A committee of scientists led by a University of Iowa professor has found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will need to develop novel tools, technologies, and a systems approach to interdisciplinary science to solve environmental problems in the 21st century.

The report, “Science for Environmental Protection: The Road Ahead,” was released Wednesday, Sept. 5, by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. In 2011, the EPA requested that the NRC independently assess the agency.

Jerald Schnoor portraitThe chair of the Committee on Science for EPA’s Future, Jerald Schnoor (pictured left), Allen S. Henry Chair in Engineering in the UI College of Engineering, consulted scientists both inside and outside of the EPA to prepare a report that describes an agency that will need to be younger, smarter, and more engaged in society if it is to continue to serve the public and protect the environment.

He says that the nature of the problems has changed due to population growth, land use, climate change, energy choices, and new technologies in use today. EPA must also groom younger scientists to replace aging boomers in its ranks, train those replacements in cross-disciplinary sciences, and better engage in social and informational sciences in the future, he notes.

“Robust approaches will be needed for data acquisition and developing expertise in managing ‘big data’ and converting it into better knowledge of our environment,” Schnoor says.

“Emerging areas such as nanotechnology and its effect on humans and the environment will require teams of scientists to understand the physical, chemical, biological, ecological, and socioeconomic risks associated with our expanding use of nanomaterials,” he says.

“Improving the environment and human health does not always require legislation or regulation,” Schnoor says. “Sometimes social and behavioral scientists can determine better solutions just by designing programs to change behavior through economic incentives or by community action at the local scale. One of the EPA’s goals is to obtain better outcomes at lower cost.”

The report notes that all these changes will need to take place while the EPA must continue to maintain its expertise in traditional scientific fields, address long-standing problems, recognize and respond to new problems, and meet the scientific needs of policy makers and the public.

In the field of assessing the toxicity of new chemical alone—where hundreds of new substances are created each year—the EPA has a difficult task. Schnoor says the EPA can meet the challenge, but only if it works faster and smarter.

“EPA will need to anticipate, innovate, take a long-term systems viewpoint, and be much more interdisciplinary and collaborative to solve emerging environmental problems in the future,” he says.

In February, Schnoor, a civil and environmental engineering professor, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Environment—which has oversight responsibility for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At that time, Schnoor, who is editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T), noted that in a country where greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere and nutrient runoff in our rivers continue to increase, sound scientific research at the EPA is especially important.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Schnoor also serves as research engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering and co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).