IoT's Environmental Impact Is Up to Us
Stephen Harper - Intel Corporation
Intel Corporation
Current Issue
Parent Article
black and white headshot of Stephen Harper

Technologies are tools, and humans determine their net social and environmental impacts by how they are designed and deployed. This is true for the Internet of Things, a poorly understood set of information and communications technology (ICT) solutions that are rapidly proliferating throughout society. Often joined with artificial intelligence, IoT is the enabling technology undergirding everything labeled as “smart”—homes, buildings, transport, cities. Think of a network of sensors, edge computing devices, and data gateways connected via the cloud and data centers. “Digitalization” is a term often applied to this phenomenon.

The environmental and sustainability benefits that IoT delivers have been well publicized, particularly by ICT vendors jockeying for a bigger share of a growing market. Smart homes and buildings, intelligent transportation, precision agriculture, industrial controls, electricity grid resilience, “digital water” . . . the list goes on. A common thread in all these applications is the ability of IoT to turn data into actionable analysis. The International Energy Agency has shown how IoT and other forms of digitalization can be applied to improve the efficiency and lower the climate impact of our energy system.

The potential negative effects of IoT have also received scrutiny, including rising end-of-life e-waste and direct energy consumption. Analysts have also highlighted potential rebound effects, whereby increased energy efficiency and resulting cost savings can lead to increased energy consumption in the long run. Analysis of energy rebounds by the American Council on an Energy Efficient Economy typically minimize the size of such effects, but the potential remains nonetheless.

There is a long history of ICT scary stories, especially concerning predictions of future energy consumption trends. Dating back to the California energy crisis of 2000, which some analysts errantly blamed on the growth of data centers, various “experts” have made claims that ICT devices collectively will consume most or all of the available electricity by some date in the mid-term future. Data centers have garnered the most criticism, although a recent report from Lawrence Berkeley lab shows U.S. data center electricity consumption has leveled off in recent years despite an explosion in the amount of data being processed. More recently, alarms have been raised about the energy threat posed by billions of IoT sensors projected by some date in the future.

A good analytical frame for evaluating the balance of IoT’s positives and negatives are the complementary metaphors of footprint and handprint. The footprint is the direct negative impact (energy, water, climate change) of any person, company, or society. Handprint refers to the enabling impact that technologies can have in helping a person, company, or society to reduce their footprints. ICT technologies, including IoT, definitely have a footprint, but they also present handprint benefits, perhaps more than any other sector of the economy.

Society’s goal should be to minimize IoT’s footprint and maximize its handprint. That comes down to technology design and public policy. The IEA several years ago convened the Connected Devices Alliance, a consortium of governments and ICT companies, to focus on both. One work product of the CDA is a set of “Design Principles for Energy Efficient Connected Devices” that features 10 recommendations for how IoT and other ICT device makers can minimize the energy footprint of networked devices. In parallel, the CDA issued a set of “Policy Principles for Energy Efficient Connected Devices” that highlight how policymakers can promote handprint innovations and help grow the market for IoT and other network markets.

Several groups are focused on the net benefits of digitalization. ELI itself has convened a conference and series of webinars under their Green Tech banner, with discussions focused on how smart public policies can maximize the net environmental benefits of technology. The Digital Climate Alliance, a coalition of leading ICT companies, has been promoting enabling digitalization policies in legislation on Capitol Hill. By leveraging existing resources, companies and governments alike can push for IoT to be used for good.

Managing Water With Digital Technologies
Kasantha Moodley - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Kasantha Moodley

Every sector is in the midst of a digital transformation. Artificial intelligence supports mobility on demand, offering the quickest and most efficient transportation options and routes. Blockchain is enabling decentralized energy-generation schemes that allow communities to create power and buy and sell energy among their neighbors.

Wireless sensor networks are used to detect natural disasters and industrial hazards. In recent years, digital technologies have expanded in scope and application; however, we have not yet seen their full potential due to data sharing concerns and funding and infrastructure needs. These barriers can be overcome, especially in the wake of a health pandemic. It is during difficult challenges like these that we are incentivized to innovate and break away from conventional approaches.

Water security shouldn’t be seen any differently. It is consistently ranked as one of the top five global risks. According to CDP Water, 196 cities have reported the risk of water stress and scarcity and 132 reported a risk of declining water quality. In the United States water-stressed cities are located around the Colorado River Basin. The basin supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal use, provides irrigation to more than 5.5 million acres of land, and the dams support 4,200 megawatts of electrical generating capacity.

The demands on the basin have been expanding over the years, all while its resource capacity has historically been overallocated. Furthermore, climate change is expected to exacerbate water shortages in the region. The ecological and socio-economic importance of the basin, combined with the urgent need for improved water demand management, makes the Colorado River Basin a strategic testbed for digital water technologies.

ELI’s Innovation Lab and Water Foundry, a global advisor in solving water-related challenges, undertook a brief research project and workshop to identify feasible digital technology applications for water-related challenges in the Colorado River Basin. This project was supported by Intel, Microsoft, and Blue AB, a Swedish innovation fund. The research report, titled Digital Technology Opportunities for the Colorado River Basin, focused on successful applications of AI, blockchain, and sensor networks in the water sector. In California, sensor technology is combined with blockchain to quantify groundwater use and allow for the trading of groundwater usage rights.

Sensor mesh networks are used in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to measure snowpack. In New York, a network of sensors is used to gather physical and chemical data on Lake George, while machine learning algorithms analyze the data for improvements to the sampling program (i.e., where and when to sample).

In Florida, a community-owned utility installed AI-guided software that controls pumping of groundwater resources by evaluating real-time data, adjusting the pumps to abstract the volume needed at a given time. Similar AI platforms have been employed in the United Kingdom, where utilities use AI to predict and remedy infrastructure degradation or failures and in planning for high demand.

The technology and research experts involved in these cases were invited to join a one-day ELI workshop to engage utility managers, funders, and other private actors working to manage water challenges in the Colorado River Basin. The workshop was held last October in Denver.

Participants were asked to prioritize a set of pre-defined challenges or problems that could be addressed through digital technologies. Three key problem areas and associated needs emerged. First, there is a lack of data integration for informed decisions. There is a need for a platform to gather data from varied sources and translate that into actionable information for all stakeholders. Second, poor demand management compounds the water scarcity challenge. There is a need for financial incentives for water conservation in the agriculture sector and other sectors that rewards stakeholders for their efficient choices and behavior. Finally, there are barriers to investment and new markets. There is a need for structured opportunities that leverage investment based on a project’s stage of development and the risk appetite of investors.

Attendees participated in a design charrette at the end of the workshop, during which conceptual ideas were formed for each of the above-mentioned priority areas. ELI’s Innovation Lab is working to transform these conceptual ideas into pilot projects. It is clear that the technology exists; however, innovative funding portfolios and long-term collaboration are key to harnessing the potential of these technologies for current and future risks.

Managing Water With Digital Technologies.

Digital Technology Opportunities for the Colorado River Basin
Environmental Law Institute & Water Foundry
Date Released
November 2019
Digital Technology Opportunities for the Colorado River Basin

The American West, including the cities of Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Denver, Colorado, falling under the reaches of the greater Colorado River Basin (CRB), is now among the world's water stressed regions facing the environmental, economic, and social challenges of increased water scarcity. The CRB supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal use, including drinking water.

Creating an Environmental Solution-Seeker
Kasantha Moodley - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Parent Article
Kasantha Moodley

One of the defining societal and cultural features of the past several decades has been the rapid pace of innovation. It seems that almost daily a new life-changing idea is brought forward. Technologies that once seemed like science fiction are quickly becoming reality. Artificial intelligence promises to make our machines smarter, biotechnology is quickly revolutionizing the way we view food, the digital economy has changed our very conception of a marketplace. The list goes on.

Each of these innovations brings new environmental challenges. The possibility always exists, however, to transform challenge into opportunity. In 2016, ELI established the Technology, Innovation and the Environment Program to advance thinking along these new frontiers. In 2018, the TIE program was reimagined, transforming into the ELI Innovation Lab.

The Lab identifies new environmental opportunities by exploring technological and scientific breakthroughs, piloting novel solutions, and engaging passionate collaborators. Current initiatives span a wide swath of topics that promise to improve environmental performance into the future.

The Lab’s active interest in the environmental impacts of next-generation technologies has led to the development of a global inventory of bioengineered products, a research collaboration on the digital economy, and a student partnership on 3D printing. The future looks bright from the Lab’s perspective, and ELI staff are actively planning how to make that happen.

The Lab is equally focused on engaging the public as the nature of environmental problems and their solutions changes. For instance, the Lab recently established a citizen-science law-and-policy working group with Harvard’s Law School to facilitate an understanding of the regulatory frameworks that influence the activities of citizen scientists and to determine the impact of citizen science on public and private governance.

Along similar lines, the Institute produced sustainability-focused materials for legal cannabis cultivators who experience a fragmented regulatory framework that makes compliance with environmental regulations difficult.

Strengthening environmental governance among networks of small businesses is of specific interest to the Lab, and we are starting locally. ELI is working with the DC Women Business Center to recognize female-owned businesses for their environmental ingenuity. This Environmental Entrepreneur of the Year award we hope will be the first of many to come locally and nationally.

The Institute is also working on building an understanding of complex problems like coastal resilience, ELI is promoting environmental literacy on this topic with an on-line video game.

The Lab keeps all these various policy pots bubbling while sharing the ideas and perspectives of change-makers through a podcast series called Environmental Disrupters.

Through all this work, the ELI Innovation Lab promotes the entrepreneurial spirit that long has been at the heart of the Institute’s methodology. In keeping with this theme, the Lab approaches funding as an opportunity to build partnerships and spearhead new collaborations. The Lab has received grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, tech giants Microsoft and Intel, and the Swedish Innovation Fund Blue AB to explore the implications and applications of blockchain and artificial intelligence.

As new opportunities arise, the Lab hopes to build on and grow new partnerships with like-minded environmental solution-seekers.

ELI has an important role to play in ensuring that the breakthroughs in science, technology, and policy drive environmental progress rather than prevent it. The Innovation Lab, leveraging the Institute’s expertise and the creativity of everyday trailblazers, places ELI at the forefront of a dynamic and multifaceted field.

Building on the Past to Secure the Future
Scott Fulton - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Scott Fulton

The Environmental Law Institute’s 50th anniversary on December 22 occurs during a record-breaking year in terms of the sheer number of ELI educational and convening programs, which have been organized around the themes that continue to animate the work of environmental protection after half a century.

It has also been a year with growth in all major areas of the Institute’s work, from judicial training both here and abroad, to marine resource protection, to rule of law formation, to environmental peacebuilding. It’s been a year of expanded engagements in key places like China, with the opportunity to influence how the world’s other major economy approaches environmental protection.

As this edition shows, it’s been a year of reflection, as we remember the origins of this wonderful Institute for which we are now stewards. We celebrated at the recent award dinner the surviving founders of ELI — Tom Alder, Craig Mathews, and Jim Moorman — those who put pen to paper on the ELI articles of incorporation. As this year is also the anniversary of NEPA, the reflections in the issue you are reading recall the beginnings of the environmental movement that grew up alongside ELI.

There is a human tendency to declare, usually prematurely, “mission accomplished.” It would be a mistake to do that here. While much of the pollution that can be seen, smelled, and tasted has been removed from our domestic environment, we need look no farther than the severe pollution problems in the developing world, emerging worries about new contaminants, the recent problems with lead in drinking water, the growing evidence of biodiversity collapse, the implications of a changing climate, and continuing concerns about the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens across societies, to be reminded that important and potentially grave environmental risks remain to be addressed.

We are also mindful that this is an area in which hard-won progress can always be compromised by political expediency or indifference. ELI, working as it has with governments around the world for much of its 50 years, has watched countries begin the process of investing in a sustainable future only to yield to short-term, non-sustainable practices as a result of changes in political leadership and economic conditions. Regression and compromise of environmental quality remains ever possible, even here, if we do not stay true to the formula that has guided us thus far.

What is that formula? Our experience, and indeed the lesson that the United States has for years been propagating to the rest of the world, is that effective environmental governance and rule of law turn on the presence of a number of synergistic elements, including laws that are clear and enforceable, an engaged citizenry equipped with transparent environmental information, stakeholder opportunities to inform and contest government decisions regarding the environment, environmental public integrity mechanisms that prevent corruption in the administration of environmental programs, institutional arrangements between government actors to ensure efficiency and avoid confusion and duplication, fair and effective enforcement, and an engaged and serious-minded judiciary.

While we should always be in pursuit of reforms that improve and make more efficient how this work is done, we should be wary indeed of any efforts to choke down on any of these anchor elements. We tinker with them at our peril. These are the lessons of the past.

But in this anniversary year, we have also been looking toward the future, with programs and publications seeking to advance our collective thinking on how we might more beneficially harness the emergence of private environmental governance regimes, including environmentally sensitive supply chain management and investment, lending, and insuring practices.

And to bring understanding to the fascinating intersection between environmental law and technology. With the help of many of you, we launched a watershed conference in October — “GreenTech 2019: Innovating Environmental Protection for the Future” — looking at how technology is reshaping regulated activity, advancing sensing and monitoring capacity, and exploding environmental data.

Before wrapping up the year, we and George Washington University law school are convening a gathering of thought leaders at Airlie House in Northern Virginia. The event is at once commemorative, in the sense that it was at Airlie House 50 years ago that the seed was planted that would become ELI, but also forward looking, in terms of envisioning the next 50 years of environmental protection. A fitting conclusion, we hope, to ELI’s 50th year.

On securing the future by building on past.

ELI Report
Anna Beeman - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue

50th Anniversary | Technology, even more than regulation, will lead the next half century of environmental improvement

Beginning with passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, followed a few months later by establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the last 50 years have reflected the growing need for regulation to protect human lives and livelihoods as well as the planetary ecosystem that supports them. However, it seems that each success, and there have been many, has been followed by news of other challenges that are often even more dire.

The Environmental Law Institute, established in December 1969 alongside these events, has grown to become a leader in analyzing — and shaping — developments in the burgeoning field that grew following passage of NEPA and the other foundational statutes. Over the last 50 years, the Institute has fostered innovative, just, and practical law and policy solutions to ensure environmental legislation and regulation adequately defends the earth’s natural resources at a price society can afford.

The experience of a half century makes it apparent that regulation alone will no longer drive environmental protection. Technology has grown to become a powerful tool in implementing the rapid changes that are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity collapse.

And technology has also significantly changed the landscape of methods addressing environmental issues. Drones, artificial intelligence, and advanced sensor networks are changing the way pollution and natural resources are monitored and assessed. Emerging technologies are now managing and reducing the environmental impacts of the manufacturing, energy consumption, and services sectors. Bioengineering and biotechnology could change the way that food is produced, such as lab-grown meat or seafood.

In early October, ELI and innovative companies such as Intel, Amazon, BNSF Railway, First Solar, Google, Microsoft, Apple, bp, Exelon, and Bayeco as well as law firms, nonprofits, and law schools held the inaugural GreenTech Conference in Seattle, Washington. The conference explored innovative and transformative technologies influencing environmental sectors, and discussed the unique opportunities and challenges they present for protecting the planetary ecosystem.

Experts from diverse business sectors spoke on the role of law and public policy in facilitating the development and deployment of emerging technologies, their societal benefits and costs, and public reaction to some of these technologies and the management of change. Speakers also shared their experiences and successes through case studies and demonstrations. Additionally, the discussions highlighted opportunities for cross-cutting technological applications, particularly with advancing a circular economy that eliminates waste and reduces resource extraction.

ELI President Scott Fulton gave opening remarks to the conference, followed by keynote speaker William K. Reilly, a former EPA administrator. The workshop spanned three days, with six panel discussions on eliminating waste from the manufacturing economy, the food industry, and energy systems.

A panel titled “The Evolution of e-Services” explored technology as an integral part of the service sector. The service sector accounts for around 80 percent of the United States’ GDP and comprises around 70 percent of the U.S. workforce, thus has large implications for the environment.

The panelists debated how the service sector can harness data services such as cloud computing and blockchain, as well as make effective efforts in reducing their energy and environmental footprints. The panel, moderated by Kathryn B. Thomson of Amazon, also included IBM Lead Counsel on Blockchain Ecosytems Joan Burns Brown, Google Staff Software Engineer Eddie Pettis, and Amazon Director of Energy and Web Services Nat Sahlstrom.

The workshop concluded with a group discussion on legal models for change in tandem with the growth of technology, as well as a colloquium moderated by Fulton on planning for the future.


New Zealand workshop schools ocean protection professionals

Area-based management and Marine Spatial Planning are important ocean resources management techniques. They are essential to separate marine uses, find opportunities for compatible uses, and establish protected areas. Many countries have expressed interest in developing MSP through legal reform. There is also a growing international community of legal experts that work on drafting laws to implement MSP. However, as far as we know, there are no guidance documents to help these professionals do their work.

In continuing a partnership with the Waitt Institute on supporting legal guidance for drafting MSPs, in early September, ELI, Waitt Institute, and IUCN conducted a four-day MSP workshop in Auckland, New Zealand. The workshop brought together legal drafters for MSPs and identified best practices and guidance for developing MSPs within the region and beyond.

The workshop was attended by 24 representatives from 14 different nations, mostly small island nations in the Pacific region. The workshop also hosted participants from ocean resources management organizations such as Conservation International and The Pacific Community, as well as a number of scholars who focus on MSP issues.

The workshop covered an overview of global MSP legislation. Participants also discussed how MSP fits into a nation’s legal landscape.

Topics discussed included the use of legal provisions addressing preliminary matter and definitions for MSP legislation, the scope of an MSP law and ocean jurisdiction, ocean spatial planning and zoning processes, public participation and access to information for MSP, and sustainable funding mechanisms for ocean management.

The Blue Prosperity Coalition led the final day of the workshop on maritime security and implementation of Maritime Domain Awareness, as well as provided updates and news from the National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office.


Session explores tech solutions to Colorado basin water needs

The Colorado River basin, a historically stressed riparian system, is facing a critical water shortage. California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming depend on its water supplies, generating $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs, equivalent to 1/12 of the total U.S. domestic product. With an anticipated shortage looming by 2020, the states have been tasked until January 31 to develop a plan before federal intervention. Given the wide geographic, financial, and political contexts within this region, tackling this issue is complicated and requires cooperation among many stakeholders.

One promising potential solution for managing water scarcity in the region is the use of transformative digital technology solutions, such as blockchain or artificial intelligence.

In late October, ELI and Water Foundry held a workshop in Denver, Colorado, that brought together public, private, and nonprofit actors to work together on developing and mapping feasible technological solutions for the basin. Ultimately, the goal of the workshop was to ensure the more efficient, effective, and resilient stewardship of water in the region through technological innovation.

The workshop and associated research builds upon a recent report by the World Economic Forum, which explored a number of technologies that could address challenges in the water sector. The workshop featured technologies of blockchain, sensor nets, and AI, delving into the nuances for each for participants to capture a deeper understanding of their implications for public policy in the context of the region, in addition to identifying the barriers and potential solutions for commercialization and scaling.

AI and blockchain are useful in targeting the traceability of water from the watershed to users such as cities, agriculture, and consumers. Moreover, AI-enabled technologies have great potential to manage water supply and demand.

Areas explored during the workshop included the use of blockchain tokens to reward water conservation efforts at a household or business level, combined blockchain and sensor technologies to monitor and report water quality in municipal water systems, or sensor and AI networks to better measure and predict seasonal fluctuations in water availability.

By pinpointing the current water use and supply challenges and the dynamics of water management in the Colorado River Basin, the workshop participants worked to prioritize two digital technology pilot projects to implement in the region, as well as established a long-term collaboration for the pilot projects.


Field Notes: Ex EPA Chief Reilly keynotes ELI Press book launch

“It’s an extraordinarily consequential piece of work,” said former EPA Administrator William Reilly to kick off the book launch of Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, published by ELI Press.

“The kinds of approaches that the book describes are attractive, practical, and cost effective and can be undertaken well before we reach a climate crisis,” said Reilly.

The Institute also presented a panel to discuss proposed legal methods to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as efforts already underway to put these recommendations into action.

The panel included book editors Michael B. Gerrard of Columbia Law School and John C. Dernbach of Widener University Commonwealth Law School. Commentary came from NRDC’s Kit Kennedy, Earthjustice’s Peter Lehner, and Charles Sensiba of Troutman Sanders LLP.

59 authors contributed to the book, and with 35 chapters of over 1,000 legal tools and recommendations to choose from, the report is instrumental in providing policymakers and lawyers the best legal tools for reducing carbon emissions within the federal, state, tribal, local, and private sectors.

Although the goal of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 is indeed a challenge, Dernbach contended that the concrete recommendations show that the goal is technically feasible and would only cost 1 percent of national income.

The panelists dove into debates about pathways to carbon=neutral agriculture, clean energy technologies, and lower-emission transportation options.


With the generous support of the Hewlett Foundation, ELI and the China Environmental Protection Foundation have published Environmental Public Interest Litigation: Selected Cases. This casebook, published in Chinese with an English version following, features 120 environmental public interest litigation cases decided by Chinese courts in recent years. The cases include those filed by NGOs and prosecutors and cover a broad range of issues.

The book conducts a systematic examination of the legal issues arising out of environmental public interest litigation in China, and couples the primary sources with in-depth legal analysis.

This new enforcement tool came into broad use only in recent years, specifically due to the implementation of the new Environmental Protection Law in 2015. The publication will be a valuable resource for environmental lawyers at both enforcement agencies and private practice, environmental judges, and NGO workers who are interested in environmental public interest litigation.

ELI expects this book will help to build the capacity of Chinese environmental law communities and promote a more transparent, fair, and predictable environmental rule of law system in China.


In April, ELI hosted a public webinar featuring the article Managing the Future of the Electricity Grid: Energy Storage and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, included in this year’s ELR Environmental Law and Policy Annual Review. The article, written by NYU Law Professor Richard L. Revesz and Burcin Unel of NYU Institute of Policy Integrity, challenges the conventional wisdom that utilization of energy storage systems will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and proposes that state and federal regulators adopt policy reforms that internalize emission externalities, eliminate entry barriers, and modify market rules to guarantee accurate price signals that value the benefits of clean energy storage.

The webinar hosted an interesting discussion among the authors and industry experts as they weighed the feasibility and direction of Revesz and Unel’s proposal.


ELI hosted a special seminar in May to explore the implications of Rapanos v. U.S. and the proposed new jurisdictional rule for the future of wetlands. The panel was moderated by Amanda Waters of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and featured National Wetlands Awards winners Greg Sutter, Joel Gerwein, and Angela Waupochick.

Innovation Lab poised for next half century of tech.

ELI President Attends “The Future of the Green Economy” in Rome, Italy
April 2019

(Washington, D.C.): The green economy is now a $4 trillion market—roughly the same market share as the fossil fuel sector. Given the impact of this new economy, the Canadian Chamber in Italy hosted “The Future of the Green Economy” in Rome, Italy, on April 17. Scott Fulton, President of the Environmental Law Institute, attended the event at the invitation of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Embassy in Rome.

Blockchain Salvation
David Rejeski and Lovinia Reynolds
Date Released
June 2018
Blockchain Salvation

The hype around blockchains—the programming protocol originally created for the Bitcoin—is bidirectional, ranging from apocalyptic predictions of bitcoin energy use that will “destroy our clean energy future” to rosy scenarios that “blockchain technology can usher in a halcyon age of prosperity for all.” The question for policymakers, therefore, is how to ensure that the environment profits in the end.

Blockchains: Environmental Hype or Hope?
July 2018

Washington, DC: The hype around blockchains—the programming protocol originally created for the Bitcoin—is bidirectional, ranging from apocalyptic predictions of bitcoin energy use that will “destroy our clean energy future” to rosy scenarios that “blockchain technology can usher in a halcyon age of prosperity for all.” The question for policymakers, therefore, is how to ensure that the environment profits in the end.

Advancing the Administrator’s Science Goals
Richard Yamada - United States Environmental Protection Agency
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Current Issue
Parent Article

Reading the popular press about science in the Trump administration, one cannot help but recall the famous quote about “the nattering nabobs of negativism.” I am thankful to have an insider’s perspective at EPA’s Office of Research and Development, where every day I witness the real, pro-science story of the administration, especially the role of Administrator Scott Pruitt in advancing the White House agenda. 

Science and technology have always played a pivotal role in what makes America great, and EPA is constantly advancing this proud tradition by engaging in a continuous, thoughtful conversation about meeting the research needs of the nation. This work has never been more important, as the number of environmental issues facing us is increasing in both scope and complexity. 

States need tech solutions that are not only effective and reliable, but also affordable. EPA’s innovative approach is to embrace these challenges, and deliver science and technology in ways that not only provide solutions, but align our common goals of a clean, healthy environment and economic growth and opportunity. 

Research must be collaborative. We have recognized that to fully harness the strength of the unmatched collective expertise we possess at EPA, we must break down traditional boundaries and work in truly efficient interdisciplinary teams. In fact, today’s complex environmental problems demand such an approach. We are accelerating the integration of various scientific subject areas, routinely bringing together social scientists, engineers, ecologists, and other experts in ways that match the complexity of the challenges we face. 

Satellite imaging, remote sensing, high-throughput screening, and a new generation of small, portable, and inexpensive sensing and monitoring technologies are generating constant streams of data. Putting that proliferation of information to use requires massive amounts of computation, timely analysis, and interpretation. 

Here, EPA is leading the way. Agency-produced tools such as the Enviro Atlas (a GIS-based, ecosystem mapping and visualization tool), CANARY (a homeland security water-monitoring tool), the Environmental Quality Index (an index of environmental quality), and the ToxCast Dashboard (seamless access to toxicity data on more than 9,000 chemicals and information from more than 1,000 high-throughput assay endpoint components), and a host of others are lowering costs for timely analysis, and empowering the agency and its partners to make better, more informed decisions.

Speeding up the delivery of research results is also challenged at the other end of the spectrum: too little data. For example, many commercially available chemicals have not been thoroughly evaluated for potential health and environmental risks, and traditional toxicity testing methods are lengthy and expensive. ORD’s National Center for Computational Toxicology is incorporating the latest knowledge and technical tools to study data-poor chemicals, ushering in a new generation of far faster, less expensive screening. 

EPA is also finding creative ways to tap the collective spirit of American ingenuity and innovation. Our prize competitions and challenges allow the general public to contribute unique solutions to complex science problems — we can get solutions and technologies from individuals who might not otherwise address environmental problems. EPA’s ToxTesting Challenge — a prize-based competition to find technological solutions to produce health-based chemical assays — is a great example of how we protect human health in new ways. 

Researchers can often demonstrate technologies that are promising in the lab, but how do we scale-up those technologies? EPA’s Small Business Innovative Research program supports the development of promising new technologies during the crucial proof-of-concept stage. The program has supported new companies that have brought new technologies to the marketplace and sparked a host of successful businesses, showcasing how environmental challenge can yield economic opportunity and growth. 

Finally, EPA has always had a unique partnership with the public. Today, that partnership is growing even stronger through the emergence of citizen science, which has the potential to allow everyone to play an important role in contributing to our understanding of complex environmental challenges. EPA is in the process of developing a citizen science handbook as the first step of making that a reality — an exciting direction that will help agency scientists, empower citizens, and continue to strengthen an enduring partnership. 

The above offers but a tiny slice of the exciting pro-science examples we have to offer at EPA. I hope this Sidebar demonstrates how the agency is meeting the environmental challenges of the 21st century with a forward-thinking vision of science.