Energy & Environment

Science, Interrupted

EPA funding for research is shrinking, and findings are being denigrated.
by | December 2006

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

The evidence to support the concept of global warming seems beyond dispute. But the prolonged debate over climate change suggests that federal and state officials should rethink how governments go about scientific research on environmental threats and how that data should be used to protect human health and ecosystems.

Things seemed simpler 30 years ago when President Richard M. Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Congress enacted landmark environmental statutes. Back then, the smoky air, filthy waters and junk-strewn ground posed clearly visible threats. The public assumed government regulators would be able to determine acceptable pollutant limits and compel industries, sewage treatment plants and other polluters to meet them. To build the scientific cases for action, EPA established 16 federal laboratories and other facilities where 2,000 employees study environmental threats.

Yet the task proved more complicated than expected: Contamination threats keep cropping up from multiple new sources, while scientific certainty about actual real-world risks is often elusive. Regulators usually err on the side of caution when promulgating pollution standards, building in margins of safety by, for instance, multiplying the risks that research demonstrates in laboratory animals. That's only prudent, but regulated industries are adept at challenging what they call EPA's "junk science" with their own contradictory research.

Congress abetted such stalling tactics in 2001 by slipping the federal Data Quality Act into law. Chemical companies have used the measure to question EPA's conclusions on regulating dioxin and some pesticides. Last year, the conservative Washington Legal Foundation cited the law in a petition demanding that EPA revamp its research guidelines. The group contends the rules encourage agency scientists to interpret laboratory results using worst-case assumptions that produce "numerous false classifications of substances as human carcinogens."

From the other side, the Union of Concerned Scientists and whistle- blower organizations charge the Bush administration with systematically distorting research findings to undermine regulatory decisions by EPA and other agencies. They fear that EPA's severe budget constraints will be used to dismantle the agency's research capacity. Faced with a $2 million funding cut, for instance, EPA has closed scientific libraries at its national headquarters and three regional offices. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group, this fall obtained an internal agency memo outlining proposals to shut down some EPA laboratories in the next few years and eliminate scientific positions as experienced researchers reach retirement age. "There appears to be a deliberate policy of marginalizing EPA science on issue after issue," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch told Congress last spring. "The agency is becoming increasingly irrelevant to emerging environmental threats."

PEER has a reputation for not always distinguishing discontented employees' complaints from legitimate policy concerns. But EPA's own Science Advisory Board has also raised concern about a 16 percent decline in the agency's research and development funding in the past three years. "If we don't do the needed research, we will simply get poorer regulation--which could end up costing the nation a great deal more in the long run," says SAB Chairman M. Granger Morgan.

With budgets so tight, there's reason to fear that federal and state officials will save money by turning off existing air-pollution monitors, curtailing water-quality sampling or halting surveys of sensitive bird, reptile and mammal species. Last May, a study by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment called for urgent funding to step up ecological monitoring to fill in 10 glaring gaps in critical indicators of the health of the nation's ecosystems. "What we don't know can hurt us, and it already is hurting our society in numerous ways," contends William C. Clark, a Harvard University government professor who chairs the Heinz Center's ecosystem study.

If anything, governments should simplify redundant federal-state regulatory programs, strengthen environmental research and use new information technologies to collect, process and organize the data they're gathering. They then should publish it so the public can judge which threats are most serious and what responses are working. Elected officials will always make the final calls, but better scientific information is essential to making intelligent environmental policy decisions.


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