Chapter 2 highlighted the essential relevance of research to the core mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect health and the environment, and it described how the Office of Research and Development (ORD) has provided substantial contributions in meeting the needs for that science for many decades. However, as the major challenges described in Chapter 3 illustrate, today’s needs for science to support EPA’s mission differ considerably from EPA’s traditional needs for research in support of statutory requirements. The growth of highly complex problems elevates the need for new systems thinking that crosses disciplinary boundaries, anticipates the integration of innovative methods and tools into ORD’s scientific enterprise, and involves enhanced collaboration and communication to make the most effective use of limited resources (see Chapter 3). Fortunately, systems thinking is not new to EPA. It was a cornerstone of the agency’s foundation in the 1970 Ash Commission report which noted, “The environment, despite its infinite complexity, must be perceived as a unified, interrelated system” (EPA, 1970), and there is some continued attention to it at ORD (Orme-Zavaleta, 20211).
These changing times call for new, comprehensive approaches by applying a systems-thinking One Envrionment–One Health approach, as well as a reimagined strategic planning and foresight process, as described in Chapter 3. Those actions are not, however, sufficient to ensure that ORD has the capabilities to fully embrace this new framework and to be well positioned for identifying and integrating scientific and technical advances into its research and development enterprise in the coming years. To that end, in this chapter the committee identifies four 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:
- Integrating a culture of innovation throughout ORD;
- Increasing collaboration with other government agencies, the broader science community, and other 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.
In addition, based on its collective judgment and experience, the committee discusses desirable characteristics and provides recommendations regarding approaches for implementing those actions.
The federal government has steadfastly maintained a commitment to innovative and longer-term research through institutions, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, and most recently with the establishment of the National Institutes of Health’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Continuation of these federal research enterprises has resulted from a clear rationale for their need (e.g., national security, energy independence, and global competitiveness) combined with diverse scientific and political coalitions that have supported their missions and funding over time.
1 J. Orme-Zavaleta, EPA, presentation to the committee, May 27, 2021.
Several ORD programs are specifically oriented toward promoting innovation in research and science at EPA.2 Outputs resulting from those programs include test methods; identification of risks; pollution control technologies; and approaches, tools, and data for use by partners.3Table 4-1 lists a few of EPA’s innovation programs involving ORD, along with examples of projects and outputs.
ORD also has demonstrated the pursuit of innovation as a social process of scientific collaboration and coordination by maintaining Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with minority organizations (e.g., EPA, 2016). At a broader level, ORD maintains a Sustainable and Healthy Communities national program,4 with the predominant focus on contaminated sites.
Although ORD maintains a number of innovation initiatives, they tend not to be on a sufficient level of scale. ORD’s innovation initiatives are often designed to support specific needs of regulatory decision-makers, rather than being targeted at reconceptualizing the nature of a broader, recalcitrant problem or potential solution to that problem.
Uncertainties in ORD’s annual funding levels have reduced its ability to implement multi-year research plans, which could include collaboration with a broader team of research professionals and stakeholders. The rapid pace of environmental and marketplace change has contributed to ORD’s evolving research challenges and highlights the need for a workforce that is better integrated with other leading scientific organizations and has access to advanced technical tools.
|Program||Example Projects and Outputs|
|Pathfinder Innovation Projects: an annual, internal competition that provides ORD staff with time and funding to pursue innovative, high-risk, high-reward research ideas.||
|Challenge and Prizes Program: Strives to find solutions by tapping into the ingenuity and creativity of crowds. EPA outlines the specifications and criteria for a problem, and the public can submit ideas and proposals for successful solutions.||
|Regional Science Program: Supports collaborative research projects with partners, funded through internal EPA competitions, for projects focused on near-term priorities for EPA Regions, states, tribes, and communities.||
|Small Business Innovation Research Program: provides funding to small businesses to develop and commercialize innovative technologies that address environmental needs, such as clean and safe water.||
SOURCE: E. Trentacoste, EPA/ORD, personal communication, October 3, 2021.
3 W. Cascio, EPA, personal communication, October 6, 2021.
In a broader context, the concept of innovation continues to be reexamined and driven, in large part, by global marketplace competition and major megatrends (e.g., climate change, food supply challenges, demographic changes, and demands for greater social and economic equity) that threaten to disrupt business operations and the stability of civil society and exacerbate environmental problems at current and newer levels of scale.
In previous generations, innovation in the private sector was designed and practiced very differently than contemporary approaches. Formerly, major corporations such as AT&T, Exxon, General Electric, General Motors, and IBM, for example, maintained major laboratories staffed with layers of skilled professionals who devoted many years to developing and commercializing innovative technologies for existing or new products. These and other companies would frequently conduct long-term research and analyze trends. The management philosophy evident one to two generations ago was to maintain core expertise in a range of disciplines to minimize dependency on external researchers and institutions.
Today’s innovation culture in the private sector differs substantially from the one just described. The restructuring and downsizing of major research institutions, reduction of discretionary research budgets, and greater emphasis on delivery of short-term financial results have spurred organizations to reconceive and restructure their approach to innovation.
Contemporary innovation thinking reflects a body of work by scholars and practitioners, such as the late Clayton Christensen, Mariana Mazzucato, and the late C. K. Prahalad, to name a few (Christensen, 1997; Mazzucato, 2013; Prahalad and Krishnan, 2008). A central feature of current concepts is to visualize innovation stemming from a set of both structured and informal relationships that exist within a supportive ecosystem. In this context, “ecosystem” is used as a metaphor to describe organizations with common or complementary features that are interconnected to exchange information and other resources.
Given ORD’s many scientific capabilities and areas of specialized expertise, it has the strong potential to become a highly valued innovation partner for many organizations. Creating and maintaining an effective innovation ecosystem includes these considerations:
- No single organization possesses the necessary resources, skills, or technology platforms to solve large-scale problems.
- Collaboration is a core strength of any innovative organization. Increasingly, research enterprises construct multiple partnerships to integrate a variety of research strengths and attributes.
- Senior leadership articulates and supports the inclusion of innovative research in the organization’s agenda and budgets.
- Increasing the number and scale of innovative research collaborations across all of ORD’s major programs by co-sharing personnel, facilities, and funding with other organizational partners.
- Innovation is not limited to advancements in technology (hardware or software) but includes progress achieved in management systems, cross-disciplinary or institutional changes, and initiatives that positively alter behavior (e.g., the use of incentives or other choice architecture as tools in public policy design; Johnson et al., 2012; Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).
- Innovation is a social process involving organizations with multiple cultures and characteristics. Diversity, empowerment, and the ability to work collaboratively with cross-organizational teams are recognized as critical factors for success.
- Both formal and informal rules guide the innovation process ranging from the bottom-up authority to convene creative thinking sessions to the top-down establishment of key priorities.
- There is no single organizational structure that is best for developing innovations. The structures can range from a small number of loosely interconnected organizations to a large, integrated global enterprise.
- Strategic foresight activities can identify emerging and over-the-horizon issues to develop preliminary assessments that lead to hypothesis formulation and targeted, early-stage research activities. Horizon scanning can also identify trends in the use of new scientific and technological tools.
- Innovation that practices extensive transparency can indicate ways in which numbers of talented researchers can contribute ideas and information through their skills and affiliations.
- Proactive benchmarking itself against other innovation leaders can be used to identify the necessary and relevant attributes that can be implemented by the organization while keeping in mind that ORD has a different role and structure than other federal science agencies, which can influence its innovation capabilities (see Polman and Winston  for additional discussion).
Ultimately, “co-creation,” where ideas are shared and developed among multiple partners, is the pathway taken by leading innovative organizations in their quest to develop business, environmental, or social solutions at different levels of scale.
Applying enhanced stakeholder participation in its research planning (as described in Chapter 3), and building new collaborations to leverage the work of a host of existing and new partners, offers new talents and resources that can enable ORD to be a leader in innovation and more effectively support EPA’s transition to the new era of environmental decision-making that is already under way. The transformation of the U.S. economy will accelerate the demand for advanced tools and new kinds of data. If EPA is to successfully respond to the mass adoption of electric vehicles, the decarbonization of major energy supplies, increased use of biomanufacturing or bio-produced products, the expanded reformulation of consumer products, and pollution sources embedded in the restructuring of domestic and global supply chains, ORD cannot rely solely on its own resources, expertise, and voice to strengthen its knowledge and take advantage of emerging scientific and technological areas.
ORD has a history of collaboration across many issues that reach far beyond the regulatory process. Over the past several decades, EPA has managed literally hundreds of individual voluntary initiatives designed to improve environmental quality. These have ranged from toxics reduction (the 33/50 initiative), energy efficiency (Energy Star), multimedia pollution management (Project XL), the Green Suppliers Network (for manufacturers and their suppliers to improve the environmental performance of production processes), and Design for the Environment (to encourage the use of safer chemicals in products), to name a few. In addition, the work of other federal research agencies has periodically informed and reinforced the importance of EPA’s own work in such fields as combustion engineering (DOE), toxicological sciences (National Toxicology Program), risk assessment (U.S. Food and Drug Administration and California EPA), and climate change (NSF and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Examples of more recent collaborative research topics include nontargeted analysis trials, reducing exposures to wildland fire smoke, innovations in electronic health records; and advancing response and recovery capabilities from wide-area contamination incidents.5
In addition, ORD specifically has maintained a history of research collaborations with the extramural scientific community to generate scientific information relevant to policy development and assessment of risks through the multi-decade Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. Projects funded through STAR have resulted in innovations in sensor development, partnerships with leading universities to advance the understanding of the health effects of criteria pollutants, and modeling and assessment of microenvironments, such as indoor air quality. As discussed in Chapter 2, because of constrained funding, ORD’s research relationships have been more limited in scope, with a reduced capacity in staff and budget to pursue multi-year research plans.
A New Era of Collaboration Opportunities
As the nature of public health and environmental challenges continues to change and become more systemic and global, ORD needs to move beyond its project- and subject-specific notion of collaboration
5 EPA presentations to the committee, November 17, 2021.
to one that is better adapted to addressing a new generation of complex problems and opportunities. ORD’s effective transformation from its traditional approach to contemporary collaboration efforts would include these characteristics:
- Transitioning to sector-specific, countrywide or global, multi-stakeholder partnership platforms and commitments.
- Leveraging new collaboration opportunities that arise from specific policy commitments where additional research is needed. These include, for example, health and environmental issues associated with the transition to electrified modes of transportation; data gaps associated with detection, measurement, risk assessment, and phase-out of various forms of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); and applying big-data analysis to environmental research in support of decision-making.
- Adapting to new, collaborative research models in which all partners co-define research objectives and participate as co-decision-makers in management and oversight of funding commitments.
- Committing to new levels of transparency in research planning and execution to strengthen accountability among collaboration partners and enhance public credibility.
- Expanding international collaborations in critical cross-boundary issues, such as climate change, water scarcity, and environmental consequences of geopolitical conflicts. Climate change impacts in North, Central, and South America will severely impact vulnerable ecosystems and species, for example, migratory birds, mammals (terrestrial and marine), and aquatic populations (e.g., coldwater species, salmon, lobster, crabs) (Allison et al., 2009; Carey, 2009; Doney et al., 2012; Hagen et al., 2022). International collaborations have been very successful in the cyanobacteria assessment network (CyAN),6 and can certainly assist ORD in dealing with other complex ecosystem and societal challenges.
- Establishing and/or strengthening partnerships with other federal research agencies (e.g., DARPA and ARPA-H) to identify future technologies that may provide opportunities for enhancing environmental protection capabilities or give rise to areas of concern regarding unintended consequences.
ORD has some experience in this transformed era of collaboration through, for example, its ongoing funding and participation in the independent Health Effects Institute. However, there are major challenges that hinder new thinking and more entrepreneurial behavior, including administrative complexity that lengthens the time needed to develop collaborations; shorter-term research obligations for staff that frequently cause priorities and resources to shift and leave little room for high-risk/high-reward research; organizational inertia that results from a preference for maintaining the status quo; and a lack of sufficient cultural knowledge and interpersonal relationships for developing and managing collaborative relationships outside the boundaries of familiar disciplines.7
Despite the challenges mentioned above, there are substantial benefits for ORD, and EPA more generally, to be gained from participating at a broader and deeper scale of collaboration. The benefits include:
- Gaining access to talented professionals across a range of disciplines and institutions;
- Constituency building and early buy-in within EPA and the external research community;
- Leveraging EPA’s resources with those of other organizations to investigate scientific issues on a more comprehensive scale;
7 R. Thomas, EPA, presentation to the committee, October 6, 2021.
- Achieving more stability in priority-setting and resource allocations because of the negotiated commitments among multiple parties; and
- Strengthening the ability to communicate research results more authoritatively while reaching a broader number of audiences through aligned communication planning across peer networks, publications, and social media.
These benefits would, in turn, allow ORD to more effectively provide EPA with scientific information, assessments, and technologies necessary for problem identification and solutions development.
Enabling a Collaborative Culture
Major leadership commitments play a key role in developing future collaboration opportunities and supporting their successful implementation. Leadership can create the expectation that collaboration represents a core feature of how ORD will provide support to EPA in carrying out its mission. Leadership can also look for ways to streamline the organizational process for collaboration so that participants can more readily overcome many of the current bureaucratic obstacles that deter development of external partnerships.
Additional decisions and planning elements include:
- Expanding the recruitment of not only qualified scientific personnel but also those that embody ethnic and racial diversity and possess interpersonal skills and cultural humility necessary for effective stakeholder engagement. Examples of those skills include the ability to consider alternative points of view; willingness to negotiate project and program management; ability to work in teams of professionals from a diverse set of organizations, such as business, governmental institutions, nongovernmental organizations, groups of individuals, and universities.
ORD already possesses a number of mechanisms to expand its talent acquisition and scientific collaborations. In addition to its own intramural research programs, ORD’s continued evaluation of the opportunities for extramural grants, cooperative agreements, and interagency agreements to address its major priorities is warranted. Along with direct hires of new staff, other measures to supplement the expertise of core staff include fellowships; visiting scholar programs; new partnerships with universities; part-time employment; retention of skilled retired personnel; exchange programs; and intergovernmental personnel agreements with other federal, state, and local agencies and nongovernmental organizations.
- Identifying EPA’s high-priority research needs that would best be addressed through collaboration with external partners. Once developed, wide dissemination of such a statement would help achieve the widest possible level of interest, including from community partners and local and tribal governments.
- Developing criteria for how ORD should select its collaboration partners. Not all organizations, even those highly interested in working with EPA, will necessarily make the best fit. Such possibilities point to the need for ORD to be very clear on how to achieve the best match of its needs and those of other bodies. For example, several criteria for consideration can include current expertise in one or more problem areas (including expertise in key areas that enables EPA to expedite development of solutions); ability to co-fund research with ORD; capacity to work across a range of geographic regions; skill sets complementary to ORD; and local, on-the-ground credibility with the general public.
- Preparing metrics for defining and evaluating the effectiveness of collaboration initiatives and reporting annually on progress and work still to be done.
The scientific community, including ORD, faces a substantially changed environment for communicating scientific information compared to previous decades. A revolution in communication technologies, emergence of organized groups that oppose evidenced-based public policy-making, and greater public skepticism toward all manner of institutions have greatly contributed to a growing number of scientific controversies concerning the credibility, applicability, and ethics of using specific data in policy-making. Ongoing debates include the morality and efficacy of mandating COVID-19 vaccinations, assessing the potential health co-benefits from instituting controls of mercury emissions from industrial sources, and long-term opposition to the scientific consensus for regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The difficulty of these challenges is intensified by the fact that many of the tools traditionally used by scientists and regulatory agencies—presentation of scientific data at professional conferences, publication of scientific studies in the peer-reviewed literature, and public comment opportunities for scientific documents used in regulatory proceedings—are necessary but no longer sufficient to meet expanded public expectations for transparency and clarity of data use.
Those public expectations arise from technological platforms of social media which challenge the scientific community, including ORD’s scientists, in several ways. Social media is used to provide the public with large volumes of nonauthoritative or (at times) pseudo-scientific information and opinions to influence the credibility of scientific evaluations by established scientific institutions. They provide mass circulation of less scientifically based hypotheses or conclusions to challenge consensus-based evaluations from accredited scientists (Specter, 2009). Scientists employed by EPA and other government agencies have limited ability to respond to these developments on their own because of the nonpolitical nature of their work and the ethical principles and standards through which they operate.
This era of quick-reaction social media, in contrast to the more deliberative pace of traditional scientific research and assessments, challenges both the public’s scientific literacy and the scientific community’s ongoing work to ensure the accuracy, relevance, and public understanding of the data that are generated (Specter, 2009). At the same time, data collected from social media sites and other Internet-based sources are used to identify public health trends (Aiello et al., 2020).
Across the scientific community, four strategies, directly applicable to ORD, are emerging to strengthen scientists’ ability to perform their work and communicate it more effectively:
- Staying focused on the fundamentals of scientific professional standards. Continuing adherence to appropriate design and peer review of scientific studies, collaboration with a variety of colleagues across multiple scientific institutions, and avoidance of financial or other conflicts of interest remain as baseline commitments for scientific integrity.
- Becoming more skilled at communicating data that scientists create through efforts such as collaboration with communication professionals to frame clear, transparent, data-driven conclusions and messages. A key component involves ORD scientists taking more responsibility to correct bad information that is introduced into the public domain. For example, climate scientists established a website to evaluate differing debates and scientific claims and issue corrections for misleading or false statements, on an ongoing basis.8
- Linking the reported results of specific studies to a broader narrative that helps place new scientific information into a context that is relevant and comprehensible to nontechnical audiences, such as policy-makers, business executives, members of nongovernmental institutions and civic organizations, and the general public. The objective is to enable these and other stakeholders to become more experienced and informed consumers of scientific information. EPA’s Report on the Environment is a good example of a public communication tool for synthesizing
- data and making the results accessible by using a broad number of indicators of the state of the environment and human health over time.9
- Integrating ORD’s scientific results and programs into a broader network that promotes scientific literacy and understanding. There are numerous civil society organizations—professional societies, educational institutions, business and environmental groups, and voluntary networks of individuals—that seek access to high-quality scientific information to advance effective solutions to health and environmental problems from local to global scales.
Although ORD has invested in enhanced science communication, as efforts unfold to expand ORD’s capabilities and skill sets, so does the need for a new communications strategy especially in this rapidly changing communications landscape. 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.
Developing and maintaining the research capacities to guide the future of EPA science will depend on leadership, workforce, tools, and funding. This section discusses several administrative and management improvements for ORD and EPA that could help address challenges related to science implementation.
For science to truly be the “backbone” of EPA, it needs to receive strong leadership support. Much has been written about EPA leadership and its importance to the agency’s scientific enterprise. The National Research Council Committee on Science for EPA’s Future called for strengthening science leadership throughout the agency and enhanced responsibilities in an agency-wide science leadership position, including consideration of a “deputy administrator for science, a chief scientist, or a substantially strengthened version of the current science advisor position” (NRC, 2012, p. 164).
EPA’s Science Advisory Board Subcommittee on Science Integration also presented recommendations for strengthening science leadership, recommending that “managers should be engaged in and accountable for integrating science into decision-making starting with problem formulation and science assessment, in their own organizations and throughout EPA” (EPA SAB, 2012, p. 10).
The ORD Office of Science Advisor, Policy, and Engagement is well positioned to play a leadership role in advancing agency-wide collaboration and rethinking science integration into decision-making to define the future directions of research. In addition, cross-agency science committees, such as the EPA Science and Technology Policy Council and the Risk Assessment Forum, can play a key role in this regard. The Science and Technology Policy Council is composed of senior executives from across the agency for the purpose of identifying critical science and technology issues and developing and implementing policies to help advance EPA’s mission priorities.10 The Risk Assessment Forum, which consists of senior scientists from across EPA, was established to facilitate agency-wide consensus on difficult and controversial risk assessment issues and ensure that the consensus is incorporated into appropriate EPA risk assessment guidance.11
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. The majority of employees in ORD are selected through the permanent hiring authorities. While there are many benefits to the permanent nature of the career workforce, that approach can serve to limit the acquisition of new talent in response to urgent or novel scientific challenges.
Science to support EPA’s mission in the future will require a greater mix of disciplines, reflecting rapidly evolving needs for expertise. Implementing a systems approach to address major challenges requires greater flexibility to recruit and retain staff with training and experience across the social and behavioral sciences (including environmental justice issues), information science, and data visualization, as well as scientists with cutting-edge capabilities in engineering, genetics, synthetic biology (engineering biology), and chemistry.
Enhancing and maintaining expertise in the areas of analytical chemistry (for nontargeted analyses) and data science and modeling would allow ORD to supplement its existing strengths in toxicology and exposure science. Although these latter areas are established, there needs to be continuing attention paid to identifying emerging hazards and addressing areas of toxicology that have not been well studied, such as the role of epigenetic changes in health and disease as well as the growing attention to New Approach Methods. For areas such as biotechnology and epidemiology, sufficient expertise would be needed to provide the agency with competent guidance and the ability to identify collaboration opportunities, including grants, that leverage expertise outside of EPA. The collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on children’s environmental health research centers is a good example of amplifying EPA’s research efforts through judicious external partnerships that catalyze new science that advances its mission.
The Title 42 program is a flexible hiring program under Title 42, Section 209 of the U.S. Code that gives federal agencies the authority to appoint highly qualified consultants, scientists, and engineers with competitive salaries at a pay scale outside civil service laws in Title 5 and renewal terms from 1 to 5 years. ORD received limited authority for its Title 42 program in 2006, initially given authority to hire five scientists each year from 2006 through 2011. Since then, exercising this authority has been essential to ORD scientific leadership and capacity building in research areas ranging from cellular/subcellular to population/community levels. The number and terms of Title 42 scientists are still limited by Congress. In the 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress expanded the Title 42 authority of EPA to employ up to 75 persons in ORD and 25 persons in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. This appropriation also required EPA to enter into an agreement with the National Academies to conduct a study of the agency’s use of the authority over the past decade and how the hires have uniquely contributed to the agency’s mission. This study will build on past National Academies reports. For example, NRC (2010) recommended that Title 42 authority be permanently granted to EPA and expanded to allow the agency to define the total number of Title 42 positions on the basis of its programmatic needs and available funds.
ORD will also need a robust pipeline for future cross-disciplinary leaders. The Pathways Program for recent college graduates and traineeships and postdoctoral fellowships12 provide methods for casting a wide net to attract graduates from a broader range of disciplines, including transdisciplinary scientists working in environmental protection. Expansion of opportunities for interagency personnel agreements, visiting scholars, and cooperative agreements also offer a pathway for scientists from government, business, and academia to learn and contribute to science at EPA.
Resources for the Future of EPA Science
The future success of EPA will depend on its ability to anticipate and respond to the challenges of a changing environment. Recognizing the critical role of science in carrying out the substantial regulatory
responsibilities of the agency, the committee has focused on practical approaches to address the needs of the growing urgency to prepare for emerging threats and future challenges in light of the immediate needs of EPA program offices. As mentioned above, success will depend on talent, tools, and resources.
The committee has described pathways to develop a stronger capacity for forward-looking science. Some of these approaches (i.e., improving science communication, strategic planning, and collaboration) build on extant strengths of the agency. However, building the infrastructure for the future (including equipment, new talent mix, and extramural research) will be difficult given funding trends. Succeeding in meeting these new opportunities and challenges will require sustained focus on the changes described—and leadership—to ensure that a multi-year plan for making progress each year toward a stronger future is developed and pursued.
Meeting the future challenges of environmental protection will require imagination, new kinds of collaboration, and innovation. EPA cannot rely on yesterday’s science to effectively address emerging threats and persistent, complex problems, such as climate change impacts, environmental justice and cumulative risks, and the intertwined nature of human and ecosystem health. So that it is better able to provide the science EPA needs, the committee offers findings and recommendations to help ORD position itself to take advantage of scientific and technological advances that can be applied using a One Environment–One Health systems approach.
Integrating Innovation into ORD
Finding: Contemporary innovation is conceptualized as a set of both structured and more informal relationships within a supportive ecosystem of institutional relationships, resources, and personnel comprising a highly diverse set of skills. The practice of co-creation among multiple partners and enterprises is a major pathway that innovative organizations take in their quest to develop solutions at scale.
ORD has historically developed a number of innovative research initiatives in such fields as computational toxicology, combustion engineering, exposure assessment, and investigations of specific individual pollutants. However, ORD often lacks consistency or larger-scale planning in how it approaches research design or investments.
Given the major transformations under way in information technology, data management, materials science, manufacturing processes, and supply chain management, potential areas for innovation to better support EPA’s mission have broadened considerably in ORD. Innovation also includes new thinking and applications relating to culture, management, incentives, and social processes.
Recommendation 4-1: 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 ecosystem that exhibits the following attributes:
- An approach 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.
- Developing and funding a greater variety of innovation opportunities that incorporate support for social science and behavioral science into relevant areas of solutions driven research, including research into how to encourage people to make better choices with respect to actions that do not contribute to increased environmental risks.
- Scanning capabilities to identify emerging and over-the-horizon issues (5-10 years) for developing preliminary assessments that lead to hypothesis formulation and targeted, early-stage
- research investments. Horizon scanning can also identify trends in the use of new scientific and technological tools.
- Pursuing innovation through a scientific and social process involving multiple disciplines, cultures, and characteristics in which diversity, empowerment, and the ability to work collaboratively across multiple institutions are critical factors for success.
- Sharing management of innovative research initiatives with other institutions and providing programs and incentives for professional staff to acquire and apply innovation skills.
- Practicing transparency that can indicate ways in which multiple talented researchers can contribute ideas and resources through their skills and affiliations on a continuum ranging from hypothesis testing to full-scale implementation.
- Developing and annually updating and reporting progress on a formal innovation plan, based on high priority and novel research concepts and projects.
Finding: Although 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.
Recommendation 4-2: 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 achieves the following:
- Expands and strengthens collaboration with ecosystem partners, establishing shared goals and enabling and fostering open innovation toward achieving them.
- Identifies EPA’s high-priority research needs that are best addressed with collaboration partners, especially those such as other federal agencies whose activities can engender environmental protection challenges.
- Develops criteria for how ORD should select its collaboration partners.
- Expands core collaboration skills by recruiting qualified scientific personnel who embody ethnic and racial diversity and possess interpersonal skills necessary for developing and managing collaboration opportunities at different levels of scale and across multiple sets of institutions. Some of these individuals might serve as liaisons with collaborative partners.
- Prepares metrics for defining and evaluating the effectiveness of collaboration results.
Finding: 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 standards setting, enforcement, policy guidance, and other decisions.
At the same time, a revolution in communication technologies, emergence of organized groups prepared to produce and disseminate misinformation and opposed to evidence-based decision-making, and greater public skepticism frame the context for research management and communication. 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. Attempting to correct misperceptions after they have been formed is not sufficient to help people navigate the current complexity of information and media landscape. Misinformation needs to be corrected at the time when people consume it.
ORD’s current approach to scientific communications has been substantial, but can be significantly improved through a multi-pronged effort to upgrade communication skills and tools, including a full array of social media utilization and collaborations with other organizations to promote good science.
Recommendation 4-3: 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 ecosystem” for the benefit of the scientific community and the public. Such an ecosystem should include an online platform where scientific data and interpretations are made easily available to the public in a digestible form that effectively explains why the results are relevant and the contributions they provide to current understanding. This recommendation reinforces recommendations provided in NASEM (2018) to expand public confidence and engagement with the scientific community.
- 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. This includes the use of Internet sites, trained spokespersons, and actively utilized and maintained social media accounts. The plans should pursue goals to assess the credibility and impacts of the communications initiatives, and establish metrics to track communications progress (e.g., expanded numbers of followers, impact of specific information and messages). ORD should specifically measure progress in how it is expanding transparency and equity in providing public access to scientific information.
Recommendation 4-4: ORD should establish a program for training and strengthening the communication skills of its key scientists. Such a program should include:
- Developing a capability to correct, in real time, factually incorrect or misleading scientific claims as they pertain to ORD-funded research and risk assessments.
- Placing newly published scientific information in a broader context that promotes public understanding. This includes the preparation of short scientific summaries of all major publications and offering online best-practice tools and examples to support participatory-based science.
- Increasing the involvement of social and behavioral scientists and science communications professionals to develop clear, transparent, data-driven conclusions and messages. They could enhance the ability of the communications to reach, be grasped by, and acted on by diverse populations who can engage in community-driven efforts to solve environmental and health problems.
- Integrating ORD’s scientific enterprise into a broader network that promotes scientific literacy and understanding through professional societies, educational institutions, business and environmental organizations, and networks of volunteers.
Finding: 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 application of research results.
Recommendations 4-5: 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 early stages of planning through science implementation and regulatory applications.
Recommendation 4-6: EPA leadership should:
- Evaluate and explore the charter, membership, and function of the EPA Science and Technology Policy Council with regard to strengthening representation and leadership support for enhancing agency-wide science integration.
- Strategically review and refresh other cross-agency science committees including the Risk Assessment Forum to become more effective in fostering innovation.
- Develop incentives for innovation and science advancement and include them in the annual performance reviews of EPA leadership and program managers.
Workforce for Science and Innovation
Finding: EPA’s workforce will need to comprise a broader and more-nimble talent pool to meet the challenges of emerging environmental threats.
Recommendation 4-7: 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.
Recommendation 4-8: 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.
Identifying Strategic Resources for the Future of EPA Science
Finding: ORD has had a precipitous 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 STAR program have significantly limited ORDs ability to anticipate and respond to pressing and growing challenges by making 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, as described in Chapter 5, grow in scientific and policy importance.
Recommendation 4-9: Planning for meeting the needs in the coming years for EPA science identified through the ORD strategic planning process 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.
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