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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions 5 Summary, Conclusions, and Recommendations SUMMARY Pressures on the environment will continue to increase. Global population increase, rising incomes, and agricultural and industrial expansion will inevitably produce unanticipated and potentially deleterious ecological, economic, and human health consequences. Environmental research has proven its value in helping to respond to and prevent many environmental problems, and it continues to be a wise and necessary investment. The charge to this committee was to provide an overview of significant emerging environmental issues; identify and prioritize research themes and projects that are most relevant to understanding and resolving these issues; and consider the role of EPA's research program in addressing these issues, in the context of research being conducted or sponsored by other organizations. After careful deliberation, the committee decided not to simply present a limited list of "emerging" issues with specific research projects to address them. Such an exercise would provide a mere snapshot in time, based on the insights of one particular collection of individuals. Instead—and hopefully more valuably—this report provides an overview of important environmental issues and presents a framework for organizing environmental research. The report also describes major research themes and programs of relevance to EPA; suggests criteria that can be used to identify and prioritize among important research areas; recommends actions EPA should take to build its scientific capacity; and provides illustrations of the kinds of research projects that EPA should consider. CONCLUSIONS As a key environmental agency, EPA needs to support and maintain a strong research program. An evolving understanding of the complexity, magnitude,
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions and inter-relatedness of environmental problems leads us to conclude that a new balance of research programs may be helpful. This report describes a framework for conducting research in a way that will help alleviate the problems of the moment while providing a basis for solving tomorrow's problems. In the past, pressing environmental issues have been addressed primarily through focused research efforts directed toward solving particular problems. Although this approach to environmental research can be effective, has often been necessary, and will surely continue, it also has limitations. In order to address the abundance of established, emerging, and as-yet-unknown environmental issues, an expanded understanding of the scientific principles underlying environmental systems is needed. Achieving this understanding will require innovative, interdisciplinary approaches. To develop the knowledge needed to address current and emerging environmental issues, EPA should undertake both problem-driven research and core research. Problem-driven research is targeted at understanding and solving identified environmental problems, while core research aims to provide broader, more generic information that will help improve understanding of many problems now and in the future. Core research includes three components: (1) understanding the processes that drive and connect environmental systems; (2) development of innovative tools and methods for understanding and managing environmental problems; and (3) long-term collection and dissemination of accurate environmental data. Research activities within problem-driven and core research programs may often overlap. Fundamental discoveries can be made during the search for a solution to a narrowly defined problem; likewise, as illustrated earlier in this report, breakthroughs in problem-solving often occur as a result of core research efforts. Both kinds of investigations are needed, and feedback between them will greatly enhance the overall environmental research endeavor (see Figure 5-1). Because EPA's task of protecting the environment and human health is so vast and difficult, and because resources to undertake the necessary research are very limited, choices will have to be made among many worthwhile projects. The approaches for making these choices will be different in the core and problem-driven portions of the research program. The former should seek better understanding of fundamental phenomena and generate broadly relevant research tools and information. The latter will be more responsive to regulatory activities and other immediate needs and should be guided by the paradigm of risk reduction. Because there are so many specific issues of importance to the public, the Congress, and EPA's own program and regional offices, there is a temptation to include many problems for attention. It is important to resist this trend: it will inevitably lead either to the dilution of efforts to solve the most pressing problems or to the reduction of funding available for critical core research needs.
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions FIGURE 5-1 A framework for environmental research at EPA. Interactions among the natural environment, plants, animals, and the evergrowing human population are highly complex and inherently unpredictable. Although this report provides a broad overview of current and emerging environmental issues, it is important to note that this is merely a snapshot in time. Identification of issues requiring attention is a dynamic, continuous process. With its limited budget, staff, and mandate, it is not possible or reasonable for EPA to act alone in understanding and addressing all environmental problems. Many other federal agencies, state agencies, other organizations (including utilities), universities, and private companies have played and will continue to play important roles in environmental research. Cooperation with others will be particularly needed in the area of environmental monitoring, a complex and costly undertaking, and in the investigation of global-scale issues. Another factor to consider in determining EPA's research role on a particular environmental issue is whether the private sector has any incentive to study or develop better solutions, or whether the primary research must originate from the public sector to serve the public good. Examples of areas of "public good" that might deserve EPA attention include municipal wastewater and drinking water treatment, nonpoint-source pollution control, restoration of degraded ecosystems, and large-scale regional and global air pollution problems.
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions RECOMMENDATIONS To enhance the productivity and effectiveness of EPA's research efforts, the committee makes recommendations in three areas: a general approach to research, core research themes, and problem-driven research themes. Approach to Research EPA should establish a balance between problem-driven and core research. Although there is currently an emphasis on problem-driven research projects in EPA, the core component of EPA's research program should be developed to be approximately equal in magnitude. EPA should develop an internal mechanism for continually identifying emerging issues and then applying a risk assessment evaluation to these issues to determine the highest priorities and areas of greatest uncertainty. One important method for identifying emerging issues is to review and synthesize new findings from the core research program. EPA research personnel should be fully engaged in the issue identification and research planning process. EPA should cooperate closely with agencies, organizations, municipalities, universities, and industries involved in environmental research. In addition to providing research support, mechanisms for cooperation might include participation of EPA management in interagency coordination efforts, participation of staff in scientific meetings and conferences, and incentives and rewards for individuals who seek out and work with their counterparts in other organizations. Collaboration should be maintained in research endeavors, environmental monitoring, data archiving, and environmental policy formulation and evaluation. EPA should continue to act as a coordinator in bringing various environmental researchers together to exchange information and ideas, possibly in the form of interdisciplinary workshops on particular environmental topics. This would also help in ''scanning the horizon" to identify new environmental trends and emerging problems. Through these meetings, EPA can discuss the relative risks as well as solutions and policies and can determine which areas require more research. EPA should compile, publish, and disseminate an annual summary of all research being conducted or funded by the agency in order to facilitate both better cooperation with others and better internal planning. The report should be organized into broad strategic categories, with sub-categories describing program areas. Publications and other output should be listed and made available upon request. Core Research Themes The core component of EPA's research program should include three basic objectives:
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions Acquisition of systematic understanding about underlying environmental processes (such as those displayed in Table 2.2); Development of broadly applicable research tools, including better techniques for measuring physical, chemical, biological, social, and economic variables of interest; more accurate models of complex systems and their interactions; and new methods for analyzing, displaying, and using environmental information for science-based decision making; Design, implementation, and maintenance of appropriate environmental monitoring programs, with evaluation, analysis, synthesis and dissemination of the data and results to improve understanding of the status of and changes in environmental resources over time and to confirm that environmental policies are having the desired effect. Core research projects should be selected based on their relevance to EPA's mission, whether such research is already being sponsored by other agencies, and the quality of the work proposed, as determined by a peer-review process. Cross-cutting, interdisciplinary studies that take advantage of advances in many different fields will be particularly valuable. As part of its core research efforts, EPA should conduct retrospective evaluations of the effectiveness of environmental policies and decisions. Retrospective evaluations are critical to ensuring that environmental policies are achieving their intended goals without creating unpredicted, undesirable side-effects. EPA should make a long-term financial and intellectual commitment to core research projects. Progress in core research generally does not come quickly; therefore it is important that the agency provide adequate long-term support to this kind of knowledge development, allowing it to follow its often unpredictable course. Tool development and data collection must be ongoing endeavors in order to be fully effective. Problem-Driven Research Themes EPA should maintain a focused, problem-driven research program. The problem-driven and core research areas will be complementary and result in the interaction of ideas and results. Evaluation of problem-driven research areas should focus on reducing the risks and uncertainties associated with each problem. EPA should retain its emphasis on risk assessment to prioritize among problem-driven research areas. Using criteria such as timing, novelty, scope, severity, and probability satisfies this requirement, as does the more detailed risk assessment framework described in the EPA strategic plan for ORD. Although risk assessment and
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions TABLE 5-1 Recommended Actions for EPA • Develop and maintain a strong core research program as well as a strong problem-driven research program. • Develop an in-house capability to identify and set priorities among current and emerging environmental issues. • Select core research projects based on relevance to EPA's mission, coverage by others, and the quality of the proposed science. • Conduct retrospective evaluations of the effectiveness of environmental policies and decisions. • Make a long-term commitment to selected core research projects. • Use criteria such as timing, novelty, scope, severity, and probability to sort important environmental issues. • Use the risk assessment paradigm to set priorities within the problem-driven research area. • Pay particular attention to areas where the private sector has little incentive to conduct research or develop better solutions to environmental problems. • Re-evaluate problem-driven research priorities on a regular basis to ensure that the most important problems are being addressed. • Increase coordination of EPA research, monitoring, and technology development activities with those of other agencies and organizations in the United States and the world. • Ensure research personnel participation in inter-organizational coordination efforts and in scientific meetings and conferences. • Provide a clear annual summary of the ORD research strategy and programs, organizing the programs into broad categories and identifying the value of these programs to strengthening core knowledge or solving environmental problems. management provide a good framework for choosing among issues, the methodology must be refined to achieve more accurate assessments. EPA should concentrate efforts in areas where the private sector has little incentive to conduct research or develop better solutions to environmental problems. Problem-driven research should be re-evaluated and re-focused on a regular basis to ensure that the most important problems are being addressed. Unlike core research priorities, which may not change much over time, in the problem-driven area EPA must develop adaptive feedback capabilities to allow it to change directions when new issues arise and old issues are "solved" or judged to pose less risk than expected. This committee was not asked to, and did not, address issues concerning EPA's research infrastructure, the appropriate balance between internal and external research, mechanisms for peer review, and other research management issues. Recommendations in these areas will be made by the Committee on Research and Peer Review at EPA (see Chapter 1). Table 5-1 summarizes recommended
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Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions actions that are intended to provide EPA with the knowledge needed to address current and emerging environmental issues. Good science is essential for sound environmental decision-making. By implementing the recommendations contained in this report, EPA can increase the effectiveness of its research program and thus continue to play an important role in efforts to protect the environment and human health into the next century.
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Representative terms from entire chapter: