The effective use of science to inform environmental management decisions depends on critical assessment of available, relevant evidence. The evidence assessments undertaken in the US EPA National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) take many forms (e.g., risk assessment, causal assessment, hazard assessment), incorporate many different types of evidence (e.g., quantitative and qualitative information, primary and secondary data), and inform decisions under various statutes. Nevertheless, there are similarities in the structure of these evidence assessments, as well as in potential challenges and solutions. Structurally, the question to be evaluated needs to be clearly defined first; then relevant evidence must be identified and evaluated, in terms of its magnitude, direction, quality, and other parameters; and finally, the entire body of evidence must be synthesized to generate conclusions, including identifying uncertainties. Ensuring that evidence assessments address questions in a timely yet rigorous and transparent manner can be challenging. Specific challenges include selecting the appropriate assessment method, given time and other resource constraints and decision-makers’ needs; identifying evidence and applying pre-determined criteria for its inclusion in an assessment; communicating both big-picture conclusions on the full body of evidence and detailed specifics about individual pieces of evidence in clear and useful ways; and maintaining communication with decision-makers and other stakeholders throughout the assessment process. At NCEA, innovative technologies, fit-for-purpose methodologies, and application of translational science principles are helping to meet these challenges and will improve our ability to synthesize evidence, apply it to environmental management decisions, and inform the next generation of assessments.
- Kate Schofield, Ph.D., Ecologist, USEPA