The Office of Research and Development (ORD) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts research in support of the agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment. Providing that support involves conducting near-term research to inform the pressing decisions of EPA’s national programs (e.g., implementing federal laws related to human health and the environment) and responding to emergency situations. It also involves conducting forward-looking research to develop tools and methods for addressing long-term environmental challenges and providing the scientific basis for future environmental protection.
To inform future strategic planning, ORD requested that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) provide advice on scientific and technological capabilities that ORD might require for meeting current and future challenges EPA may face in fulfilling its mission. In addition, ORD requested that the National Academies provide advice on how it can best take advantage of advances in various fields of science and ongoing research for meeting current and future challenges. In response, the National Academies convened the Committee on Anticipatory Research for EPA’s Research and Development Enterprise to Inform Future Environmental Protection: The Road Ahead to identify emerging scientific and technological advances from across a broad range of disciplines that ORD should consider in its research planning. The committee was also asked to recommend how ORD might incorporate those advances into its research and development enterprise. The committee’s verbatim statement of task is provided in Box 1-1. Biosketches of the committee members, who prepared the present report, are provided in Appendix A.
In carrying out its task, the committee held 16 meetings, including information-gathering sessions to hear presentations from ORD officials. The committee also heard from academic researchers and representatives of various organizations, including those who have collaborated with ORD or may collaborate in the future, and members of the public (see Appendix B for meeting agendas). In addition, the committee received various written materials provided by ORD staff, resources on EPA’s website, peer-reviewed scientific literature (including previous National Academies’ reports), and reports issued by government agencies other than EPA and nongovernmental organizations. The input provided to the committee was useful in informing its assessment of major drivers of environmental change, characterizing some of the challenges of coming decades, identifying emerging tools and technologies that can be brought to bear on those challenges, and considering important ways ORD can marshal resources in and outside the agency to take advantage of those advances.
The committee’s report discusses a broad range of topics that reflect EPA’s scope to protect human health and the environment and the science that ORD needs to provide in support of the agency’s mission. Consistent with the committee’s statement of task, the report is forward-looking and focuses primarily on ORD’s role in conducting innovative and anticipatory research for addressing longer-term environmental challenges. Those considerations are made in the context of ORD’s other roles mentioned above. Also, consistent with the statement of task, the report is not intended to provide a retrospective evaluation of ORD’s research processes and products. Nor was the report intended to evaluate whether any changes to ORD’s existing structure of programs and centers are needed.
For the purpose of this report, the committee considers the term “anticipatory research” to refer to developing the forward-looking scientific tools, methods, and capacity for identifying and responding to environmental problems in support of EPA’s mission in the coming years. That perspective is consistent with the presentation by then Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science Policy Chris Frey to the committee in October 2021, during which he indicated innovations should be considered in broad terms.1 The committee uses the word “science” in this report in two distinctive ways. One refers to the processes—collectively called the scientific method—by which new information is generated (i.e., research). The second way refers to the body of knowledge produced by scientific methods—that is, the resulting data. In the context of planning and conducting environmental research, “systems thinking” refers to a holistic, rigorous scientific approach to environmental issues that considers 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. This concept is discussed in detail in Chapter 3.
The complex challenges that the report discusses are intended to be illustrative examples of the types of longer-term environmental challenges EPA faces now and could potentially face in the future and require the application of a host of scientific and technological approaches. It is important to note, however, that it was not the goal of this report to identify all the most important challenges. The report identifies and discusses many tools and methods that could help to solve current, persistent, and emerging environmental challenges, even while recognizing that there are likely to be additional areas of importance to future science.
In addition, the committee realizes that the recommendations EPA chooses to address will depend on its funding priorities and its plans on where to focus its efforts in the future. Therefore, the committee describes a framework that will help EPA to be better prepared to provide environmental protection science in the future.
Chapter 2 discusses the structure and function of ORD, its capacity for and constraints on incorporating new and emerging advances, and advice provided to ORD by previous advisory committees with respect to the pursuit of system thinking approaches. Chapter 3 discusses several long-term environmental
1 Chris Frey (EPA), presentation to the committee on October 6, 2021.
problems to illustrate some of the complex challenges EPA is facing and provides an overarching framework against which ORD can judge what science and approaches will be of most benefit, lay the groundwork for continuing innovation and advances, and provide a way in which EPA could incorporate systems thinking into multimedia, interdisciplinary approaches. Chapter 4 recommends how ORD might integrate scientific and technical advances into its science enterprise. Chapter 5 focuses on new and emerging scientific tools and methods that ORD could use to address those and other challenges over the next few decades. Chapter 6 considers the path ahead for enhanced forward-looking science.
NRC (National Research Council). 2012. Science for Environmental Protection: The Road Ahead. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13510.