The Environmental Protection Agency has made significant improvements in some of its scientific practices, but there are concerns about the quality of research behind the agency’s regulatory decisions, according to a report just issued by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council.

The study was requested by Congress and the EPA and is based on consultations with scientists, engineers and managers from within and outside EPA, plus hundreds of agency documents.
The main recommendation is that EPA appoint a deputy administrator for science and technology with overall responsibility for the scientific and technical foundations of agency decisions. The report noted that EPA administrators typically have legal, not scientific, backgrounds, which is a problem when making science-based rules. The new deputy administrator would advise the administrator on technical issues much the same as EPA’s general counsel offers legal advice.
The deputy administrator would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. At the same time, the report recommended that the post of assistant administrator for research and development be converted from a politically appointed position to a statutory term appointment of six years. Currently the assistant administrator serves an average two to three years, which has hurt the continuity of programs and sometimes morale of EPA scientists and staff, the report concluded.
Report authors urged EPA to recruit leading scientists by making positions such as the assistant administrator more attractive and by creating the equivalent of endowed academic chairs. They also criticized EPA’s peer-review process, noting that current policy allows managers to serve as the peer-review leader for their own projects.
This isn’t the first time the EPA’s scientific capabilities has been questioned. Last year the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, part of EPA’s Science advisory Board, rejected the agency’s Diesel Health Assessment Document -- mainly because conclusions in the document lacked sufficient scientific support. The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee plans to hold hearings in July on scientific research as it related to regulatory decisions. Meantime EPA moves ahead with its most recent proposal to drastically reduce sulfur content in diesel fuel and impose stricter emissions standards for diesel engines.
A copy of the report, "Strengthening Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," is available from the National Academy Press,