Year of Science

Science Wednesday: Year of Science-Question of the Month

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

For each month in 2009, the Year of Science—we will pose a question related to science. Please let us know your thoughts as comments, and feel free to respond to earlier comments, or post new ideas.

The Year of Science theme for May is Sustainability and the Environment.

One of the most widely-cited definitions of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What does sustainability mean to you, and what are you doing to achieve it?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Celebrating Sustainability and the Environment

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Alan D. Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He has also served as the Associate Director for Sustainable Development, White House Council on Environmental Quality (2002-2003), and the Director of International Environmental Affairs for the National Security Council (2001-2002).

Charles Perrings, a professor of Environmental Economics at the Global Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University, recently argued that the development of discipline-based science, while the source of nearly all the scientific advances of the past century, has limited the ability of science to address problems that span more than one discipline.

Sustainability science is a new discipline of a different kind: it draws upon many existing disciplines to forge a systems approach to environmental management. Its fundamental contribution is to solve problems.

Today, few of the world’s environmental problems can simply be addressed as an issue basically restricted to air, water, or chemicals. Sustainability science is the integration of all of these disciplines to better understand how humans and society interact as a system.

Sustainability science is asking the right questions:

  • Why aim merely to reduce toxic waste when we can eliminate it with new chemicals and processes?
  • Why handle and dispose of growing amounts of waste when we can more efficiently manage materials that eliminate, reduce, or recycle waste?

When EPA was created in 1970, its focus of attention was on reducing obvious sources of pollution to the environment. When the oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in June 1969, it drew attention to other environmental problems across the country and helped to spur the environmental movement that led to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Since its creation in 1970, EPA has been largely successful in addressing many of the most obvious and pressing environmental issues of that time, such as the quality of air and water. But new approaches are now needed to deal with emerging and newly recognized problems:

  • the expanding population and economy and their demand for energy and materials;
  • the changing rates of urban sprawl and loss of biodiversity;
  • nonpoint, trans-boundary, and trans-media sources of pollutants such as storm water runoff;
  • genetically modified organisms;
  • the potentially harmful effects of these products as well as endocrine disruptors and nanoparticles; and
  • the cumulative impacts of all these factors on the environment and public health.

Addressing these and other environmental issues in an integrated manner will demand a greater focus on sustainability and the vital need to develop sustainability science. We will need to apply what we learn to foster policies and best practices that can help people coexist with the planet.

The development and achievements of sustainability science deserve the increasing recognitions that it is receiving great deal of credit for this progress. Among this recognition is the May 2009 celebration of the month of Sustainability and the Environment as part of the Year of Science.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Year of Science – Do you know what energy resource you get your electricity from? Have you looked into switching to a "green" alternative?

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

For each month in 2009, the Year of Science—we will pose a question related to science. Please let us know your thoughts as comments, and feel free to respond to earlier comments, or post new ideas.

The Year of Science theme for April is Energy Resources.

Do you know what energy resource you get your electricity from? Have you looked into switching to a “green” alternative?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Year of Science Question of the Month – What technologies do you use to be more green? What one technology do you hope is available soon?

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays. 

For each month in 2009, the Year of Science—we will pose a question related to science. Please let us know your thoughts as comments, and feel free to respond to earlier comments, or post new ideas.

The Year of Science theme for March is Physics and Technology.

What technologies do you use to be more green? What one technology do you hope is available soon?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Year of Science Question of the Month

For each month in 2009, the Year Of Science, we will pose a question related to science. Please let us know your thoughts as comments. Feel free to respond to earlier comments or post new ideas.

Ponder. Observe and discover. We are all born scientists, naturally curious to figure out more about the world around us: how we affect the environment, and how the environment affects us.
2009 is the Year Of Science, the Year of Science theme for February is evolution.

How do you think environmental science is related to evolution?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Thinking of Biological Integrity on Darwin’s Birthday

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Dr. Mark Bagley is a research biologist and acting branch chief in EPA’s Office of Research and Development in Cincinnati, OH. Since joining the EPA in 1999, his work has involved application of molecular and population genetic methods to ecological questions.

image of authorThe Clean Water Act charges EPA with protecting and restoring “biological integrity” to aquatic ecosystems. I’ve been wondering lately what we mean by that. The Agency generally uses a definition that refers to the structural and functional similarity to an undisturbed ecosystem—how those factors compare to what we would expect to find in some ideal system.

But who is to say there is just one path to biological integrity? And can we really ever say we have achieved it?

In practice, we evaluate biological integrity by surveying the complexity of an ecosystem, typically taking into account differences among species in their sensitivity to different disturbances. We then compare the species we find to those in ecosystems that have been judged to be minimally impacted.

This approach works reasonably well but reinforces a somewhat static view of biological integrity, since comparisons are based on historical notions of what an optimal structure should look like. There are efforts within EPA to more fully understand and evaluate ecosystem functions. At present, there is a strong emphasis on assessing the value that these functions bring to people in the form of ecosystem services (water quality, fisheries, etc).

I think biological integrity requires maintenance of important biological processes, regardless of their value to human well-being and the make-up of the biological community that provides them. In the natural world, species within communities can change without hugely affecting the overall functioning of the ecosystem.

At longer time scales, as environments change, some turnover of species probably has to occur in order for the system to continue to function at an optimal level. And that makes me think that what we’re really talking about is the capacity of the community of organisms within an ecosystem to continue to evolve so that it can find the best solution to sustainable transformation of solar energy and nutrients into biological matter.

Isn’t it this optimization process that really describes biological integrity? It’s an odd question coming from someone whose training is in evolutionary biology. In my work and that of my colleagues, we almost never talk about evolution or the need to preserve evolutionary processes because it seems well beyond the mandate of the EPA. But I’m not so sure anymore.

Maybe in this, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, it is time to acknowledge that lasting environmental protection isn’t possible without evolution protection.

What do you think real biological integrity is?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Happy New Year—of Science

official photo of Kevin TeichmanAbout the Author: Dr. Kevin Teichman is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, where he helps coordinate EPA’s research program. Dr. Teichman has BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Mechanical Engineering, and lives in Derwood, Maryland where he and his wife Marsha are proud “empty nesters.”

This year, once again, I resolved not to watch so much football and not to put on extra pounds doing so. I also resolved to take an active part in EPA’s Year of Science 2009. Now that I have broken my first resolution, I am even more resolved to keep my second resolution, and I need your help.

EPA is partnering with the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science to support the Year of Science 2009 (YOS). This is a national, year-long celebration of science that will shine the spotlight on how science works, who scientists are, and why science matters. Activities and events will be led by a wide variety of scientific organizations, and I’m proud to say that EPA is one of them.

Each month will be organized around a specific theme, starting in January with the “Process and Nature of Science.” Given EPA’s world-class science and technology in support of our mission to protect human health and the environment, we’re looking forward to sharing real-world stories of EPA “Science in Action.”

Also, be sure to mark your calendars for EPA-sponsored activities during May. We’re taking the lead in organizing events and awards in support of the YOS theme of “Sustainability and the Environment,” because sustainability is an important topic across EPA. I plan to keep my New Year’s resolution by actively participating in May, and throughout the year. Please join me!

For more details about YOS, keep an eye on EPA’s Science Wednesdays, where you’ll find actionable information each month. Also, take a look at the site developed by the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science, YearOfScience2009.org, to learn more about how you can get involved.

I can already tell it’s going to be a Happy New Year—of Science.

Be sure to check out our Year of Science Question of the Month, What kind of a scientist would you like to be?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.