Most Recent Action   Background   Hearing Summaries 

Science at the Environmental Protection Agency (7-26-00)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting environmental health and safety through their regulatory, enforcement, and remediation authority.  Ideally, these functions are based upon "sound science" research carried out by the agency and other non-related facilities.  However, over the years the perception has developed that EPA's policies lack a strong scientific foundation.  In order to better understand why the agency has fallen short, the National Research Council has performed an assessment of EPA's Office of Research and Development and has suggested several ways the agency could improve.

Most Recent Action
Following the release of the National Research Council's (NRC) report entitled Strengthening Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Research Management and Peer Review Practices,  the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on July13, 2000 to discuss the report.  The witnesses included Dr. David Morrison of the report's committee, and Dr. Robert Huggett, the former Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD).  The committee recommended the creation of a high-level administration position to coordinate and oversee all scientific activities in the agency.  The administrator would be responsible for all aspects of the transfer of sound scientific and technical information into the agency's proposed policies or regulations.  The report also details several ways the ORD could better maintain research program continuity, enhance research leadership and strengthen scientific communication in the agency and between it and outside entities.  The report stressed the need for a peer-review policy to promote separation, objectivity, and independence between the reviewer and the project decision-maker.  The committee applauded the advancements EPA has made in the past five years and supported the continued attention to balancing core and applied research.

Other reports analyzing EPA practices have been issued by NRC in the past, as well as by Resources for the Future, EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB), and the General Accounting Office to name a few.  The EPA's main mission is to protect human health and the environment, a goal primarily accomplished through its regulatory authority.  Recent debates about climate change have challenged whether EPA has the right to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant without Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.  More information about climate change and EPA's role is available on the AGI website.

         House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
July 13, 2000

            Hearing on the findings of the National Research Council (NRC) findings on strengthening science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Bottom Line
Congress and EPA requested a study to examine the structure and management of EPA's research program, as well as its peer review practices.  The hearing addressed the report provided by the National Research Council (NRC), a division of the National Academies.  The report mainly recommended the formation of several new positions that would strengthen coordination between EPA's research programs and policy makers.  Subcommittee chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) informally proposed transferring the science and research aspects of EPA to a new agency that would report its findings to EPA, but this proposal was opposed by everyone else who spoke at the hearing.  The witnesses and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), previously a research physicist before joining Congress, strongly advocated the involvement of scientists in at all stages of environmental policy formation.

Members Present
Ken Calvert (R-CA), Chairman
Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
Jerry Costello (D-IL), Ranking Member
Bob Etheridge (D-NC)
Joe Baca (D-CA)

Opening Statement
Calvert opened the hearing with a summary of the NRC's report.  He justified the need for such a report by citing a wide-spread perception that the EPA's lack of attention to sound science has caused the the agency to formulate bad policies.  The example he cited was the agency's mandatory requirement that gasoline be oxygenated with MTBE, only to discover later that the additive pollutes ground water.  Calvert suggested that to better shield research from politics, it might be necessary to take the science and research offices out of EPA.

The Panel
Dr. David L. Morrison, Member of the NRC Committee on Research and Peer Review in EPA, Adjunct Professor at North Carolina State University
Dr. Robert J. Huggett, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies of Michigan State University, former Assistant Administrator, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Morrison's testimony covered the methods of the study and some of the history of EPA and the criticism aimed at it.  The witness addressed the key conclusions of the report.  The main recommendation is for the creation of a high-level administrative position to coordinate and oversee all scientific activities in the agency.  This new deputy administrator for science and technology would be responsible for all aspects of the transfer of sound scientific and technical information into the agency's proposed policies or regulations.  Regarding the problem of integrating science research to support the agency's mission, Morrison said that it is just as important for EPA's regulations to be scientifically sound as it is for them to be legal.
Other conclusions included:

Huggett admitted that he had requested this study during his term as Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, a position he claimed to be "the worst job that anyone can possibly have" since it lacks the power to change anything about EPA's practices.  Although he repeated many of the recommendations cited by the first witness, he stressed that current EPA law states that permanent research employees cannot interact with research contractors. Huggett advocating changing this partially to improve the caliber of budding scientists attracted through the graduate and postdoctoral programs, but also to increase the agency's committment to sound science.  He suggested that the reorganization that took place in 1995 with the National Environmental Performance Partnership System, began successful changes that need to be continued.  Other report conclusions he mentioned include: Both witnesses strongly disagreed with Calvert's suggestion that EPA's research offices would better influence policy as a separate agency.  Huggert argued that there is no amount of politics that can change true science, while Morrison stated that it would only serve to weaken EPA's science basis and credibility over time.  Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) agreed that the labs cannot be extracted from the agency and stated that the way science is used in making legislation needs to be changed.  Instead of bringing it in at the end as justification, science and researchers need to be involved at the earliest stages and to exercise their "clout."

The subject of risk management was raised with the chairman's question of how to bring science and policy closer together.  Morrison discussed the problems with communicating scientific uncertainty to the public, or even to the policy makers who want to make regulations.  Often, he said, those regulations unreasonably aim at reducing risk down to zero, a near impossibility that results in uneconomical cost.


Sources:  General Accounting Office, Washington Post, Federation of American Scientists, EEnews and hearing testimony.

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

Contributed by 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Audrey Slesinger

Posted July 26, 2000

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