Epa Funding For Great Lakes Projects May Not Go to Most Critical Research

Release Date: June 2, 1997 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- During the past 25 years, federally funded research programs have been responsible for many of the successful efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.

But lately, scientists and engineers in the Great Lakes research community have noticed that the kinds of projects being funded may not be the ones with the greatest potential public benefit.

"Research funding by the Environmental Protection Agency is being directed more and more to basic-science projects through national programs in Washington rather than through regionally focused laboratories," noted Joseph V. DePinto, Ph.D., director of the University at Buffalo Great Lakes Program.

"I'm not opposed to basic or exploratory research," he noted, "but EPA should not abandon its mission-oriented, problem-solving approach to applied research. There are still an awful lot of problems in the Great Lakes. We will only be skirting those issues if this funding trend continues."

According to DePinto, the EPA has done this to make its research competitive on a national, rather than a regional, scale.

"Now the EPA has moved more toward a National Science Foundation-type of model, where individual investigators compete against each other for these funds on a national level," he explained. "But that model does not work for the Great Lakes."

The reason, he added, is that the Great Lakes comprise a large, complex system with problems that cannot be solved by individual investigators working on individual problems in isolation.

DePinto said the new research model in EPA's Office of Research and Development and its emphasis on small, basic-science projects is not conducive to funding the large, multi-institutional projects that will have the greatest positive effect on the Great Lakes.

"Under the new research-support model, it is more likely that somebody will be studying the effects of zebra mussels on phytoplankton in some little bay in the Western basin of Lake Erie and someone else will be looking at bioaccumulation of PCBs in phytoplankton off the lake's eastern basin," DePinto asked. "Who will take all these results and put them together? Who will know how to put them all together in a meaningful way?"

The synthesis of results from separate environmental science studies is a critical aspect of studying large, complex ecosystems like the Great Lakes, he explained.

DePinto said the Green Bay PCB Mass Balance project, completed in 1994 and in which he was a participant, is an example of one such large, coordinated research program. The project focused funding from five agencies and supported research by investigators from 20 different institutions, all directed toward understanding the sources, transport and bioaccumulation of PCBs in large lakes.

It was believed to constitute the largest set of coherent data ever compiled about toxic chemicals in a natural system.

The study, which used computer modeling to pinpoint the sources and fate of PCB contamination in Green Bay, showed that current point sources, such as industrial discharges, account for less than 10 percent of the total external PCB load to Green Bay, while the remainder come from resuspension of sediments that had been contaminated as long ago as the 1940s.

DePinto said environmental information like this that is so global in scope and that is critical for public-policy decisions cannot be gleaned solely from small-scale studies that focus on basic science conducted by individual researchers.

"The new funding patterns create this disconnect between environmental data and the synthesis of that data into a description of how the system as a whole functions," he said.

Media Contact Information

Christine Vidal has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.