CORVALLIS, Ore. - A National Research Council committee chaired by Oregon State University President Paul Risser is recommending stronger scientific leadership and oversight at the Environmental Protection Agency.
In its report, the committee says that the EPA has become primarily a regulatory agency without a science mission, like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.
Yet in its strategic plan, the EPA acknowledges that environmental protection efforts need to be "based on the best available scientific information." And, Risser points out, "sound science" is one of the agency's avowed goals.
"The EPA has a director and it has legal and operational directors, but it has no high-level research advisers," Risser said. "The creation of such a top-level science adviser, or 'research czar,' if you will, would provide some much-needed accountability. There is suspicion by some people that EPA rules are promulgated by regulations and convenience more than by the best available science."
Risser was chosen to chair the Committee on Research and Peer Review in the EPA by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Committee members included scientists, educators, and administrative leaders from top research universities, government agencies and private industry.
The committee's recommendation to establish a new position at EPA - deputy administrator for science and technology - would require authorization from Congress, appointment by the President, and confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Risser said the deputy administrator would help identify and define important scientific issues for the EPA, develop and oversee strategies to both acquire and disseminate the best scientific information, improve the scientific outreach and communication efforts of the agency, and coordinate scientific quality control and peer-review efforts.
"The EPA has done a lot of good work for a long time, but it's path as a regulatory agency has, perhaps, diverged a bit too far from the scientific foundation that it needs," Risser said. "As we began the review, the agency understandably was a bit resistant, as are most people when asked to do things differently.
"But as they began to see the potential benefits of what the committee is proposing, they have been very supportive," he added.
The committee made a series of other recommendations as well. They include:
- Require more independent peer-review for scientific research.
- Empower the directors of individual research labs within EPA to have a higher degree of autonomy and decision-making ability, as well as accountability.
- Continue to place a high priority on graduate fellowships and post-doctoral programs.
- Create the equivalent of endowed academic research chairs in national laboratories.
- Encourage more cooperation with - and awareness of - the scientific and research enterprises of universities, private industry and other government agencies.
- Convert the position of assistant administrator for research and development to a statutory term of 4-6 years, and require more scientific, technological and academic qualifications.
The EPA has a lab in Corvallis on the OSU campus that may be affected by some of the recommendations. A program to provide national endowed research chairs could include one at the OSU lab, which Risser said earns high marks in its evaluation.
"The lab here is regarded as one of the best in terms of quality," Risser said.
Risser praised the EPA for its work in measuring air pollution and constructing long-term models of pollution patterns and their effects. He added that the agency needs more scientific exploration into chemical derivatives of pesticides, especially "endocrine disruptors"; global change issues; ecosystems; and disease vectors.