BUILDING A FOUNDATION FOR SOUND ENVIRONMENTAL DECISIONS
STATEMENT OF CHARLES E. KOLB
Member of the National Research Council
Committee on Research Opportunities and Priorities for the Environmental Protection Agency
President, Aerodyne Research, Inc.
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
Committee on Science
U.S. House of Representatives
March 11, 1998
2318 Rayburn House Office Building
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
My name is Charles E. Kolb and I am president of Aerodyne Research, Inc., a contract research and advanced instrumentation company in Billerica, MA. However, today I am testifying primarily as a member of the National Research Council's Committee on Research Opportunities and Priorities for the Environmental Protection Agency. This committee was formed in 1995 in response to a request from the EPA's Office of Research and Development to advise the agency on research opportunities, priorities, and strategies that could be exploited to more effectively address both current and future environmental problems.
Last year, the committee completed its deliberations and published a final report, Building a Foundation for Sound Environmental Decisions (National Academy Press, 1997). The report advocates a more comprehensive and integrated approach to our nation's environmental research and development (R&D) activities. Because we face environmental problems of unprecedented complexity, the committee maintains that the traditional practice of studying individual environmental problems and devising narrowly-focused control or remediation strategies to manage them will no longer suffice.
The report highlights the need for developing a deeper scientific understanding of ecosystems, as well as studying the sociological and economic aspects of human interactions with the environment. To achieve these goals, the committee recommended a core research agenda for the Environmental Protection Agency that has three components.
First, research is required to advance our understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes underlying environmental systems, as well as the social and economic processes controlling our interactions with those systems. A more systematic understanding of environmental processes would inform and complement problem-focused R&D efforts, leading to more successful management strategies. Second, the committee advocated the development of more effective environmental research tools, including innovative measurement instruments and platforms, through exploitation of advances in electronic, electro-optical, computational, materials, aerospace, communication, and biological technologies. In addition, more sophisticated environmental models, and improved laboratory, data analysis, and assessment methods are needed. Third, the committee advocated sustained support for the design, implementation, and maintenance of environmental monitoring systems and for analysis, dissemination and archiving of long-term data sets. Scientists using the data from these monitoring networks would be able to establish environmental norms, identify trends, and determine if environmental management strategies are effective.
Many environmental problems that we have attempted to understand and manage as isolated phenomena are, in fact, closely intertwined. For instance, a single pollutant species such as nitric oxide (NO), produced from the combustion engine of an automobile or aircraft, can: modify the rate of ozone depletion if released in the stratosphere; contribute to global warming by producing ozone, a powerful greenhouse gas, in the upper troposphere; trigger problems for a child with asthma by driving photochemical production of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the atmospheric boundary layer; be oxidized to nitric acid and contribute to acid rain; or after oxidation be deposited as nitrate fouling a drinking water reservoir or adding to the eutrophication of a productive estuary. However, deposited nitrate ions can also serve as badly needed fertilizer for valuable wild or domesticated plants. Strategies designed to ameliorate one problem may exacerbate another.
Our understanding of the complex temporal and spatial scales that characterize environmental problems is also evolving. Global issues, such as stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming, now compete for attention with regional problems, like health-threatening episodes of photochemical air pollution, aquifer contamination by toxic substances, and ecological effects of airborne acid and oxidant deposition. Pollutants emitted from a localized source often cause problems tens to tens-of-thousands of kilometers away, while mobile pollutant sources, such as commercial aircraft or long haul diesel trucks, can release pollutants over a wide geographical area in a single day. A wide range of time scales can also be important. A reactive hydrocarbon vapor molecule released from a gas pump nozzle can take only a few minutes to fuel the formation of ozone during a summer smog episode, while a chlorofluorocarbon molecule leaking from a refrigerator may survive in the atmosphere for over a century before releasing its ozone-destroying chlorine atoms in the stratosphere.
Although the NRC report was requested by the EPA's Office of Research and Development, its findings and recommendations are relevant to other government agencies, many of which also focus R&D strategies on specific environmental problems. (The National Science Foundation is one notable and effective exception. The NRC report praised recent competitive research grant programs EPA/ORD has established in collaboration with the NSF.) Problem driven R&D should not be isolated from core research efforts directed at acquiring systematic understanding: a balance between them is required. All agencies with significant environmental R&D activities should consider investing in a core environmental R&D program.
The NRC committee, which included members from the private sector, noted that while industry and other private sector funding can be obtained for many problem-driven R&D activities, components of a core environmental R&D program are not likely to attract these funds. The core research funding will almost certainly have to come from enlightened federal and state R&D managers if we are to gain the expanded insights, improved tools and long-term data needed to make sound environmental decisions.
The implementation and sustenance of meaningful core environmental R&D programs will be critical if the environmental science and engineering community is to adequately understand and manage current and future environmental problems.
In addition to stressing the benefits of balancing core and problem driven research at EPA, the report also recommends that: 1) EPA develop mechanisms to identify emerging environmental issues and apply risk based assessment techniques to prioritize their research response; 2) EPA cooperate more closely and effectively with a wide range of other federal and state agencies, universities, and private sector organizations, including industries, involved in environmental research; and 3) EPA compile, publish and widely disseminate annual summaries of research conducted or funded by the agency, in order to facilitate better internal coordination and collaboration with other organizations.