Strengthening IRIS: Cultivating Broad Scientific Input

By Louis D’Amico, Ph.D.

IRIS graphic identifierAs a scientist in EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program, I am routinely faced with the task of evaluating evidence to determine if a chemical may cause a toxic effect. Developing chemical health assessments involves evaluating complex, sometimes controversial scientific issues that may lead to differing opinions about the interpretation of the data. That’s why the IRIS Program has always relied on engagement with the larger scientific community, through public comment and peer review, to support the development of our assessments.

Last year, EPA announced several enhancements to improve the productivity and quality of IRIS assessments, including holding regular bimonthly public science meetings. This gives the scientists who develop IRIS assessments the opportunity to engage with the public and the scientific community on topics throughout the development of an assessment. However, we want to ensure that we are hearing scientific perspectives from a diversity of experts in open, public, and transparent ways during assessment development. As the National Research Council (NRC) 2014 report on the IRIS Process indicated, some stakeholders may not have the staff, organizational, or other resources to provide comments or detailed scientific input. The NRC report recommended that EPA continue with additional efforts to ensure that the full breadth of perspectives are made available to the Agency when discussing the IRIS process and specific IRIS assessments.

IRIS meeting in a large conference room

EPA holds regular public IRIS meetings.

To broaden the input the IRIS Program receives at our bimonthly meetings, EPA has asked the National Research Council to identify additional scientific experts to join in our discussions. The public will continue to have the same opportunity to participate as discussants that they had before. If you want to participate as a discussant, you simply need to indicate that when registering for the meeting. Experts identified by the National Research Council, reviewed for conflict of interest and bias, will participate as discussants in their own capacity to contribute intellectual leadership to discussions on critical scientific issues. The final determination of who serves as an expert participant is made independently by the National Research Council.

Bringing more scientific minds to the table will only strengthen our assessments by encouraging a more robust discussion. Ultimately it’s not the number of participants expressing an opinion, but the scientific validity of their positions. Hearing multiple perspectives on how to interpret science issues will help my colleagues and I better address and incorporate those issues and perspectives into our assessments prior to expert peer review. Moving forward, I am looking forward to future discussions on the science at our bimonthly meetings and encourage you to join the continuing discussion on the evolution of the IRIS Program.

About the Author: Louis D’Amico, P.h.D. is the Acting Communications Director for the National Center for Environmental Assessment. He joined EPA five years ago and has a doctorate in Biology.

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