GAO faults agency's 'fragmented and largely uncoordinated' research

U.S. EPA still hasn't implemented 20-year-old recommendations to improve the management of its laboratories, leaving the agency's research and technical activities "fragmented and largely uncoordinated," the Government Accountability Office has found.

The problems could impede EPA's ability to handle upcoming budget cuts as Congress looks for ways to reduce spending and pay down the deficit, the watchdog agency says.

In light of the looming cuts, EPA will need to more effectively use its labs, but the agency’s ability to do so may be hampered by the lack of both an overarching plan to coordinate scientific efforts throughout the agency and a top science official, GAO said.

"Although EPA's laboratory organizational and management structure and footprint have remained largely the same over the past 20 years -- in spite of multiple calls for change -- in the current budget climate the agency may not be afforded the luxury of maintaining its current number of laboratory facilities," GAO analysts wrote.

GAO detailed its findings in a recent 54-page report to the energy and environment subpanel of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Subcommittee ranking member Brad Miller (D-N.C.) requested the report after EPA included $2 million in its 2012 budget blueprint for an independent study of its laboratories; with Congress looking to slash spending, that request seems to have little chance of approval.


GAO found that five past studies have made recommendations for how EPA can streamline its research capabilities and improve the management of its laboratories. But several were never implemented. If the new study is funded and completed, GAO analysts warned, "to be successful where past independent evaluations have failed to produce change, decisions based on the study's results cannot be made by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo."

EPA operates 37 laboratories in 170 buildings throughout the country. Those facilities complete the research that forms the foundation of the agency's regulations. But GAO found that they lack coordination, with no overarching plan for scientific efforts at labs that are located everywhere between Richmond, Calif., and Chelmsford, Mass.

A 1992 independent evaluation "found that EPA's science was of uneven quality and the agency lacked a coherent science agenda and operations plan to guide scientific efforts throughout the agency," according to the GAO report. The evaluation recommended that EPA appoint a top science official with authority over all the agency's research.

But the problem still has not been fully addressed, according to GAO. The laboratories are managed by 15 senior officials in separate organizations that independently coordinate their own scientific activities and workforce planning.

"To date, EPA has not requested authority to create a new position of deputy administrator for science and technology and continues to operate its laboratories under the direction of 15 different senior officials using 15 different organizational and management structures," GAO analysts wrote. "As a result, EPA has a limited ability to know if scientific activities are being unintentionally duplicated among the laboratories or if opportunities exist to collaborate and share scientific expertise, equipment, and facilities across EPA's organizational boundaries."

In a written response to the GAO report, EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe cited Congress' failure in 2001 to approve a deputy administrator of science and technology, leading the agency to hire a senior adviser. EPA now plans to expand the responsibilities of that adviser to respond to GAO's concerns.

Perciasepe also noted that EPA "manages its science activities in the context of its particular program or region," leading to outcomes linked to a specific goal. But he added that the agency will work with GAO to come up with a plan that reaches across laboratories.

The GAO report also asserts that the agency has made little headway in consolidating office space, potentially spending more on operating costs than necessary. EPA also does not have a master plan for laboratory infrastructure, instead considering the needed space and repairs of each laboratory individually. Hence, the agency "cannot be assured that it is allocating its funds most appropriately," according to the report.

That can result in research difficulties. In an Oregon laboratory, scientists must frequently recalibrate equipment and adjust the results because of a heating and cooling system that allows the temperature to fluctuate as much as 17 degrees. In New Jersey, tests must be performed repeatedly on the same samples because of a "lack of adequate environmental controls."

Click here to read the GAO report.

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