Science is essential to ensuring informed, effective environmental protection for the United States. The Office of Research and Development (ORD) is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) nerve center for providing that science, applying a broad spectrum of expertise including biology, ecology, engineering, toxicology, air quality, water quality, and environmental health.
In this report, the committee presents a roadmap for the future that builds on the success and strengths of ORD in fulfilling its critical science role for EPA. During the course of five decades and despite significant resource constraints, ORD has taken innovative steps to advance the quality and timeliness of its science, while addressing the immediate science needs of EPA’s various environmental protection programs for air, water, and land. This has included innovations such as ToxCast for toxicity screening, lower-cost air-quality sensors for exposure assessment, and initial efforts to apply systems thinking to some of the challenges EPA faces.
To build on this progress, the committee has identified a number of ways in which ORD can and should rethink and reinvigorate its efforts to identify and make use of advanced tools and methods in support of EPA, in the midst of rapidly changing environmental conditions. It has identified three pressing challenges for ORD going forward: (1) assessing interconnected human health and ecological risks; (2) characterizing environmental justice and cumulative risk; and (3) anticipating and responding to the human health and environmental impacts of climate change.
To address these and other significant challenges, the committee has described a new, more comprehensive approach to guide all of ORD’s efforts: the application of systems thinking to a One Environment–One Health approach. These challenges are complex and multi-dimensional and require the best and most advanced scientific tools and methods. But the complexity of these problems requires more than just better science; it requires systems thinking to design entire scientific approaches that integrate a broad array of interactions between humans and ecosystems; identify the full range of disciplines, tools, and methods needed to conduct the science; integrate considerations of environmental, social, and economic impacts; and communicate the science in the most understandable and effective way possible (Recommendation 3-1).
The committee recognizes that implementing a systems thinking One Environment–One Health approach will not be accomplished overnight. And there are not insubstantial statutory, resource, and cultural obstacles to implementing it throughout ORD’s endeavors and carving out sufficient resources to accomplish this change, while continuing to meet the many shorter-term needs of EPA’s program offices for regulatory support for air, water, land, and ecosystem protections.
As the committee has described in Chapters 3 and 4, ORD can overcome these barriers, but success will require a commitment to science leadership, enhancing substantially its approach to strategic planning, investment in new and broader expertise and tools, and a reimagined and inclusive commitment to communication and collaboration.
ORD has made strides in recent years to enhance its strategic planning to better prepare for its future. With the committee’s guidance, that strategic planning effort can be transformed into the strategically foresighted, collaborative, and anticipatory foundation for significantly enhanced science for many decades to come (Recommendations 3-3 and 3-4).
The committee has described specific planning, management, and leadership actions for advancing the One Environment–One Health approach:
- Creating and nurturing a sustained culture of innovation within ORD (Recommendation 4-1);
- Building on and strengthening collaborations with other federal agencies, state and tribal government research partners, and the scientific community (Recommendation 4-2);
- Improving every aspect of its communications and outreach to ensure that ORD’s work is understood and valued across the environmental protection world (Recommendations 4-3 and 4-4); and
- Integrating scientific and technological advances throughout ORD through scientific leadership (Recommendations 4-5 and 4-6), building a workforce with enhanced expertise (Recommendations 4-7 and 4-8), and identifying and obtaining key resources (e.g., for data infrastructure) (Recommendation 4-9).
The committee concluded that for each of these actions, it is also critical for ORD to strengthen its skills in and application of social and behavioral science (Recommendation 3-2). Absent that commitment, ORD may be able to make scientific advances, but the impact of that science will be diminished if it is not built on an understanding of how behavior can undermine or enhance the implementation of environmental protection.
The rate of advancement in scientific techniques and methods has accelerated in recent years, even as the need for interdisciplinary approaches that use all of the newest tools to address complex problems has grown. In Chapter 5, the committee identified and made recommendations in four important areas where ORD will need to redouble its efforts to develop and apply the most advanced science. Specifically, the committee has recommended a number of steps for:
- New methods for measuring and assessing human and ecosystem exposure (Recommendations 5-1 through 5-8);
- Understanding and assessing rapid advances in biotechnology (Recommendation 5-9);
- Adopting and advancing community-based (participatory) research approaches (Recommendation 5-10); and
- Enhancing skills and capabilities in rapidly evolving data science and machine learning (Recommendations 5-11 and 5-12).
Above and beyond these important tools and methods, the committee expects that other key advances will continue to occur, and ORD will need to adapt to take advantage of them; the committee trusts that its proposed framework and organizational recommendations can ensure that each new approach meets ORD needs as it emerges.
The need for forward-thinking, strategic science to inform challenging environmental protection decisions has never been greater. Rapidly evolving technologies and scientific methods present an imperative and an opportunity for ORD to both meet the needs of EPA’s environmental protection programs and maintain leadership in using the newest science to inform the agency’s decisions in the coming decades. The committee sees investment in this proactive science not as detracting from support of EPA environmental protection programs, but rather as a critical investment that can position ORD’s support for all of the programs to be ready, with the best science, to confront new and emerging environmental challenges.
The committee also recognizes that it is calling on ORD to make these important, proactive investments amidst a trend of diminishing resources and the need to provide support to fulfill EPA’s ongoing responsibilities to implement specific statutory mandates. The committee looks to EPA leadership to identify priorities and timetables for implementing its various recommendations over 5-7 years. Some actions—like the current attempt to strengthen social and behavioral sciences skills through new hiring—are moving quickly ahead. In other cases, a staged approach may work better: for example, with the ORD Strategic Research Action Plans (StRAPs) for 2023-2026 recently completed, ORD need not immediately revamp all of its strategic planning process but could move quickly to build the strategic foresight capability the committee calls for in the near term, while laying the groundwork for more far-reaching and inclusive changes in the next round of strategic planning.
Prioritization will not, in and of itself, meet all the needs of ORD and EPA while resources are so severely constrained. In that context, the committee also encourages both EPA leadership and the broader government to seek opportunities for enhancing those resources so that ORD is able to provide the best science in support of every element of the agency’s environmental protection efforts.
Above all, implementing the changes that the committee recommends—applying systems thinking to a One Environment–One Health approach—will require insightful and sustained leadership from ORD, and ultimately EPA as a whole. While a number of the committee’s recommendations can begin to be implemented in incremental fashion, successfully revamping ORD’s approach to innovative and anticipatory research will require ORD to revolutionize the way it does business, making sustained, progressive improvements each year, and in each strategic planning cycle. The result will build on ORD’s already substantial contributions to ensure that its science is ahead of the curve, and its science voice informs all of EPA’s efforts to tackle the environmental challenges it will face for decades to come.