Science Wednesday: Modeling Matters: Transparency in Action

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By Gabriel Olchin

In the age of transparent government, I think it helps to highlight specific products that make our research and approaches more apparent to the public. Transparency is important to me because I work in the field of environmental modeling, and models are often referred to as the ‘black-boxes’ of the research process; and a black-box is not transparent at all!

What does transparency mean, and why is it important to environmental modeling at the EPA?

The modeling research at the EPA is a complex science – one that we don’t take lightly. To me, transparency means providing the relevant information and documentation so that our stakeholders can understand how these ‘black boxes’ (models) work.

Models are used by the EPA for a variety of reasons: for regulatory rulemaking, as research tools, and to generate data that inform decisions. Each model used by the EPA is designed and developed with specific purposes in mind.

The EPA established the Council for Regulatory Environmental Modeling in 2000 to improve the quality, consistency and transparency of the models for environmental decision making. In short, the CREM helps to make the EPA’s modeling transparent. We maintain the Models Knowledge Base, an inventory of the computational models that are developed, used, and/or supported by EPA’s offices. For each model, the Models Knowledge Base provides information or documentation on:

  • the model’s development;
  • the model’s conceptual basis, scientific detail, and evaluation;
  • technical requirements and how to use the model;
  • information on the model’s inputs and outputs; and
  • directions for acquiring the model and links to further information.

The CREM’s latest effort has been focused on developing a suite of training modules for environmental modeling. These modules are designed to take our technical guidance document on environmental modeling and make it transparent to a broader audience. We also developed training modules on the legal aspects of environmental modeling, integrated modeling, and technical topics of model evaluation.

I’m often humbled working at an Agency with such talented modelers. I really enjoy my role at EPA helping to make the great modeling work done in our program and regional offices more transparent to our stakeholders.

About the author: Gabriel Olchin, a biological scientist, has been in the Office of the Science Advisor with the Council for Regulatory Environmental Modeling since 2009.