develop and maintain the computing capabilities and related infrastructure for data management which will become increasingly critical as machine learning and the ability to analyze big data grow in scientific and policy importance.
Recommendation S-19: Strategic planning for meeting the needs for EPA science in the coming years should include a strategic analysis of ORD resource needs for the future, including workforce development; intramural and extramural research support, emergency response capabilities, regulatory program support, and computing and other information technology resources. (See Chapter 4.)
In this report, the committee has described a new, more comprehensive approach to guide all of ORD’s efforts: the application of systems thinking to a One Environment–One Health approach. The committee has also identified a number of ways in which ORD can and should rethink and reinvigorate its efforts to identify and use advanced tools and methods in support of EPA, amid rapidly changing environmental conditions.
Shifting to a more extensive application of systems thinking will require a commitment to science leadership, enhancing substantially its approach to strategic planning, investment in new and broader expertise and tools, and a reimagined and inclusive commitment to communication and collaboration.
The committee also recognizes that it is calling on ORD to make these important, proactive investments during a trend of diminishing resources and the need to provide support to fulfill EPA’s ongoing responsibilities to implement specific statutory mandates. The committee encourages both EPA leadership and the broader government to seek opportunities to enhance those resources so that ORD is able to provide the best science in support of every element of the agency’s environmental protection efforts.
At the same time, given the resource constraints, the committee recognizes that ORD will have to make decisions about priorities for implementing its recommendations, and that ORD leadership is in the best position to set those priorities as implementation begins. The committee would suggest, however, that those priorities be part of a multi-year plan of implementation, so that both the near-term and longer-term improvements can be tracked and accomplished. For example, ORD is moving in the near term to add new expertise in the social and behavioral sciences; but having just completed the latest round of StRAPs (for 2023-2026) ORD would not need to launch a whole new StRAP process immediately. Rather ORD could in the near term focus on building the strategic foresight capability, while making the wider strategic plan revisions the committee recommends as it begins it next StRAP cycle in a few years’ time.
Above all, implementing the changes that the committee recommends—applying systems thinking to a One Environment–One Health Approach—will require insightful and sustained leadership from ORD and, ultimately, EPA as a whole. While a number of the committee’s recommendations can begin to be implemented in incremental fashion, successfully revamping ORD’s approach to innovative and anticipatory research will require ORD to revolutionize the way it operates, making sustained, progressive improvements each year and in each strategic planning cycle. The result will build on ORD’s already substantial contributions to ensure that its science is ahead of the curve, and its science voice informs all of EPA’s efforts to tackle the environmental challenges it will face for decades to come.