Role of Science at EPA
Science provides the foundation for credible decision-making. Only through adequate knowledge about the risks to human health and ecosystems, and innovative solutions to prevent pollution and reduce risk, can we continue to enjoy a high quality life. With a better understanding of environmental risks to people and ecosystems, EPA can target the hazards that pose the greatest risks and anticipate environmental problems before they reach a critical level. Although all of EPA uses science for policy and regulatory decision-making, and various EPA offices perform research, the responsibility for leadership in science at EPA resides in EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD).
Although it is important that ORD's scientific research and development be integrated with and responsive to the Agency's regulatory needs, it is vital that the conduct of the research itself be independent and of the highest quality. Over the past 4 years, ORD has taken major steps to ensure that it carries out a program of sound science to inform Agency decisions without allowing regulatory objectives to distort scientific findings or analyses. These steps have included open, transparent, and peer-reviewed research planning; competitively awarded extramural research grants; independent peer review of ORD science publications, assessments, and documents; and rigorous peer review of ORD's research laboratories and centers.
In its recent report, Evaluating Federal Research Programs: Research and the Government Performance and Results Act, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) identified three questions as important for evaluating federally funded research programs:
ORD works in several areas to provide high quality research to support EPA's mission. For its major scientific research activities, ORD writes forward-looking research strategies and plans that address those problems that pose the greatest risks to human health and the environment. ORD evaluates the plans and strategies periodically and adjusts them if warranted by new research results, by changes in EPA or national priorities, or by emerging issues and concerns. These plans and strategies are subjected to rigorous peer review. To complement its in-house research program, ORD leverages its resources by partnering with other federal agencies on the interagency Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources. In addition, ORD has created the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, an extramural research program that includes the best of this country's scientists through targeted, competitive, and peer-reviewed grants that are focused on the most important environmental science issues facing our nation and the world.
To maintain both short- and long-term relevance to EPA's mission, ORD balances its scientific research activities across the two broad categories of problem-driven research (to solve current environmental problems of high risk and high scientific uncertainty) and core research (to improve the underlying scientific foundation for understanding and protecting human health and the environment). These two aspects of ORD's research program at times overlap, and can be mutually reinforcing--work on a particular problem can lead to a fundamental breakthrough, and discoveries made while conducting core research can solve a particular environmental problem. EPA needs both types of research, and the synergy between them enhances ORD's overall research program.
EPA is a leader in many areas of environmental science, and ORD's work in the area of endocrine disrupting chemicals illustrates this leadership. EPA has been studying the effects of these chemicals for many years, and took the lead in convening experts from around the world to develop an international research strategy, partnering with other federal agencies and the President's Office of Science and Technology in an effort that has now resulted in a broad, internationally integrated research program to study the effects and risks of these chemicals. For example, as part of this program an ORD scientist has discovered a unique protein in male animals, including humans, that is a marker for reproductive fertility. ORD is studying the usefulness of this marker as a diagnostic tool for assessing fertility following exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.
The role and use of science at EPA are determined by the nature of scientific information and how it fits within the context of Agency decision-making. Scientific information of the type described above--whether it comes from ORD, other agencies, academia, the regulated community, or other sources--always includes some degree of uncertainty and is subject to varying interpretations. For example, assessments of risks to humans from exposure to chemicals are often based on tests in which laboratory animals are given high doses of a chemical. Effects seen in the animals may or may not appear in humans, who are typically exposed to much lower doses and whose bodies may metabolize the chemicals differently. In addition, there are often different scientifically justifiable ways to conduct risk assessments, and the method chosen by the assessor can significantly impact the risk estimate.
Scientific knowledge is not only uncertain, but also dynamic. Through research that is designed to reduce uncertainties, our understanding increases and, as a result, we change our assumptions about the impacts of environmental problems and how they should be addressed. For example, for many years we have been concerned mainly with removing large particles of toxic pollutants from airborne emissions. Now, however, research indicates that small particles of air pollutants may cause greater damage to human lungs than larger particles. This new information not only changes our understanding of the effects of air pollution, but also may significantly impact future pollution prevention and removal strategies.
Science does not drive EPA's policy and regulatory decisions, but rather, along with other relevant factors, informs and supports those decisions. Implementation costs and technological feasibility, local autonomy versus federal control, and justice and equity--all of which impact our quality of life and standard of living--are among the considerations that need to be factored into EPA's decisions without compromising scientific integrity, the Agency's mission, or statutory mandates. The impacts or limitations of these non-science factors, as well as the current state-of-the-science, will influence how scientific considerations are brought to bear on a particular environmental problem facing the Agency.
ORD's research program is of high quality, relevant to the Agency's mission, and at the leading edge of knowledge in many areas of environmental science. ORD's approach to measuring the strength of its research program is in accord with the most recent NAS recommendations for evaluating federal research programs. ORD continually looks for ways to build on its strengths, so that EPA's decisions and actions continue to be informed by the best available science. As we move into the 21st century, ORD's research program remains focused on providing high quality, relevant support for the Agency's activities, and is well positioned to keep EPA at the forefront of addressing the next environmental problems over the horizon.