Science Wednesday: Planning for the Future

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

About the Author: Jay Messer, Ph.D. is a Senior Science Advisor at the National Center for Environmental Assessment in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is a lead writer of EPA’s 2008 Report on the Environment.

Watching my retirement recede into the future as the financial crisis deepened put me in mind of EPA’s 2008 Report on the Environment.

image of cover of the 2008 Report on the EnvironmentThe purposes of the Report are to “provide valuable input to EPA in devel­oping its strategic outlook and priorities, and [to] allow EPA and the public to assess whether the Agency is succeeding in its overall mission to protect human health and the environment.”

The release of the Report last spring marked the first time that such a wide range of objective, transparent, and scientifically-solid information about environmental status and trends has appeared under in a single EPA publication. I believe that it makes a valuable contribution in telling us how we’ve done over time (not bad!), but I’m less sanguine about its influence on planning for the future.

We in EPA are certainly familiar with “performance measures:”

  • EPAstat presents measures of quarterly performance, primarily aimed at short-term management “outputs,” and
  • EPA’s Annual Performance and Accountability Reports present measures of annual performance aimed at output and longer-term (e.g., 5-year) “outcome” targets for specific programs.

Performance measures are important management tools, but most of the agencies responsible for overseeing banks and securities received scores of “adequate” or better on their latest performance reviews. Apparently we needed more to protect the economy. So we probably need more to protect the environment.

Rather than measuring the performance of particular programs, the indicators in the Report on the Environment ideally reflect more on the outcomes of the way resources are allocated across and among programs, and on multi-program and multi-agency efforts to solve environmental problems and fill critical data gaps. EPA’s latest Strategic Plan notes that many of its targets are consistent with the trends in the Report, but there is no forum in which the Report is systematically used to inform strategic thinking at a higher level.

This is not a problem unique to EPA. Environmental agencies around the globe are facing the same challenge, and a review of several major environmental decisions suggests that environmental indicators seldom demonstrably inform strategic decisions. I’d argue that this needs to change and that EPA can and should provide international leadership in effectively using indicator information in strategic planning.

Because we all look forward to a healthy, well-protected environment that we can (eventually) retire to!

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