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Environmental Science And Engineering For The 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation [NSB 00-22, February 2000]

Title Page

National Science Board




1     Introduction


»  Research Within and Across Agencies

»  Education
and Other

»  Assessment
Roles and

»  Infrastruc-
ture in

»  Investments

3    Scope of
NSF's Current

4    Input Received About Unmet Needs and Opportunities

5    Findings and

6    Conclusion


Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Appendix D

Appendix E

Appendix F

Appendix G

Final Page

Chapter 2.


The national investment in science and engineering R&D produces a wide variety of benefits ranging from new knowledge and new technologies to better inform policies and practices. Many Federal agencies contribute to the national investment in environmental science and technology. Overall, the Federal Government supports an environmental R&D portfolio estimated in excess of $5 billion per year (

Collaboration and cooperation across agencies is enabled through multiple mechanisms. Many efforts have been coordinated through the White House. NSTC's Committee on
Current annual Federal R&D spending on environmental research is only 5 percent of annual expenditures on environmental management. Thus the achievement of even a small improvement in management efficiency would pay for the incremental research many times over.—CENR, 1995, Preparing for the Future Through Science and Technology (paraphrased)
Environment and Natural Resources, operating through the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, coordinates several interagency environmental R&D activities. The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology provides complementary advice on the roles of science and technology in achieving national goals.

Established in 1993 and chaired by the President, the cabinet-level NSTC serves as an initiator and coordinator of interagency science and technology R&D. CENR is one of five committees under NSTC. With respect to NSF, CENR informs and influences the process by which the Foundation establishes research priorities and responds to policy concerns. NSF plays an active role in a variety of important multi-agency CENR activities, including the successful U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) (, the new Integrated Science for Ecosystem Challenges activity, and the National Biological Information Infrastructure (, a CENR effort to set standards for environmental information and make that information available to researchers, industry, and the general public.

The CENR research agenda, published in 1995, provided the initial framework for coordinating agency research programs to address environmental issues in an integrated manner (
). CENR has sought, and continues to seek, advice from academia, industry, other private sector groups, Congress, and state and local governments. CENR seeks to involve experts from all stakeholder groups in conducting broad and credible national scientific and technical assessments of the state of knowledge. The point of these assessments is to develop consensus that explicitly acknowledges what is known, what is unknown, and what is uncertain. The consensus understanding can then be used to project the implications of alternative policy options and to involve stakeholders and policy-makers in understanding the basis, uncertainties, and likely consequences of those projections.

CENR has also encouraged increased extramural R&D in the overall mix of Federal R&D. In addition, CENR recognizes the diversity of strengths afforded by the Federal laboratories, national laboratories (government owned, contractor operated), universities, and private industry in environmental research. As CENR works to ensure that the capabilities and resources of each of these sectors are appropriately integrated, it looks to NSF for leadership in supporting fundamental academic environmental research, in ensuring that our academic institutions continue to provide an adequate supply of well-trained scientists and engineers, and in laying the foundation for a scientifically literate citizenry.

A number of bi- and multi-agency environmental activities complement the CENR initiatives (see Table 1). NSF's unique relationship with the university-based science and engineering community allows it to bring a valuable outside perspective from the researchers themselves.


TABLE 1. Examples of NSF's Multi-Agency Environmental Activities


Participating Agencies

International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups NSF, NIH, USDA
Joint Program on Bioremediation NSF, EPA, DOE, ONR
National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program NSF, USGS, FEMA, NIST
Partnership for Environmental Research, including four grants competitions: NSF, EPA, USDA
Decision-making and Valuation for Environmental Policy NSF, EPA
Environmental Statistics NSF, EPA
Technology for a Sustainable Environment NSF, EPA
Water and Watersheds NSF, EPA, USDA
U.S. Global Change Research Program NSF, USDA, DOC/NOAA, DOE, HHS/NIH, DOI, EPA, NASA, SI
U.S. Weather Research Program NSF, NOAA, NASA, DOD

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Just as the inability to read puts a child at risk of truancy and becoming a school dropout, deficiencies in mathematics and science have become a barrier to higher education and the 21st century workplace. In the recently released National Science Board report Preparing Our Children: Math and Science Education in the National Interest (NSB 1999), the Board urges a Nation-wide consensus on a core of knowledge and competency in mathematics and science. The Board believes it is both possible and imperative to develop national strategies that serve the national interest while respecting local responsibility for K-12 teaching and learning. NSF support for integrated environmental research and education in this context emphasizes the involvement of the science and engineering communities—both individually and through their institutions—as a special resource for local schools, teachers, and students. Together with elected officials, school administrators, classroom teachers, parents, and employers, scientists and engineers bring a valuable perspective on mathematics and science as a way of knowing, a transferable skill, and a citizenship tool as we enter a new millennium.

New knowledge is perhaps the single most important driver of economic growth and the most precious and fully renewable resource available to individuals and societies to advance their material well-being (NSB 1999). An important approach to carrying out NSF's mission is to help the Nation use new knowledge in science and engineering for the benefit of society. The transfer of such knowledge is a vital ingredient in enhancing the Nation's industrial competitiveness. NSF's knowledge transfer activities are focused on building working relationships at the research project level between academia, industry, and other potential users, such as local and state governments (NSF 1995).

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NSF's involvement in environmental activities is directed toward discovery, with the goal of achieving a more comprehensive understanding of environmental systems. Discovery alone is insufficient, however. New knowledge must be integrated and communicated, both to other scientists and to society at large. The Foundation, as well as other agencies, thus has a role in "scientific assessment," which the Board uses to mean the synthesis, evaluation, and communication of scientific understanding.

The Board distinguishes scientific assessment from other types of assessment, including:

  • Resource assessment, which is the evaluation of the quality and/or quantity of a particular natural resource such as timber, water, or fisheries. This type of assessment is usually done by the relevant Federal management or regulatory agencies in cooperation with the cities, states, or regional entities that are naturally involved. NSF is not routinely involved in support of resource assessments.

  • Human health risk assessment, which refers to the process that scientists and government officials use to estimate the increased risk of health problems in people who are exposed to different amounts of specific toxic or other harmful substances, for example, persistent organic pollutants.

  • Ecological risk assessment, which is the process of analyzing data, assumptions, and uncertainties to evaluate the likelihood of adverse ecological effects resulting from a particular activity, e.g., a chemical spill. These types of assessments are extensively used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as tools in risk management and are an integral part of EPA's regulatory approach. NSF is not involved in support of risk assessments.

These other kinds of assessments are important, but beyond NSF's scope. Many fall within the purview of other agencies or are tied explicitly to their missions.

Although scientific assessments do not constitute a major suite of activities at NSF, the Foundation does fund two kinds of assessment activity. NSF currently provides (1) support for research on the conduct of assessments and (2) grants for specific scientific assessments (often in partnership with other agencies—see "Scientific Assessment" section in Chapter 3). Both activities are funded by grants to parties outside NSF, as opposed to being conducted by NSF personnel. For example, some scientific assessments are conducted by the National Research Council; others by independent panels of experts assembled for that purpose.

The purpose of a particular scientific assessment may vary. Some are intended to summarize the state of knowledge of a particular scientific field, with the goal of identifying new research opportunities and setting priorities. Other scientific assessments are designed to evaluate the knowledge about a particular topic with the goal of informing policy decisions. Scientific assessment may also be called knowledge assessment. A scientific assessment may pose a range of questions, depending on the intended purpose of the assessment. For example, it may ask:

  1. What is known at present and with what degree of certainty?
  2. What is not known?
  3. What types of additional research would likely lead to significant scientific gains?
  4. What additional knowledge would be useful for decision-makers?
  5. In view of the answers to questions 1 and 2, what are the likely consequences of different alternative societal or policy options?

In many cases, a scientific assessment may combine elements of both an assessment of the state of knowledge in a scientific field as well as an assessment of the relevance of that knowledge to policy decisions and societal welfare (see Box 3).

For a study analyzing the methodology of integrated assessments and their application to global environmental concerns, see the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's report on a Workshop on Global-scale Issues (OECD 1998).
Some scientific assessments are particularly appropriate for an interagency partnership approach, especially when the agencies involved share responsibility for a topic or must be prepared to act on the information resulting from the assessments. NSF has a responsibility to engage in assessments, enabling the synthesis, analysis, and clear communication of research findings—particularly basic research findings—in a timely fashion. In addition, NSF can provide a valuable service to other agencies and to the scientific and engineering community by supporting the development of explicit research agendas and by providing for improved understanding of the actual process of conducting assessments.

The scale and nature of the problem or information being assessed should dictate the scale of the assessment. Some scientific assessments need to be performed at an international level, while others can and should be conducted at the national level. NSF has a role in both. In the international arena, NSF should award grants to the coordinating entity as well as allocate funds to sponsor U.S. scientists to participate in assessments. A number of international and national scientific assessments would be beneficial; many would involve partnerships with other agencies or international bodies. One international scientific assessment that has been proposed and that is well within the purview of NSF's mission is the Millennium Assessment of the World's Ecosystems (Ayensu et al. 1999).

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In addition to physical infrastructure provided directly by NSF, an international array of research sites, facilities, centers, and platforms provide immense benefit for the NSF-supported researchers who use them. These physical infrastructure capabilities are provided by a variety of entities: other nations; other U.S. Federal agencies; tribal, state, and local governments; and, in some cases, NGOs and the private sector. For example, several Federal agencies are committed to maintaining infrastructure and monitoring efforts that provide long-term data sets for our lands and waters.

Information infrastructure is a special type of physical infrastructure (see Box 4). The recent report of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC 1998) highlights not only the inadequacy of Federal information technology R&D investment, but also the drawback that it is focused too heavily on near-term problems. In the environmental area, the information infrastructure has been tuned to several different needs and opportunities. For example, the National Biological Information Infrastructure and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure represent critical pieces of a larger need. Similarly, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Earth Observing System Data and Information System provides important lessons on the efficiency and effectiveness of a centralized mechanism for collecting and providing specific information. NSF has a legitimate role, in partnership with other agencies, to support the infrastructure needed to synthesize and aggregate environmental information and make it more accessible to the public. Further, NSF can focus on the long-term, fundamental environmental information infrastructure needs that more mission-focused agencies are unable to support.

Numerous initial efforts have identified the kinds of information infrastructure required to track environmental topics. For example, the Heinz Center (1999) has recently released "Designing a Report on the State of the Nation's Ecosystems," which takes important steps toward identifying and describing environmental indicators in a scientifically credible, nonpartisan way for use by decision-makers. This kind of synthetic activity depends heavily on information infrastructure.

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Immense advances in science and engineering have been made possible by national policies that promote research at the frontiers of knowledge. A concomitant policy is to ensure that discovery in science and engineering is used to benefit all citizens, promote economic growth, improve the quality of life, and ensure national security. In many areas of science and engineering, the interval between discovery and industrial innovation is becoming shorter. As a consequence, there is a need for stronger university-industry partnerships in order to exploit new opportunities that will arise in environmental technologies and supporting fields. At the same time, a rich base of fundamental research in science and engineering must be maintained to ensure future innovations in environmental technology (see Box 5). Overall, industry sees strength in its ability to link inventions to markets and to commercial ize new technologies (Resetar et al. 1999).

The environmental market is increasingly technology-driven, indicating that suppliers must make continuing substantial R&D expenditures. The large multinational environment companies are most R&D intensive, spending 8 to 10 percent of turnover on research; smaller firms in lower technology environmental sectors may spend less than 2 percent of turnover on R&D (OECD 1998). According to Resetar et al. (1999), from a company's point of view, collaborative research on environmental technologies may be an opportunity to share expenses for technologies necessary to comply with environmental regulations. They may also be a way to reduce the risks associated with introducing new technologies to comply with regulations and the risks of environmental liability.

The Federal role in fostering R&D to advance environmental technologies was articulated by NSTC (1994):

  • Appropriately balance avoidance, monitoring, control, and remediation technologies, stressing the need for a shift toward technologies that emphasize sustainable use of natural resources and avoidance of environmental harm while still maintaining the commitment to remediate past environmental damages.

  • Focus Federal R&D support on viable technologies that require assistance to attract private sector investment because of high technical risk, long payback horizons, or instances in which the anticipated returns are not evident to individual firms or distinct industrial sectors.

  • Foster international cooperation on understanding, monitoring, and assessing environ mental changes and impacts on a global or multinational scale.

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