ORD’s Approach to Providing Forward-Looking Science
The committee’s task is to identify emerging scientific and technological advances that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Research and Development (ORD) should consider in its research planning. In addition, it is to recommend how ORD could best take advantage of those advances to meet current and future challenges. To provide context for addressing those two elements later in the report, this chapter describes the functions ORD performs within EPA and discusses internal and external factors that affect ORD’s capacity to conduct innovative and anticipatory research to identify and address loner-term environmental challenges. Also, in response to its charge, this chapter discusses advice provided to ORD in past reports concerning forward-looking science.
OVERVIEW OF ORD AND ITS FUNCTIONS
Science is essential to the mission of EPA. Since its establishment in 1970, EPA has invested in and expanded the scientific foundation for implementing its core mission of protecting human health and the environment. EPA carries out the mandates of the national environmental statutes by developing regulations and ensuring compliance, and issuing policies and guidelines, in coordination with state, tribal, and local governments. Those activities require the integration of scientific evidence across many disciplines. The role of providing science in support of regulatory decision-making presents challenges. EPA science and scientific assessments inform regulations that can have broad impacts on the nation’s natural resources and quality of human life and that incur compliance costs for the regulated community.
The EPA workforce has varied scientific expertise, as each regulatory program office of the agency’s headquarters is staffed with scientists trained in relevant disciplines including biology, chemistry, ecology, engineering, toxicology, air quality, water quality, exposure science, social science, and environmental health. The program offices’ main use of science is to inform regulatory decisions related to carrying out statutory mandates. ORD is the primary home for research at EPA, intended to support the agency’s mission by providing scientific information, advanced tools, and technical solutions for meeting environmental challenges. Guided by a presidentially appointed Assistant Administrator (AA) and career Deputy AA, Chief Science Officer, and others on a senior leadership team, ORD provides direction, coordination, workforce expertise, laboratory capacity, and other resources for
- Research that addresses emerging and long-term environmental challenges, provides the scientific basis for future environmental protection, and is applied to a range of needs of EPA program offices and regional offices;
- Targeted research to support agency efforts for meeting statutory requirements and assisting states, tribes, and communities in addressing environmental challenges; and
- Technical support for responding to emergencies and other environmental issues.
In addition to research conducted within EPA, relevant research is conducted outside the agency by academia, nonprofit organizations, industry, consultants, and other government agencies and institutions. Historically, ORD provided broad funding for extramural research including competitive investigator-initiated grants and cooperative agreements. These efforts have declined over time due to reduced funding.
ORD’s research portfolio has a broad reach in order to address the multiple research and scientific needs of EPA program and regional offices; state, tribal, and local governments; and other organizations. ORD has six national research programs that track with the support needs of EPA’s program offices (see Box 2-1). The research of ORD is primarily performed by four centers across the six research programs mentioned above, as well as through limited extramural programs. These centers (see Box 2-1) include facilities at 12 locations, including human health and ecosystems laboratories. They are multi-disciplinary and include capabilities in traditional bench sciences, modeling and computational sciences, social sciences, public health, and risk sciences.
The Immediate Office of the Assistant Administrator provides guidance and direction for the agency’s research and development (R&D) efforts. Three offices within ORD support the research programs and centers and coordinate with other parts of EPA:
- Office of Resource Management provides ORD with resource management support and services, including budget formulation and execution.
- Office of Science Information Management provides tools, processes, and services for research projects, planning, collaboration, and quality control.
- Office of the Science Advisor, Policy, and Engagement integrates and coordinates science across ORD and the agency.
ORD conducts research in its in-house laboratories and funds extramural research at academic institutions and other organizations. It has a number of mechanisms available for extramural funding, including interagency agreements, contracts, grants, and cooperative agreements. The Extramural Research & Partnerships Division leads and coordinates ORD’s extramural research grants and partnerships with EPA’s programs and regions, tribes, other federal agencies, and key external stakeholders.1 The Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program is a competitive, peer-reviewed, extramural research program that provides agency engagement with scientists and engineers in academic and other nonprofit research institutions. Research grant areas include issues related to climate change, ecosystems, human health, safer chemicals, sustainability, and water.2 Until 2016, STAR provided graduate fellowships for master’s and Ph.D. students and funding for research pertaining to human health and the environment. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs and activities throughout the federal government were consolidated in the 2016 budget; the resources for the STAR fellowships were redirected to the National Science Foundation (NSF).
ORD was reorganized in 2019, for the first time in 25 years.3 The reorganization reflects the changing nature of environmental challenges, the shift toward a systems approach to research, and an effort to reapply existing resources in the most efficient way possible. The resulting matrix framework of national research programs and centers is responsive to EPA’s research needs and facilitates cross-media and cross-disciplinary research, including a bridging of human health and ecosystems science.
All ORD national research programs are supported by a communications office that disseminates research findings and accomplishments and explains how research results can be put into practice or use (translation). The communications office coordinates with the Office of the Administrator and the EPA national program offices. ORD communications staff work with researchers for media outreach to develop news releases for major reports, investigations, or emergency actions. ORD communications staff also offers an online biweekly EPA Science Matters Newsletter highlighting research findings and accomplishments, as well as podcasts and regular social media messaging.
ORD has a tremendous range of functions that require balancing of reactive, applied research with forward-looking research: meeting both the immediate needs of the agency and the future challenges to environmental health. Above and beyond its traditional activities in support of EPA environmental protection programs, the agency today faces complex challenges that impact both human and ecological health. Described as “wicked” problems (NRC, 2012), they are difficult to define, socially complex, and extend beyond the understanding of any single scientific discipline. Those challenges place growing demands on EPA to investigate other emerging problems while responding to statutory mandates (e.g., under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act) and shifting political priorities. The challenges do not fit neatly into the single-medium, statute-driven structure of the EPA regulatory program offices. They require a cross-agency, cross-media multi-disciplinary systems approach.
1 See https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/about-extramural-research-and-partnerships-division.
2 See https://www.epa.gov/research-grants.
3 See https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/documents/ord_strategic_plan_2018-22_update_7-21-20_dh.pdf.
Table 2-1 presents a list of ORD functions that is not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide an overview of roles and responsibilities, along with examples of the products and applications of ORD research. The range of functions listed in the table reflects the broad reach of ORD research and illustrates the various roles of responding to immediate agency needs and maintaining a forward-looking research capacity to stay at the cutting edge of science and prepare the agency for the future. This tension is exacerbated by the unique challenges of research in a regulatory agency for providing science to support often-controversial policy decisions that can impose costs on regulated entities.
TABLE 2-1 Selected ORD Research Functions
|Provide and maintain the science infrastructure, research capacity, and workforce expertise for the agency.||
|Support the science needs of regulatory programs including the Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Water, Office of Land and Emergency Management, and Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.||
|Provide scientific support for EPA response to environmental emergencies from local to international scales.||
|Develop new analytical methods for measurement of environmental pollutants and human exposure.||
|Develop innovative methods and applications for emerging environmental challenges.||
|Develop frameworks and guidance documents for conducting human health and ecological assessments.||
|Support EPA science at the regional and state levels.||
|Support and collaborate with research partners in academia and business.||
|Coordinate with other federal science agencies, including U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Geological Survey.||
|Convene scientific experts for technical advice and strategic planning of research programs and priorities.||
|Participate in the broader scientific community to advance research, present research findings, and encourage collaboration and adaptation of EPA science.||
ORD’s role in the past, present, and future—as a provider of scientific content—is likely to remain constant. What is significantly changing, however, is the increasingly diverse range of consumers of the information it generates. Historically, ORD has focused on developing a scientific basis for environmental regulatory decisions. Its clients in the regulatory program offices (e.g., air, water, waste) yielded great influence over ORD’s research agenda and the resources allocated to address specific, policy-relevant, scientific needs. This ORD–program office relationship will, and undoubtedly should, continue to fulfill EPA’s ongoing responsibilities to implement specific statutory mandates, many of which require a scientific base to guide policy-making and enable the agency to withstand legal challenges.
While paramount in previous decades, the ORD–program office relationship has never exclusively defined the generation or application of science within EPA. There have been numerous instances where the skills of ORD scientists, in collaboration with external research partners, have addressed critical national and international needs with a mix of nonregulatory and regulatory aspects. For example, the April 2010 explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico compelled the investment of significant ORD resources to assess the extent of the damage to human health and both marine and freshwater ecosystems.
As another example, the series of wildfires in the American West during the past decade have transported air pollution great distances across state and international boundaries and required assessments of the level of health and ecological risks. Recent research also indicates that wildfires on the West Coast might strengthen storms in the central United States (Zhang et al., 2022). The greater frequency, intensity, and likely persistence of wildfires mediated through climate change establish them as a major, nonregulatory pollution source category of importance to future ORD research.
A third example is the continuing degradation of U.S. drinking water infrastructure, which necessitates evaluation of the potential for both acute and chronic health risks from contaminated drinking water across the nation. This problem provides a clear illustration of the benefit of ORD’s research agenda evolving beyond mere assessment of adverse health effects of individual chemicals to include a broader systems approach to upstream risks that threaten access to safe drinking water supplies. The two issues—assessment of risks and understanding of how they proliferate across the drinking water system—are inseparable and, when fully integrated, can lead to effective solutions developed not only by EPA but together with communities and their inhabitants.
ORD’S STRATEGIC PLANNING
ORD’s (2018-2022) strategic plan4 includes the following three goals:
- Enhance environmental science and technology;
- Cultivate more-effective partnerships that inform federal, state, tribal, and local environmental decision-making; and
- Enhance and sustain a strong ORD workforce and workplace.
4 See https://www.epa.gov/research/epa-office-research-and-development-strategic-plan-2018-2022.
Strategic Research Action Plans (StRAPs)5 fall under Goal 1 and are developed for each of the national research programs (see Box 2-1). To develop StRAPs, the leadership and staff of each ORD national program engage EPA regulatory program offices and regional offices, external partners, and stakeholders to identify public health and environmental challenges and outline engagement activities and opportunities for public input. StRAPs are then drafted for addressing those challenges to produce specific research products, models, tools, and other practical outputs for use by the partners and stakeholders. They also can include plans for anticipatory or future-looking research. Draft StRAPs are reviewed by EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC).6
ORD researchers need to be nimble because the planning process cannot anticipate every major environmental challenge. For example, the StRAPs did not focus on pandemic response, but ORD scientists were called on to address a range of environmental issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. One such effort was an ORD collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Ohio Department of Health, and the Ohio EPA to develop tools for monitoring SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater to assess community infection rates (EPA, 2020).
Future-Looking Research in the Strategic Research Action Plans
The committee reviewed the 2019-2022 and the new (2023-2026) StRAPs7 and found that they did include some plans for anticipatory or future-looking research. Several broad areas of emerging research are briefly mentioned. For example, expanding the roles for volunteer scientists and focusing on indoor air and the indoor environment are two such areas (see Chapter 5). While these forward-thinking examples are laudable, the StRAPs do not systematically include horizon scanning or foresight planning for a longer time horizon (10-20 years) and a broader scope of issues. New StRAPs for 2023-2026 were in draft form at the time this report was being written. They indicated that ORD’s National Research Programs plan to integrate research for six priorities that cut across their programs: equity and environmental justice, climate change, cumulative impacts, community resiliency, children’s environmental health, and contaminants of immediate and emerging concern.
ORD BUDGETARY TRENDS
There continues to be strong demand for ORD scientific assessments and research to support the regulatory mandates and respond to emerging environmental threats. This demand stands in stark contrast to the budget appropriation for ORD. From federal fiscal year (FFY) 2003 to FFY 2022, the ORD budget declined 16 percent from $635 million to $531 million in current dollars (see Figure 2-1). Adjusted for inflation, this amounts to a reduction of more than 47 percent. This steady decline has resulted in the reduction or elimination of internal research activities, greatly reduced support for extramural research (with STAR grants falling from $80 million in 2003 dollars to less than $18 million in 2022 [adjusted for inflation], as shown in Figure 2-2) and the elimination of research fellowships to develop future science leaders. It has also resulted in a reduced ORD workforce from 1,945 full-time equivalents (FTEs) to 1,516 FTE employees (see Figure 2-3).
5 See https://www.epa.gov/research/strategic-research-planning.
6 BOSC is a federal advisory committee that provides advice and recommendations to ORD on technical and management issues of its research programs. BOSC members are science and engineering subject-matter experts from academia, industry, government, research labs, and nongovernmental organizations. Each report from the BOSC executive committee and its subcommittees includes specific recommendations and a formal ORD response to those recommendations.
7 See https://www.epa.gov/research/strategic-research-action-plans-2019-2022; https://www.epa.gov/research/strategic-research-action-plans-fiscal-years-2023-2026.
These budgetary challenges have been compounded by the unpredictability of the annual appropriations due to shifting political priorities, congressional appropriations uncertainty, government shutdowns, and short-term funding by continuing resolutions. ORD has worked to sustain many critical initiatives and make the most efficient use possible of the resources that it has. However, the long-term erosion of financial support for ORD is a clear threat to its ability to anticipate major new science developments, described in Chapter 4, and support the multi-pronged environmental protection program decisions of the agency. The reduction in personnel limits ORD’s ability to maintain an agile workforce with cutting-edge skills and inevitably results in a significant reduction in intramural research capabilities. The reduction in extramural STAR grant funds significantly limits the ability of ORD to tap into the most innovative and forward-looking science being developed in the larger academic community to test out new approaches and prepare ORD for strengthening its capabilities in key emerging areas described in Chapter 5.
While other federal agencies are subject to the same pressures of the annual appropriation process, their yearly budgets for R&D present a sharp contrast with the downward trends at EPA. For the period fiscal year (FY) 2003 to FY 2021,8 total R&D funding for all agencies rose ~94 percent in current dollars (~35 percent in constant dollars, adjusted via the Consumer Price Index [CPI]), from about $95 billion to $185 billion. During that same period, R&D funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services increased ~164 percent (~84 percent in CPI-adjusted constant dollars) and NSF support increased 77 percent (~23 percent in CPI-adjusted constant dollars). The increases experienced in other federal agencies reflect the nation’s long-term investment and broad public and political support for the advancement of science.9 The scientific challenges facing EPA, though, are no less urgent than those of other federal research organizations.
As described in the next section, this lack of scientific support for ORD cannot be made up simply from other governmental support for environmental health and environmental sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF, given their much broader programs in basic scientific research and the needs of ORD and EPA to identify the most advanced science that is relevant to addressing the environmental challenges the nation faces.
8 FY 2021 was the most recent year for which comprehensive data were available at the time this report was being written.
9 In fairness, the figures may also reflect—at least in part—the attitude of the presidential administration and Congress at that time toward the funding of environmental protection research versus other forms of R&D.
EVOLUTION OF ORD’S ROLE WITHIN A REGULATORY AGENCY
The establishment of EPA in December 1970 occurred at a time of political urgency and public health and environmental crises. As an institution, EPA consolidated several disparate federal agencies and functions under a common roof. Simultaneously, the agency received rapidly expanding legislative and administrative authorities through enactment of the 1970 Clean Air Act, 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and other statutes. During a number of action-forcing deliberations, EPA, the Nixon
administration leadership, and Congress agreed to establish and fund an R&D component to provide an improved scientific basis for EPA decision-making.
Because EPA’s decisions are informed by science, EPA-generated R&D differs substantially from research programs funded and administered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NSF, and other federal science agencies. Neither NIH nor NSF has a core focus or responsibility to provide science to establish regulatory policies. Therefore, much of their research outputs are generally not directly germane to EPA’s policy-making activities that establish specific numerical standards (e.g., limits on pollutant emissions from regulated sources) or mandates for the use of specified pollution control technologies.
The kind of scientific data needed for regulatory decision-making also differs significantly from fundamental science funded by NIH or NSF. While the latter typically investigate and fund research focused on mechanisms of disease causation, molecular design and behavior, and emerging scientific concepts, EPA’s scientific mission is to provide data that informs policy-makers to address specific questions related to exposures, environmental transport, and chemical conversion of pollutants harmful to human health and ecosystems. For example, with the advent of a range of new biotechnology products (e.g., products that include the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment) there is a potential for both beneficial and negative impacts to occur. EPA’s need for research on potential unintended consequences of applying biotechnology products would normally not be fulfilled through the more basic research that NIH and NSF support.
Because of these historically different missions, information from scientific agencies whose missions are not policy focused is often insufficient for EPA’s direct policy-making needs.
The amount and quality of scientific data vary widely across the large number of environmental issues that EPA must address. Within these constraints lies a number of competing viewpoints about the appropriate amount and use of science in the regulatory process. As a result, not only do EPA’s final regulatory decisions stimulate contentious public debate, but so does EPA’s conduct of science itself.
Notwithstanding those debates, EPA’s scientific staff have conducted numerous, high-quality scientific studies and analyses over multiple decades. This has led to significant advances in many scientific fields, such as indoor air quality, human exposure monitoring and assessment, combustion technology, motor vehicle emissions testing, air quality and groundwater modeling, computational toxicology, and risk assessment, to name a few.
For the reasons stated above, ORD has historically faced multiple expectations that it needed to reconcile. Key challenges to ORD have included
- Balancing its role in providing information to support short- and near-term policy and regulatory decisions with the longer-term need to investigate new and emerging health and environmental problems;
- Resolving conflicts over research priorities;
- Recruiting and retaining competent staff to manage internal and extramural research and develop environmental technologies;
- Ensuring that data collected for monitoring purposes (e.g., air and water quality) can be used for research planning and analysis;
- Securing sufficient budgetary support to conduct research and maintain high-quality laboratories and staff;
- Allocating an appropriate balance of research funding between intramural research with research for needs more appropriately addressed by the external scientific community;
- Understanding the potential implications associated with the emergence of new technologies or commercial products, even when data are insufficient for assessing their potential risks;
- Establishing standards for managing research and embedding a culture of scientific excellence across ORD programs;
- Developing guidelines to synthesize and interpret risks for a variety of health and ecological endpoints;
- Defining and integrating trans-scientific concepts, such as the Precautionary Principle and the Weight-of-Evidence, and methods, such as systematic review, into a science-based policy context; and
- Building partnerships with other scientific organizations to solidify and extend understanding and support for ORD’s efforts for addressing longer-term health and environmental problems.
The amount and quality of scientific information generated by ORD continues to advance over time. In part, this has resulted from a series of efforts to improve the scientific credibility of ORD’s research planning and its institutionalization of a peer-review culture that is reinforced by collaboration with external bodies of scientists and engineers, such as the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and outside independent organizations. In addition, public pressures for greater transparency of EPA’s research and risk assessments, and the application of such information in policy decisions, have intensified over time.
ORD’s evolution has also begun to apply the concept of sustainability to examine health and environmental challenges through system-level changes and utilize additional tools (e.g., life-cycle analysis and social cost of carbon) and analysis of larger datasets to shape agency regulatory policies and other decision-making strategies. Within an EPA context, the concept of sustainability has emerged to examine the inter-connectivity of a growing number of economic and social trends that have direct health and environmental consequences. These trends include pollutant emissions associated with fossil fuel usage in the energy and transportation sectors, overconsumption of natural resources, and proliferation of waste streams such as discarded plastics. Unlike most command-and-control regulation and risk assessment and risk management, sustainability explicitly assesses environmental, economic, and social impacts as part of an integrated process of evaluation and response. ORD’s role in this emerging phase of EPA’s development is to apply systems-level thinking to research planning and design, identify newer and significant pollution sources, and assess the expanding number of health and environmental endpoints resulting from system-level, multi-scale problems (e.g., local, regional, and national air quality problems from forest fires and toxic waste exposures from more frequent flooding and storm surges). As the committee describes in Chapter 3, applying systems thinking is facilitated by a broader framework for integrating information related to ecological and human risks at all levels—from the molecular to the community and society.
ORD CAPACITY AND CONSTRAINTS FOR INCORPORATING NEW AND EMERGING ADVANCES
EPA’s dual roles of providing science support for and carrying out regulatory mandates creates unique challenges for research. EPA science findings may have broad environmental, health, and social impacts. EPA science-based regulatory policies can impact the quality of air, water, and food with attendant impacts on economic activities such as those in the transportation and energy sectors. Therefore, EPA science is also subject to intense scrutiny from the public, elected officials, and the regulated community.
The goal of EPA research is more than the discovery of new knowledge. Ultimately the goal is to improve the scientific basis for EPA decisions and policies—the implementation of evidence to improve health and environment. Moving from evidence to implementation, from ORD assessments to regulatory program policies, defines the success of the research. Past National Academies’ reports have addressed the lag between the identification of environmental hazards and the implementation of standards (NRC, 2009). For example, the development of standards for toxic contaminants in drinking water may take decades, even as genetically engineered and novel organisms are arriving in environmental media at a rapid pace.
Periodically, EPA has anticipated this challenge and taken decisive action to innovate. For example, in response to needs for faster assessment of toxicity and the advent of new analytical tools, ORD innovated with its National Center for Computational Toxicology to use mathematical approaches and computer science tools to understand and predict adverse effects of chemicals on the health of humans and other organisms (see Box 2-2).
However, the adaptation of new methods such as these also faces considerable challenges, for example, in the cases of
- Nontargeted analysis to provide informative measurements from samples of interest without the need for predefined analytical targets (see Chapter 5) and
- Cumulative risk assessment of the combined risks from aggregate exposures to multiple environmental and social stressors (see Chapter 3).
The committee explored the potential barriers to incorporation of new and emerging advances into agency practice which are summarized in Box 2-3.
The committee heard from several ORD staff about challenges to both the conduct of long-term research and the implementation of research results and adaptation of new methods. A persistent challenge is balancing the research portfolio. Shorter-term research to meet immediate agency needs leaves little room for forward-looking, high-risk/high-reward research. This challenge can be compounded by shifting priorities of politically appointed leadership. Other barriers have included persistent organizational resistance to change and uncertainty and the reluctance to integrate new or cross-disciplinary perspectives. These barriers can be addressed by agency leadership support, improved communication, and incentivizing program and regional managers. Approaches are discussed further in Chapter 4.
Controversy surrounding emerging environmental science predates the establishment of EPA. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring revealing the impacts of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is heralded as the beginning of the environmental movement. It also brought a campaign by the chemical industry to undermine the results of her scientific research (Graham, 1970; Mooney, 2005). Since that time, the tactics of the tobacco industry to raise doubts about the scientific findings of other groups have been applied by other regulated industries and their trade associations (Michaels, 2008).
Political perspectives on the value and importance of scientific research also can present a barrier to conducting cutting-edge research at EPA, with no clearer example than the political discourse concerning climate change. Some elected officials from states with economies dependent on fossil fuels work to support their industrial base and strongly oppose regulations or the research results that support the development of alternative energy sources. Similar opposition to research and innovation that may support new regulations is evident across the country, including surface water quality and pesticide research in agricultural regions and air toxics monitoring in states with heavy concentrations of petrochemical facilities. Opposition to EPA research conclusions often includes efforts from well-financed organizations in support of products or
processes that question the methods and results of EPA science and seek to influence public opinion, as is now the case with climate change.
Overcoming those barriers will be a continual challenge for ORD scientists. Support and involvement from agency management, inclusive strategic planning, workforce planning to strengthen diversity and expertise, and budgeting to support balancing the research portfolio can help reduce internal barriers. Although addressing external barriers may prove more challenging, the committee identifies in Chapters 3 and 4 improvements that can begin with greater investment in science communication and stakeholder involvement, and the development of a broader constituency for EPA science.
MESSAGES OF PREVIOUS ADVISORY REPORTS
EPA has long recognized the importance of forward-looking research to develop the foresight needed to avoid future environmental problems. Until the mid-1990s, the agency’s efforts to improve its environmental foresight using approaches such as horizon scanning, scenarios, and models were relatively scattered and sporadic (Olson, 2012). In 1995, EPA’s SAB challenged the agency “to begin to anticipate future environmental problems, and then take steps to avoid them, not just respond to them after the fact” (EPA, 1995). In that same report the SAB recommended that EPA incorporate futures research and analysis into all of its programs and activities, particularly strategic planning and budgeting. Since that time, EPA has supported numerous efforts to identify emerging environmental problems and opportunities. The accelerating pace of technological innovation, climate change, land-use change, changes in energy production, and a host of other environmental concerns has meant that maintaining environmental foresight is ever more challenging but also critically important for the agency in meeting its mission.
Futures-focused research is just one component of a broader organizational strategy for identifying potential emerging environmental issues as well as emerging scientific and technological advances to better address those issues. The broader set of activities that could improve EPA’s anticipatory capabilities has been discussed in several recent National Academies’ reports, as discussed below. A common theme of these reports is the importance of systems-thinking, integrated interdisciplinary research incorporating social and behavioral science along with biological, chemical, and physical sciences; synthesis; collaboration; and stakeholder engagement.
Examples of National Academies’ reports that have recommended that EPA pursue integrated systems thinking include:
- Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century (NRC, 2007) proposed a vision for toxicity testing that included “scenarios” or “risk contexts” linking testing to decision-making. The committee highlighted the need for EPA to pursue integrated multi-disciplinary, intramural, and extramural research to achieve the kind of transformative science required to realize the potential for modern toxicity testing.
- Sustainability and the U.S. EPA (NRC, 2011) presented a comprehensive framework for incorporating sustainability into decisions and actions. That framework included development of a sustainability toolbox to analyze future consequences of alternative decisions on a range of social, environmental, and economic indicators, and recommended that ORD develop system models for projecting current alternative future outcomes for key sustainability issues. A follow-up report—Sustainability Concepts in Decision Making (NRC, 2014b)—reviewed applications of specific scientific tools and approaches for incorporating sustainability considerations into assessments used to support EPA decision-making. That report identified systems thinking as essential for incorporating sustainability concepts and applying appropriate tools. As an example, the report highlighted systems thinking as core to EPA’s successful Design for Environment program.
- Science for Environmental Protection: The Road Ahead (NRC, 2012) described in detail many of the components of an integrated science for environmental protection that would help EPA
- address current and persistent environmental challenges while also improving its anticipatory research capabilities. That report identified two main sets of activities: those focused on anticipating emerging concerns and developing guidance to avoid problems with new or emerging technologies, and those focused on the establishment of key indicators and tracking trends in human health and ecosystems to identify and prioritize emerging environmental problems. As with the aforementioned reports, this report advocated systems thinking as part of a broader framework for enhanced anticipatory science. Some specific components of an integrated science for environmental protection included:
- Being deliberate and systematic in anticipating scientific and regulatory challenges;
- Systems thinking;
- Integration of data, models, and policy-relevant indicators;
- Engagement and collaboration within ORD and between ORD and related expertise and programs in other agencies and sectors for longer view and broader horizon;
- Synthesis research;
- Scenarios analysis; and
- Maintaining a dedicated and sustained futures network of staff from ORD, program offices, and regions.
Many of these themes are also discussed in other recent National Academies’ reports on interdisciplinary research (e.g., NRC, 2014a), risk-related evaluation, and global-change research needs and opportunities (NASEM, 2021). For example, the 2021 report devoted an entire chapter to integrated, systems-based research, urging the U.S. Global Change Research Program to support the rapid evolution of research that integrates the physical climate system, ecosystems, and the human system to better anticipate and manage climate-related risks. The report goes on to say that changing the culture of global-change research will require new approaches to setting research priorities that put user needs at the forefront and engage broader and more diverse stakeholders.
In considering ORD’s responses to these reports, the committee noted the steps taken toward enhanced application of systems thinking, improved attention to strategic planning, and other efforts to implement the recommendations (see Chapter 3). At the same time, the budget constraints described above, the changes in presidential administration and priorities, and the absence of a congressionally confirmed Assistant Administrator for ORD for much of the past 10 years have all served to limit ORD’s capacity to fully implement the recommendations.
Science is essential to the mission of EPA, and ORD is EPA’s primary home for scientific research that spans a broad spectrum of expertise areas including biology, ecology, engineering, toxicology, air quality, water quality, exposure science, social science, and environmental health. The 2019 reorganization of ORD into six national research programs and four centers facilitates cross-media and cross-disciplinary research, including a bridging of human health and ecosystems science.
In fulfilling its role, ORD must balance the need for reactive, problem-driven research with forward-looking research that improves EPA’s capability to address emerging, complex socioenvironmental problems. Strategic action plans prepared by ORD’s national programs are an important mechanism for setting 4-year research priorities but currently have limited scope for longer-term horizon scanning or foresight planning. Meeting the agency’s research needs is further complicated by EPA’s regulatory role in a contentious political climate and is challenged by steadily declining budgets and workforce capacity.
Previous National Academies’ reports that have considered EPA’s anticipatory research capabilities have underscored the importance of systems thinking, integrated interdisciplinary research, synthesis, collaboration, and stakeholder engagement. This committee has built on those efforts by describing a new framework for applying systems thinking (described in Chapter 3), identifying a host of actions ORD can
take to innovate and pursue systems thinking in the most effective way (Chapters 3 and 4), and reviewing emerging tools and methods that ORD should consider in its research planning to support EPA’s mission in coming years (Chapter 5).
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