EPA leader reveals science priorities of new administration

On the day of her confirmation as administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week, Lisa Jackson sent a letter to all of the agencyâÄôs employees outlining President Barack ObamaâÄôs expectations. First, science must be the backbone for EPAâÄôs programs. Second, EPA must follow the rule of law. Finally, its actions must be transparent. Pai-Yei Whung, the EPAâÄôs chief scientist, was on the St. Paul campus Thursday to discuss the implications of these expectations. âÄúIâÄôm really optimistic about how the agency is going to acknowledge and honor the importance of science in our rulemaking and policy decisions,âÄù she said. Whung, who also serves as head of the agencyâÄôs Office of the Science Advisor, has been with the EPA for nine months overseeing the planning, development and implementation of cross-agency scientific efforts. Her speech focused on the agencyâÄôs science-based approach for addressing environmental challenges in âÄúrulemaking.âÄù The key to achieving their goals is research, applied science and using science for decision making, Whung said, highlighting risk reduction and integration of all scientific fields in addressing challenges. âÄúIn the environment, the air is not separated from water; the water is not separated from soil,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs actually very much an integrated system.âÄù Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the UniversityâÄôs Water Resources Center and chair of the EPAâÄôs Science Advisory Board, said the EPA worked under a âÄúgag orderâÄù for the past eight years, with decision making based on a political agenda and special interests. She said the Obama administration has made it clear that climate change is not only on their radar screen, itâÄôs one of their top priorities. In her speech, Whung discussed a possible cap on carbon dioxide emissions, carbon trading and a carbon tax, all of which would require careful scientific and technological planning. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she supports those approaches. âÄúThere are a lot of people who believe that the principles of science¬¬ âÄî i.e, the idea of truth and the idea of defending by evidence âÄî are really part of the important principles of democracy,âÄù she said. Environmental engineering graduate student Greg LeFevre said the EPA is supposed to be a science-driven portion of the government. âÄúThe EPA has to follow CongressâÄô laws, but those should be based in solid, fundamental science, not based on the whims of the political moment,âÄù LeFevre said. In addition to cross-agency communication and collaboration, Whung emphasized the need for a bipartisan mindset. âÄúRegardless of Republican or Democrat, the thing thatâÄôs very important is bipartisan support,âÄù she said. âÄúIâÄôm hoping that collectively the whole nation has this as a mentality.âÄù