Science Wednesday: From Policeman to Risk Assessor to Innovator: Sustainability at EPA

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By Dr. Alan D. Hecht

On November 30, 2010 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that on the occasion of EPA’s 40th anniversary the Agency was asking the National Research Council to conduct a study on how to make the concept of sustainability operational at EPA.

The Administrator’s briefing was an historic event aimed at laying the groundwork for a new approach to environmental management aimed at better addressing problems of the 21st century.

Listening to the Administrator’s announcement, I thought of EPA’s history and how its role has evolved from policeman, to risk assessor and potentially now to environmental innovator.

After EPA was first created in 1970 it quickly became the federal government’s chief watchdog against environmental pollution. In those early days the nation’s major environmental challenges – largely related to poor industrial practices and inadequate occupational safety – were highly visible and often not difficult to understand. Federal legislation addressed obvious causes of pollution and water contamination, enacting specific laws to achieve cleaner land, air and water.

Complementing and moving beyond its role as a watchdog, EPA soon began to use risk assessment and risk management as an overall framework for Agency decisions.    The value of risk assessment and management was given a big boost in 1983 when the National Research Council published Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process. The report helped advance risk assessment and management in EPA programs.

Today however, the scientific and environmental communities are recognizing that risk assessment and risk management must be complemented by an emphasis on sustainable approaches and solutions to environmental problems.

Sustainability science takes into account that no problem the Agency faces narrowly affects only air or water or land. It tells us that we need a far more integrated approach using new tools and metrics to implement EPA actions and to achieve our mission. It also underlines that we must attract a new generation of scientists and scholars who can be innovative in addressing complex problems.

Administrator Jackson is mandating each of us to address, under new conditions, the challenge that former Administrator Bill Reilly clearly articulated in 1995: “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is at its best when it views its role as not just custodial but as cutting-edge, providing leadership and prescribing answers to key environmental problems.”

Sustainability science can help us and the Agency be at our best.

About the Author: Dr. Alan D. Hecht is Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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