Heinz Center's O'Malley explains how to fill gaps in environmental research

Four years ago, researchers at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment completed a major study looking at U.S. ecosystems, but found the state of knowledge on many environmental issues to be sorely lacking. During today's OnPoint, Robin O'Malley, director of the environmental reporting program at the Heinz Center, describes how to address some of the biggest holes in ecosystems research, for a relatively low cost. Plus, O'Malley discusses why federal and state researchers need to work together on a stronger national monitoring system.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me today is Robin O'Malley. He's the director of the Environmental Reporting Program at the Heinz Center. Robin thanks a lot for being here.

Robin O'Malley: Thank you for the chance to come.

Brian Stempeck: Now your organization recently put out a major report, basically this is an update on a report you put out four years ago. To give a little background, this is kind of a way of measuring the state of the nation's ecosystems, kind of a GDP for looking at the environment in the United States. Talk a little bit about the original report and how this came about and basically what this update is.

Robin O'Malley: Right. The first State of the Nation's Ecosystems report came out in 2002. And the goal of that report was to identify and report on a set of high-level indicators of how the nation's ecosystems are doing. Not on what stresses we might place on them or what permits we issue to take care of them, but on the actual condition of the resources we care about. And so in that process we didn't limit ourselves to information that we already had in hand, but we said what should we know? What should the American people be told about the nation's ecosystems? And then we looked and unfortunately saw that many of those things we cannot report on in the way we thought we should be able to. So in the past several years we've been working to identify which are the most important of those data gaps we call them, things we should be able to report but can't. And this report recommends high priority action to fill 10 of those gaps and looks more broadly at the nation's environmental reporting infrastructure that collects this information and brings it to us in a way that either is useful or is not. And in, as I noted, many cases we can't report on the things we'd like to report on.

Brian Stempeck: There are basically 10 recommendations in the report looking at what are the big caps you can address here to kind of fill some of those holes that you mentioned. What are those? What are the kind of programs that could address those gaps in information?

Robin O'Malley: Well, there's many programs that collect information, but the information itself is the important thing. So things like submerged aquatic vegetation, seagrass as we have in the Chesapeake Bay and many other bays. It's really the important base of the food chain and base of many coastal ecosystems. We don't do a good job of reporting and counting whether we're losing seagrass or whether we're gaining seagrass. We don't do a good job of tracking the amount of contaminants in fish that we catch and may eat or that we buy in the supermarket. We don't even do things like do a really good job of tracking the amount of ground water in the United States. A lot of people think we're minding the nation's groundwater. In fact the data to support that are not available for many of the nation's regional groundwater aquifers that we take our drinking water from.

Brian Stempeck: It seemed like when the original Heinz Center report came out in 2002 it surprised a lot of people that there are so many gaps in what we know. And just like some of the things you mentioned, contaminants in fish, groundwater, those are things that I think most people assume that local or state or federal officials have a pretty good grasp on. Why don't they? I mean say if you're talking about groundwater, it seems like the town I grew up in they kept track of their groundwater and the state did as well. What are the problems there?

Robin O'Malley: It's very often the case that this information is collected in some places or by some organizations, but not consistently across the country. So there are many, as you say, if you manage an aquifer and you're drawing drinking water from it you're likely to know whether it's going up or down. But you may not know the condition of the entire aquifer that may be several hundred miles long. And aggregating that information for policymakers here in Washington understand whether there's a problem with groundwater depletion, non-native species expansion, loss of existing species. Those kinds of bits of information that, again, may be collected in a spotty fashion, an inconsistent fashion so you can't compare them, doesn't allow people here in Washington and at a national level to see what the big picture looks like.

Brian Stempeck: But isn't that the job of the U.S. EPA or the Interior Department, these federal agencies to collect this kind of local information? I mean is it a case where they're not doing their job well enough? They're not putting this information together? Or is it basically the lack of kind of the infrastructure to do that?

Robin O'Malley: I think it's the latter. Each of the agencies you mentioned and others collect enormous amounts of useful information for the purposes that they have it. We're pointing out that there are some purposes that we're not doing a good job of collecting and aggregating the information. So I wouldn't criticize them. They've done their jobs well within the boundaries that they've done them, but we need to integrate that information and fill in some of the gaps that haven't been addressed so far.

Brian Stempeck: As you look to improve upon some of these programs who should be taking the lead? It seemed like in the report you pretty much steered away from a lot of policy recommendations, this is what Congress should do.

Robin O'Malley: Right.

Brian Stempeck: But it seemed like for something to get done someone has to take a lead on this, whether it's the House Resources Committee, whether it's the EPA, someone needs to step in and say, well, we're going to take responsibility here.

Robin O'Malley: Right. We did steer away, because in many cases it's not clear whether these data should be collected by local, state or federal governments, under what authorities. So we didn't step into the exact details of how it should be done. But in fact, the kinds of people you mentioned, people in the agencies should be making plans to fill in these gaps. People on the Hill should be thinking about the opportunities of funding them when they come up in either appropriations or authorizing circumstances. Agencies like OMB need to think across the board about how to fill in these and other kinds of gaps in our understanding.

Brian Stempeck: Now there's also other tight pen organizations here, basically ideas for new programs that could address a lot of these holes. One of them, as you mentioned, is looking at contaminants in fish. This seems like something that, you know, FDA, some of the grocery stores, are already looking at. What needs to be expanded upon in terms of what they're already doing?

Robin O'Malley: There's really two things, you can go out and catch fish in streams and rivers and estuaries and see, of the part that you might eat, how many contaminants are there? How problematic are the levels that those contaminants are? The other end of the spectrum is you can go into the grocery store, and we have bits and pieces. EPA does some collecting of information on fish contaminants. USGS does some collection. FDA does some collection. But it's not an integrated whole. It doesn't cover the whole picture and you can't get an overall sense of whether either what you're buying or what you might be catching and eating is contaminated. And there are, again, state action levels that may differ from state to state. They may be implemented inconsistently. So there really isn't, we have bits and pieces of a picture, but not a consistent one that can really tell us the overall story.

Brian Stempeck: It seemed like the program you outlined in the report, it's pretty low cost for most of these research efforts. You know, $1 million, $2 million, in the scope of the federal budget it's pretty small. Is it hard to sell that to Congress? Is it hard to sell that to the White House?

Robin O'Malley: This is a difficult time to sell any kind of new domestic discretionary programs. And monitoring and data collection is often thought of as a low priority. It's very difficult to sell these kinds of actions in any kind of circumstance. People often don't understand the importance of being able to understand what's going on and be able to track it consistently through time.

Brian Stempeck: There was a story in the New York Times recently that kind of look at that, where they're talking about the measurements of sea ice being done up in the Arctic, measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Robin O'Malley: That's right.

Brian Stempeck: These kind of long-term efforts that don't get a lot of attention seem, you know, frankly boring from an outsider's perspective, but are actually coming up very important observations.

Robin O'Malley: Right.

Brian Stempeck: How do you sell that? How do you kind of raise more attention to those sorts of issues? Is it highlighting the findings that are coming out from these studies?

Robin O'Malley: Well, we're actually engaged in a process of trying to put some of that information out and thinking about the kinds of endpoints that people care about. People use this information in their business operations. The timber industry uses information from the federal government to know the overall stock of timber in this country. The shipping industry uses information from NOAA and other satellites to schedule boats coming in and out of harbors with the decreasing amount of free board between the bottom of larger ships and the bottom. They need to be very much more precise. People make public health decisions about whether people should go in the water and whether there are harmful algae or other kinds of contaminants. Making it clear that those kinds of decisions are based on ongoing monitoring that's got to be consistent and well organized is a point that we're trying to put out to people. This is not just for researcher's interest and academic interest, but real public health, community health, ecosystem health and business decisions are based on these systems.

Brian Stempeck: Reading the report, it kind of struck me, these are all domestic concerns. These are all things that are happening in United States. As you look out over the rest of the world is the picture a lot worse? I mean I've seen in a lot of developing nations you're clearly not going to have even near the same level we are. But are there also countries I guess where you can say that they're doing a better job than the United States?

Robin O'Malley: There are countries that, the United States is very large, has an enormous variety of ecosystems and different kinds of things to monitor. So it's hard to compare U.S. against smaller countries or what have you, but there are places that are organizing their information in ways that are meeting these kinds of needs. And I don't want to pick on countries that may be in better shape or not. You're absolutely right. The developing world has a far weaker base on which to make these decisions. But people are recognizing the importance of it and starting to build the systems to deliver this information globally. And it's in every country, in every country we're finding greater attention paid to the need for this information.

Brian Stempeck: This is part of a long-term effort. What else can we expect from you guys in the future in terms of kind of addressing these gaps?

Robin O'Malley: Well, the Heinz Center is going to put out a second State of the Nation's Ecosystems report in 2007. And as I said, we are trying to put out the notion that it's very important to pay attention to the systems. We have a situation in which we have many, many monitoring programs, but they're not, they're all done for their own purposes, not done as part of a coherent and consistent plan. And so thinking about some ability to bring these systems together and use them as efficiently as possible is part of our ongoing emphasis.

Brian Stempeck: All right Robin, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being here today.

Robin O'Malley: Great, thank you very much.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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