Long Term Research: A Model
for NSF's Future
The LTER program has already demonstrated a remarkable return on NSF's investment. Thanks to NSF-supported research, we now have a better understanding of the complex interplay among plants, animals, people, and the environment.
In February 2000, the National Science Board (NSB), NSF's policymaking body, released a report urging that NSF expand the LTER program and make the environment a "central focus" of its research portfolio in the twenty-first century.
"Discoveries over the past decade or more have revealed new linkages between the environment and human health," says Eamon Kelly, chair of the National Science Board. "But just as we are beginning to better understand these linkages, the rate and scale of modifications to the environment are increasing. These alterations will present formidable challenges in the new centurychallenges which we are now only minimally equipped to meet."
Preeminent ecologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University chaired the NSB Task Force on the Environment, which was responsible for the report. "The LTER program is widely viewed as one of the outstanding successes of NSF," says Lubchenco, "and is the model for federal agencies as well as other countries for superb place-based ecological sciences. [The program is ] very lean, very efficient, very productive."
The LTER program's success is one reason the task force recommended, among other things, that NSF boost its spending on environmental research by $1 billion dollars over a five-year period beginning in 2001. That kind of financial commitment would make environmental science and engineering one of the agency's highest priorities.
And none too soon, according to Lubchenco. "We're changing things faster than we understand them," she once said in a news interview. "We're changing the world in ways that it's never been changed before, at faster rates and over larger scales, and we don't know the consequences. It's a massive experiment, and we don't know the outcome."