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Blueprint For EPA Science

Transition to Obama Administration poses opportunity for shifts in priorities, direction of agency research

by Cheryl Hogue
November 24, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 47

Credit: Eric Vance/EPA
Researchers John Macauley (left) and Bob Quarles of EPA’s Gulf Ecology Division conduct a validation test of the agency’s new wetlands rapid bioassessment method.
Credit: Eric Vance/EPA
Researchers John Macauley (left) and Bob Quarles of EPA’s Gulf Ecology Division conduct a validation test of the agency’s new wetlands rapid bioassessment method.

THE SCIENCE PROGRAM at the Environmental Protection Agency is small compared with the enormous efforts at the Defense or Energy Departments. The military and the Department of Energy get billions each year in federal dollars for science and technology, while EPA has averaged a modest $746 million annually between 2002 and 2007.

But because EPA’s science often generates data that help shape pollution control regulations, it has a direct impact on people’s daily lives and industry’s profitability. For instance, a child with asthma may go to the emergency room fewer times each year because new pollution regulations are making the air cleaner. Or a manufacturing facility may face unplanned investments in newer, less-polluting processes because EPA tightens the limits on toxic emissions.

In addition to providing data that regulators rely upon, EPA scientists discover and track emerging environmental problems and come up with new methods for analyzing them.

The science program at EPA currently faces tight budgets and is saddled with what many in Congress, some staff scientists, and many environmental groups see as restrictive policies. These constraints are forcing the agency to focus on short-term environmental problems and limiting its ability to do proactive studies. And a recent survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that hundreds of EPA scientists experienced political interference in their work during the past five years.

Now, an opportunity for new directions and priorities for science at EPA comes with the transition from the Administration of President George W. Bush to that of President-Elect Barack H. Obama. There are plenty of ideas for what to change—or not to change—about this pivotal federal program. They range from keeping research programs that were launched by the Bush Administration, such as one focused on nanomaterials, to bolstering the EPA research budget to replacing policies some see as hampering agency scientists. The goal of such ideas is a robust science program that is free of political interference and provides the agency with critical data.

EPA’s panel of outside advisers, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), says what’s needed is more funding and expansion of basic research to identify future environmental problems. The current head of EPA’s Office of Research & Development (ORD) says it’s important to retain several critical programs begun by the Bush Administration that will provide great benefits over the long haul. And according to UCS, the Obama Administration needs to get rid of policies the White House and EPA adopted during the Bush years that, UCS argues, hinder scientific freedom and integrity.

SAB sees EPA’s science efforts as slowly starving because of a lack of funding. Facing federal budget cuts, EPA’s research increasingly has focused on the short-term needs of the agency’s regulatory programs, says Granger Morgan, who chaired SAB from October 2004 until Sept. 30. Morgan heads Carnegie Mellon University’s department of engineering and public policy.

“The most important thing the Obama Administration can do to better EPA science is to increase transparency.”

THE LACK of investment in science will leave the agency ill-equipped to address future environmental problems, SAB told EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson in a May 12 letterDownload The PDF.

“EPA is underinvesting in research on a wide range of emerging science needed to understand and manage current environmental problems and those that are likely to be recognized in the future. As a consequence we run a considerable risk that we will not be able to address these problems adequately in the future,” SAB told Johnson.

“We also run the risk of incurring much larger future costs because we do not understand the subtle intricacies of these risks and hence could blunder into difficulties, such as inappropriate regulatory responses, from which it may be much more expensive to recover than if we understood what we were facing ahead of time,” the board added.

“The agency really needs to be ready to deal with some of those emerging issues,” Morgan tells C&EN.

Credit: Eric Vance/EPA
Derrick Allen (front, left) and Thabet Tolaymat work on a landfill bioreactor experiment at EPA’s National Health & Environmental Effects Research Laboratory in Cinncinnati.
Credit: Eric Vance/EPA
Derrick Allen (front, left) and Thabet Tolaymat work on a landfill bioreactor experiment at EPA’s National Health & Environmental Effects Research Laboratory in Cinncinnati.

DURING THE Bush Administration, EPA has poured money into new areas of study such as nanomaterials, which offer both the promise of new tools for environmental cleanup and the potential risk of causing pollution. But money for these latest efforts, SAB said in its letter, “has generally come at the expense of other programs, such as extramural research and research to monitor the status of the nation’s ecosystems.”

“It’s quite sad what’s happened to science at EPA,” Morgan says. “It’s very shortsighted. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Meanwhile, George M. Gray, EPA assistant administrator for ORD, urges his successor to continue several research efforts the agency initiated during the Bush Administration. These include the work on nanomaterials, evaluation of biofuels, and efforts to put a dollar figure on the services that ecosystems provide for people, such as wetlands filtering polluted water, he says.

In addition, Gray stresses that EPA needs to continue development of computational toxicology, a field that could revolutionize the testing of industrial chemicals for health and environmental effects. “If it continues to be supported, it will really pay off,” Gray says. Computational toxicology combines the high-throughput screening techniques used by the pharmaceutical industry with mathematical models. It promises to provide a method to screen many chemicals for adverse effects quickly, as opposed to traditional toxicology, which often involves exposing laboratory animals to a single substance over weeks or years.

Gray also encourages his successor to retain a Bush-era ORD initiative called People, Prosperity & the Planet. This is an annual contest challenging multidisciplinary teams of college students to develop sustainable scientific and technical solutions to environmental problems.

In addition, Gray urges Obama’s EPA team to maintain several policy initiatives by the Bush Administration that he says are helping EPA science and research efforts.

One is a controversial change, unveiled in April, to the way EPA assesses the health risks from pollutants. The new policy lets federal agencies facing cleanup liability, including the military and DOE, sway EPA’s scientific assessments while keeping their influence hidden from public scrutiny, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is Congress’ investigative arm (C&EN, May 5, page 10). But Gray insists that the new policy “encourages a free and frank exchange” among agencies.

In advice prepared for the incoming president’s transition team and released on Nov. 6, GAO targets this policy as a major threat to sound science at EPA. The new Administration, GAO recommends, should ensure that EPA’s science-based judgments about chemicals “are not inappropriately biased by policy considerations of [the White House] or other federal agencies that have a vested interest in the results.”

Meanwhile, Gray also says EPA will be well served by the Bush Administration’s change in the way the agency reviews the health-based clean air standard for six widespread pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to review and, if necessary, revise national limits for these pollutants every five years. But in the three decades this requirement has been in effect, EPA has never met the five-year revision deadline. As a result, environmental groups and others have sued the agency, and a court has stepped in to set deadlines for the agency to act.

In late 2006, the Bush EPA adopted a new process to speed up review of these standards. Critics say the new procedure diminishes the role of agency scientists and boosts political influence. But Gray says it will keep the agency on time in reviewing the air standards.

UCS, like GAO, has a list of Bush Administration policies that it wants Obama’s team to eliminate or replace. These, according to UCS, will give a boost to EPA science without requiring increases in federal spending.

The most important thing the Obama Administration can do to better EPA science is to increase transparency, says Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at UCS. She called on Obama’s EPA administrator, who has not yet been named, to reissue an agency directive that former administrator William D. Ruckelshaus sent more than a quarter of a century ago.

Ruckelshaus served as the agency’s first administrator during the Nixon Administration and returned to the agency early in the Reagan Administration following a scandal involving misuse of dollars in the agency’s Superfund program for cleaning up hazardous waste sites. He offered a steady hand to a shaken agency after Reagan’s first EPA chief, Anne M. Burford, was forced to resign for refusing to turn over documents to Congress.

As he started his second round as head of the agency in 1983, Ruckelshaus insisted that EPA should operate as if it were a fishbowl, exposed to public view.

“We will attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate, and we will do so as openly as possible,” Ruckelshaus instructed EPA employees. “I am relying on EPA employees to use their common sense and good judgment to conduct themselves with the openness and integrity which alone can ensure public trust in the agency.”

“EPA is underinvesting in research on a wide range of emerging science needed to understand and manage current environmental problems.”

EPA administrators under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton issued similar memos reaffirming Ruckelshaus’ fishbowl principle. Those who served under the current President Bush have not issued such a memo, reflecting the Bush Administration’s practice of tightly controlling information flowing from federal agencies.

EPA needs a new fishbowl memo, Grifo says, because the agency is in a “crisis of credibility” similar to what it faced at the end of Burford’s tenure. A new memo would signal to agency scientists and other staff members that “things have changed,” she says.

Obama, meanwhile, can quickly shore up science at EPA by repealing a 2007 Bush directive requiring the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) to review all technical guidance documents prepared by agencies, Grifo says. OMB shouldn’t have the power to trump an agency’s technical expertise by “second-guessing and editing science” guidance documents, she says. UCS may get this wish fulfilled: Obama’s transition team has indicated in recent days that the president-elect may well overturn that directive shortly after he takes office.

A more ambitious item is on UCS’s list as well. Obama should work with Congress to elevate EPA to being a Cabinet-level department, Grifo says. The idea has been bandied about for two decades, but it never had a substantial push from the White House.

One government-wide program impacting EPA science that Gray encourages the new president to retain is the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). This internal government system instituted by the Bush White House is designed to measure the performance of various federal programs. PART has forced EPA’s research office to link its efforts to measurable outcomes—such as the number of publications, reports, or mathematical models—that are completed in a given fiscal year. “I hope PART continues to make ORD more effective and more efficient,” Gray says.

Some, however, question the appropriateness of applying PART to R&D programs. A National Research Council panel that looked at PART said in its report that the White House is evaluating federal R&D programs, especially at EPA, on the basis of information unsuitable for judging effectiveness (C&EN, Feb. 4, page 20).

Paying attention to the professional lives of EPA scientists is also pivotal to the future of EPA science, all sides agree. Gray, Grifo, and Morgan each say that EPA should make sure, even in this tight budget environment, that its scientists have opportunities to interact with their professional colleagues.

Gray endorses EPA scientists’ attendance, with the agency’s blessing, of professional meetings, such as those of the Society of Toxicology and Society of Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry.

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

“The ability of our scientists to be part of their scientific community, to share their research, to share their knowledge, and frankly, at times, to get other people interested in EPA problems for their research is something that is really important to ORD,” Gray says. “Sometimes it’s a little tricky to protect travel money in a world of shrinking budgets,” he acknowledges. Nonetheless, it’s important for EPA to support its scientists professionally, he explains.

Credit: Ken Andreyko/Carnegie Mellon University
Credit: Ken Andreyko/Carnegie Mellon University

Within budgetary constraints, EPA should ensure that its scientists can attend or present papers and posters at scientific meetings, Grifo says. To attend a meeting, agency scientists must submit documents to agency higher-ups at least 30 days in advance, she says, regardless of whether they or the agency is paying for the trip. But this doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be allowed to attend. Under current EPA policies, scientists must wait until a political appointee gives them the green light. This practice, according to Grifo, is tantamount to undocumented political vetting of scientists’ work.

Credit: Courtesy of UCS
Credit: Courtesy of UCS

“Let’s not pick and choose the politically correct piece of information that can be presented” at scientific meetings, Grifo says. Instead, the presumption should be that scientists will be cleared to go to a meeting once they submit the required paper work. If they’re denied clearance, the scientists should get a signed, written explanation, even if the request is simply to attend a meeting and not present research results, she says.


IN ADDITION, Grifo says EPA should adopt a publication policy that prevents what she calls “excess review” of papers that agency scientists wish to submit for publication. These reviews, she contends, become tinged with politics because agency higher-ups can delay publication of controversial results. But because taxpayer dollars paid for the research, the results should be made public, she says.

Grifo’s request for a more open publication policy appears to have the support of the incoming president. Before his election, Obama signaled that his EPA officials would not constrain agency scientists.

“In an Obama Administration, the principle of scientific integrity will be an absolute, and I will never sanction any attempt to subvert the work of scientists,” Obama wrote in an Oct. 20 letter to John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the unions that represent EPA employees. “I strongly oppose attempts by the Bush Administration to thwart publication of EPA researchers’ scientific findings,” Obama wrote.

“It’s quite sad what’s happened to science at EPA. It’s very shortsighted.”

Grifo urges the president-elect to go even further to ensure all EPA scientists’ voices get heard. For instance, after EPA settles on a final regulation for, say, air or water pollution standards, the agency should make publicly available the views of its scientists who dissent with its managers’ policy choice, she suggests. “Americans are smart enough to understand that scientists disagree,” she says.

And the agency needs to create a standard news media policy for EPA scientists, Grifo says, to protect what she calls “scientific speech.” This would allow them to speak publicly as private citizens, rather than as EPA employees, about their research and expertise. Also, any news release from EPA that is substantively based on the work of an agency scientist should be reviewed by that scientist before it is made public, she adds.

Any modifications the Obama Administration makes to the science programs at EPA will unfold over the next year or so, beginning with the president-elect’s selection for the agency’s administrator. And because Obama ran on a platform of change, shifts may well be in store throughout the government, including EPA’s science efforts.



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