Improving Science at the Environmental Protection Agency (11/01)

The following column by GAP Intern Caetlin Ofiesh is reprinted from the November 2001 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.


As the primary environmental regulatory body in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment. It is the principal enforcer of a disparate collection of federal laws that address a wide variety of environmental problems. Although the EPA's primary mission is regulatory, the agency's strategic plan recognizes sound science as the foundation upon which that enforcement is built. Since the agency's creation thirty years ago, however, the scientific foundation of its policies has been criticized by federal reports as well as by many groups with a vested interest in regulatory decisions, including members of Congress, the judiciary, and industry.

Getting the Ball Rolling
In 2000, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report evaluating the EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD), the operating science body within the agency (its administrator has traditionally been the highest-ranking science official). Because the ORD is of equal rank to both to regulatory and regional offices, it has not been successful in incorporating its guidance regarding scientific policy and activities into the agency as a whole. Entitled Strengthening Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Research Management and Peer Review Practices, the report recognized that the lack of a top science official was preventing quality science from taking center stage behind the regulatory process.

Members of Congress have responded to the report by introducing two bills that seek to address and improve the EPA's reputation for science by making changes internally to increase inclusion of science in the regulatory process and externally to elevate the agency's rank in the federal government. The internal approach (H.R. 64 and its companion S. 1176) seeks to create a new high-level position within the EPA to oversee research and science.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) introduced H.R. 64, the Strengthening Science at the EPA Act, in January 2001. The bill is an attempt to increase accountability for the science behind the regulations. Based on the NRC report's recommendations, the bill establishes a new presidentially appointed Deputy Administrator for Science and Technology to serve as a scientific gate-keeper with the responsibility of coordinating and overseeing all the scientific activities throughout the agency. The current Deputy Administrator of the EPA position would be renamed Deputy Administrator for Policy and Management. As he described at a Capitol Hill briefing on the bill in July, Ehlers's goal is that science will be infused into every step of the EPA's process, rather than being inserted in piecemeal fashion to accompany policies and actions. The result would be regulatory actions that carry strong scientific and political weight. To address issues within the ORD, H.R. 64 would add Chief Scientist of the EPA to the title of the current Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, and extend the term of the position from four to six years, also an NRC recommendation. The hope is that a longer term would not only bring greater continuity to scientific research at the agency but also will attract top candidates who previously would have been drawn to academia or the private sector. As envisioned by Ehlers and the NRC, the Assistant Administrator would be responsible for directing the internal research program, while the new Deputy Administrator position would focus on improving scientific practices and performance within the agency as a whole.

The bill also makes several recommendations for ways in which the ORD could improve its operations. These suggestions include extending flexibility and accountability to research managers, enabling them to make decisions at the lowest level appropriate to EPA policy; maintaining an even balance between problem-driven and core research, developing a strategy for both encouraging and acquiring research conducted by other state and federal agencies, universities, and industry; and improving the documentation and transparency of decision-making within the office. In July 2001, Sens. George Voinovich (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE) introduced similar legislation (S. 1176) in the Senate. The only difference from H.R. 64 is that the Senate version expressly specifies that the new Deputy Administrator for Science and Technology would be charged with oversight of the ORD and several other science bodies within the EPA.

A Step Up
The second pair of bills seeks to make changes to the EPA by taking an external approach to improvement. Introduced in January 2001 by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), S. 159 would elevate the EPA to cabinet-level and rename it the Department of Environmental Protection. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) introduced companion legislation (H.R. 2438) in July. Although this legislation may be more symbolic than the Ehlers bill, it nonetheless represents an important step in making improvements to the agency and addressing environmental concerns.

Currently, the US is on a short list of industrialized nations whose environmental agency does not have a cabinet or equivalent level in the federal government. Several attempts have been made in the past 13 years to elevate the EPA to cabinet status but they have failed due to wrangling over additional provisions. However, the current bills have already begun to gather strong congressional support, and the day after H.R. 2438 was introduced, the Bush administration and EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman expressed their support. At a hearing on the Senate version of the bill held by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs at the end of July, Whitman--mindful of what has prevented similar legislation from passing in the past--stressed the importance of keeping the bill free of riders and other more controversial provisions.

Although elevation to cabinet level would be a jump in formal status for the EPA, the reality is that the Administrator has traditionally been invited by the president to act as a member of the Cabinet. However symbolic the gesture may be, Boehlert characterized the agency's responsibilities as "too critical not to be an official part of the Cabinet," and the administration seems to agree. Part of the reason for President Bush's support of the bill may also be the hard knocks he has taken on a number of environmental issues. The administration has shown that it wants to make an effort to improve its environmental image, and Whitman has made a strong commitment to "leave America's air cleaner, water purer, and land better protected than when I took office."

Making Real Changes
Although these two sets of legislation take different roads, they both have similar goals of improving the EPA in quality and stature. Witnesses testifying at the hearing on the cabinet legislation have expressed that they would like to see Congress wait until the EPA is elevated to Cabinet level before modifying its internal structure to address concerns about science. But while both bills seek to make improvements, the legislation that takes the internal approach (H.R. 64 and S. 1176) addresses the issue that is at the heart of the EPA's problems: that science is not currently a centerpiece of the agency's regulation. Although elevation to cabinet level will be a positive symbol for the EPA, improving the scientific foundation behind the agency's regulations and policies will do more to ready the agency to diagnose and treat the difficult environmental problems that face the nation.

The NRC report on the EPA can be found at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309071275/html/.


Caetie Ofiesh has returned to Amherst College for her senior year as a geology major


This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted May 13, 2002


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