The US National Research Council has released an overarching review of science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), advising the federal agency to take a systems view and integrate the social sciences as it tackles an increasingly complex set of issues in the coming decades.
The central thesis is that the EPA has made massive strides with many of the most visible and straightforward sources of environmental pollution — including tailpipes, smokestacks and sewage systems — and that it now faces more difficult regulatory questions in areas such as nanotechnology and pervasive chemicals and materials that do not necessarily emanate from large tube-like structures. Entitled ‘Science for environmental protection: the road ahead’, the report calls for more integration of the science, data collection, monitoring and modelling done at the EPA. The Research Council also urges the agency to boost its expertise in the social sciences, which now consists “almost entirely of economists”, to the neglect of broader social, behavioural and decision sciences.
According to the report, in order to protect people and affect changes in human behaviour, the EPA needs to understand more about where society is headed, what people want, how they are exposed, how they react to regulations and advisories and so on. “Providing such information to decision-makers could avoid unintended environmental or social outcomes of regulations and policies,” the report says. “In addition, social, economic, behavioral, and decision scientists have the knowledge and expertise to analyze consumer and business behavior to find less expensive, more effective, and fairer ways to achieve environmental goals.”
As always, the question is whether and how the agency will heed all of this advice. Given the finite nature of fiscal resources during times such as these, altering or expanding missions means setting priorities, but the Research Council merely kicked that can down the road for the EPA. The seventh and final recommendation reads as follows:
“Create a process to set priorities for improving the quality of EPA’s scientific endeavors over the coming decades. This process should recognize the inevitably limited resources while clearly articulating the level of resources required for EPA to continue to ensure the future health and safety of humans and ecosystems.”