Expert Report

Science for Environmental Protection: The Road Ahead (2012)

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Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

In anticipation of future environmental science and engineering challenges and technologic advances, EPA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to assess the overall capabilities of the agency to develop, obtain, and use the best available scientific and technologic information and tools to meet persistent, emerging, and future mission challenges and opportunities. Although the committee cannot predict with certainty what new environmental problems EPA will face in the next 10 years or more, it worked to identify some of the common drivers and common characteristics of problems that are likely to occur.

Tensions inherent to the structure of EPA's work contribute to the current and persistent challenges faced by the agency, and meeting those challenges will require development of leading-edge scientific methods, tools, and technologies, and a more deliberate approach to systems thinking and interdisciplinary science. The report outlines a framework for building science for environmental protection in the 21st century and identified key areas where enhanced leadership and capacity can strengthen the agency’s abilities to address current and emerging environmental challenges as well as take advantage of new tools and technologies to address them.

The foundation of EPA science is strong, but the agency needs to continue to address numerous present and future challenges if it is to maintain its science leadership and meet its expanding mandates.

Key Messages

  • Some key features of EPA's persistent and future challenges are: complex feedback loops; the need to understand the effects of low-level exposures to numerous stressors as opposed to high-level exposures to individual stressors; the need to understand social, economic, and environmental drivers; and the need for systems thinking to devise optimal solutions.
  • Supporting the development of leading-edge scientific methods, tools, and technologies is critical for understanding environmental changes and their effects on human health and for identifying solutions.
  • EPA's mandated focus on problem identification sometimes occurs at the expense of efforts to use scientific tools to develop safer technologies and solutions. Defining problems without a comparable effort to find solutions can diminish the value of applied research efforts.
  • A framework for building science for environmental protection in the 21st century includes: developing robust approaches to data acquisition, modeling, and knowledge development; staying at the leading edge of science; developing and applying systems-level tools and expertise for the systematic analysis of the health, environmental, social, and economic implications of individual decisions; and developing tools and methods for synthesizing scientific information and characterizing uncertainties, as well as methods for tracking and assessing the outcomes of actions.
  • Key areas where enhanced leadership and capacity can strengthen the agency’s ability to address current and emerging environmental challenges include: enhanced agency-wide science leadership, more effective coordination and integration of science efforts within the agency, strengthened scientific capacity inside and outside the agency, and support of scientific integrity and quality.