The Board reviewed and considered hundreds of recommendations from reports and policy
documents; from scholars in every scientific discipline and a broad range of professional
societies; from local and Federal agency officials; and from nongovernmental
organizations, community groups, and concerned
citizens (see Appendices B, C, and D).
Many of the suggestions transcend NSF's mission and relate more properly to
the entire Federal portfolio of environmental activities. Nonetheless, we
include them as a record of those points made repeatedly and as a
basis for many of the findings and recommendations presented in
this report. In addition, the Board examined a variety of programs
at NSF to determine the factors most likely to result in effective
research, education, and scientific assessment activities.
A NOTE OF THANKS
The Board is grateful to all of the
individuals and organizations that
provided comments during the process
of developing this report. The thought
and care that went into these responses
were obvious, and this report has
benefited accordingly. The Board does
not endorse all of the comments
received, but appreciates the intent
behind them and the perspectives that
were brought to the table. The findings
and recommendations offered in this
report reflect a careful process of
developing coherent policy guidance
for the Foundation that has necessitated
difficult choices. The context for
this consideration is evident throughout
Several themes emerged from this diverse input. Foremost among
them was a strong endorsement of NSF's fundamental operating
principles. In particular, the following strengths were highlighted:
Credibility. NSF's merit review approach is considered key to the credibility of its environment portfolio.
Program flexibility. The ability of core NSF programs to evolve over time as different fields of study emerge, change, and combine is widely supported.
Emphasis on education. NSF gets positive marks for its support of education and the integration of education with research.
Leadership. One of NSF's major strengths is its ability to activate the intellectual assets of the research and education communities and to mobilize resources for addressing substantive scientific and engineering challenges.
Flexible funding. The ability of program officers to allocate funds to facilitate the early development of emerging fields is both beneficial to nascent disciplines and an excellent mechanism for attracting outstanding scientists to serve in the critical role of program officers.
These strengths place the Foundation in a unique position to expand its efforts to enable a
broad spectrum of advances in the research community and to strengthen and expand its
partnerships with other Federal agencies in support of environmental research, education,
and scientific assessment.
Also from this input, the Board heard many ideas that framed ways in which NSF could and
should develop its environmental portfolio. The repeated suggestions are summarized below.
INPUT RECEIVED DURING THE HEARING PROCESS*
Enable Significantly More Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Research to Address Environmental Issues and Problems
This recommendation has been repeated frequently over a number of years as researchers
have grappled with the extraordinary complexity of environmental systems and the factors
influencing those systems. For example, the Corson Report (NRC 1993) notes that "the
research establishment is poorly structured to deal with complex, interdisciplinary research
Expertise from multiple disciplinesincluding the physical, biological, and social
sciences and engineeringis required to advance understanding and solve environmental
problems. Many of the individuals who spoke to the Board in its public events or via its web
site emphasized this as an area that NSF needs to strengthen, and a sizable fraction of the
approximately 250 reports in Appendix Balso mentions this issue. Many also emphasized the
inherent difficulties in establishing interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects within the
context of disciplinary programs through which funding is presently available.
The best interdisciplinary science must be firmly grounded in rigorous disciplinary research.
Enabling productive interdisciplinary efforts, however, requires significantly more than
simply assembling outstanding disciplinary researchers. Successful interdisciplinary research
requires different ways of conceptualizing problems; an openness and respect for other
disciplines; and the availability of time for the development and maturation of new interactions,
language, understanding, methodologies, and concepts. Fostering interdisciplinary
research thus needs to occur in parallel to the conduct of disciplinary research. The report of
the USGS Workshop on Enhancing Integrated Science explores this area and suggests a draft
set of principles for the conduct of interdisciplinary science endeavors (USGS 1999b).
The Board heard that interdisciplinary grant competitions at NSF suffer from weak continuing
institutional commitment and planning. Environmental research takes at least a 2- or 3-
year startup period to become fully effective. Once a competition is announced, program
officers within NSF and researchers in outside communities must assemble new alliances and
learn to work together. It takes a couple of times through the process to learn it well. The
Board heard that by the time the process becomes well focused, changes within the Foundation
shift budgets to other priorities and personnel rotate out or are reassigned elsewhere.
Many NSF interdisciplinary programs operate in only startup or lame duck mode, and this
obstructs real progress toward addressing important, interdisciplinary environmental issues.
The Board also heard endorsements of the core programs at NSF and was urged to secure
funding for environmental research that complements and expands existing activities. There
has been, and continues to be, a tremendous amount of important knowledge that has been
generated by the solid foundation that the core programs at NSF provide. Environmental
research that has major political elements has the potential to substantially diminish the
stability of NSF's environmental research efforts. While it would be very helpful to
strengthen and expand existing NSF programs and to increase the capacity for interdisciplinary
environmental research, such expansions should not be made at the cost of the long-term
stability of disciplinary environmental research at the Foundation.
*Prior to the July 1999 release of the Interim Report.
Recognize The Inherent Complexity and Nonlinearity of Most Environmental Systems
Many individuals suggested that NSF's new focus on biocomplexity is timely and urgently
needed, but felt that support for a far greater effort in this area is required. They pointed out
the importance of recognizing the inherent differences between reductionist approaches
(which focus on smaller and smaller units of a process or system) and more synthetic
approaches (which emphasize interactions among components, complex behaviors, and
emergent properties). Significant advances in synthetic, holistic approaches are required to
understand environmental systems.
Environmental issues are often characterized by both interdisciplinarity and complexity. For
example, scholars concerned with conservation of biodiversity must synthesize advances in
evolutionary systematics, biogeography, and ecological genetics in order to understand
genetic diversity and how it can be conserved.
In another example, the Board learned that synthesis of advanced process understanding in
atmospheric science, hydrology, and geology is necessary to quantify mass flux and energy
balance in certain natural systems. This is specifically important to our understanding of the
complexities of flow in the "vadose zone": the region of soil and fractured rock where we are
intentionally (Yucca Mountain) and inadvertently (Hanford and other sites) storing high-level
The Board also heard testimony urging NSF not to make biocomplexity the lens through
which all environmental research should be focused. The concern was that it risks making
the term so broad as to be meaningless and could devalue disciplinary research not central to
Consider Questions At The Appropriate Temporal And Physical Scale By Taking Into Account Long-Term And Large-Scale Research Needs
The Board heard from a variety of sources that the need for long-term research, monitoring,
and assessment of environmental trends far exceeds what is generally being delivered. A
whole new level of effort is needed to complement the excellent examples of long-term,
large-spatial-scale research that were identified (e.g., certain Global Change Research endeavors
and the LTER program).
The vast majority of field studies are of insufficient duration or spatial scale, or both, to
capture important phenomena. For example, in a survey of the duration of research projects
published in the journal Ecology between 1977 and 1987, Tilman (1989) found that 40
percent of those studies had time periods of less than 1 year and that more than 92 percent
of experimental field studies had durations of 5 years or fewer. Given that many organisms
require more than a few years to complete their life span and that most ecological processes
require a long period to exhibit their potential range, an emphasis on shorter term projects
can substantially constrain the development of environmental understanding. Similarly, the
spatial scale of most research projects does not approach the scale at which whole system
patterns and processes begin to emerge.
The idea of environmental research and education hubsphysical and/or virtual centers, or
collaboratorieswas advanced as one way by which researchers could synthesize the findings
from long-term and large-scale research. A parallel goal for such hubs could be the integration
of research with education.
The Board also heard that long-term and large-scale research offers opportunities for
partnerships with other Federal agencies as well as state, tribal, and local agencies and NGOs.
The LTER program could serve as a model for how such partnerships might be established
Include Appropriate Human Components (e.g., Economics and Social Sciences) In Environmental Research And Education
Over the last decade or so, an increasing number of environment-related reports have noted
that great leaps in our understanding of environmental systems will be made as system
paradigms expand to include human sciences. New areas encompass theoretical and empirical
research to develop measures of sustainable consumption levels; quantitative studies on
the efficient use of resources; research on the relationships between environmental regulations,
private sector investment decisions, and productivity growth; and research on participatory
processes, scientific and technological innovation, and resource management.
A particularly critical area of study, research on environmental valuing and decision-making,
has shown that humans weigh concerns for social justice, aesthetics, history, and economic
factors in assessing the merits of policy and practice. Further research is needed to identify
the kinds of participatory processes and educational approaches that enhance human ability
to make good use of scientific information in developing stable, sustainable environmental
policies, frequently in the face of substantial scientific uncertainty (see Box 11).
The Board heard testimony that the human sciences have developed with impoverished
spatial information, in part because until recently the capacity to create such large data sets
was constrained by enormous costs and the capacity to analyze such data was poor. Information
technology has now advanced to the point that spatially explicit problem solving in the
human sciences can be integrated meaningfully with similar approaches in ecology, the
geosciences, and other fields. For example, these capabilities could be applied to concerted,
long-term research into the historical effects of human communities on local environments .
This type of research could provide fine-grained, spatially explicit, historical data on changing
ecosystems and on the dynamic relationship of human communities and ecosystems.
Create A More Effective Information Infrastructure To Facilitate
Significant Advances In Informatics, Data Management, Modeling,
Synthesis, And Dissemination Of Information
It is generally acknowledged that effectively addressing environmental issues requires utilizing
the powerful new tools of information technology to manage, use, and communicate the
scientific data and information already in existence and to be generated by future research
The Board learned that approximately $600 million per year is spent on environmental
information generation through research, data collected by monitoring efforts, and the
storage and analysis of data (PCAST 1998). But existing high-quality information is not
currently being incorporated into management decisions because of lack of electronic
availability of the information and inadequate capabilities to interpret, synthesize, and
analyze that information.
For example, the United States possesses approximately 750 million biological specimens in
its natural history museums and herbaria. The georeferenced data (geographic coordinate
data attached to the biological information) from these specimens are urgently needed as a
tool to study the status and trends of ecological systems, but the vast majority of this information
has not been digitized.
The Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, in testimony to
the Board, called for an overarching electronic network for this spectrum of
information activities. This network would feature the combined use of
Internet-centered information technology, services, products,
existing organizations and systems, and information specialists
organized into an environmental information infrastructure. The
recommended network would facilitate linkage of distributed
information and databases, improved quality control of databases,
increased support for data standardization and information
management, and improved access to information for the public.
Today we speak easily of collaborations
between molecular biosciences and
ecology. What we quickly forget is the
sometimes long period of incubation
before such collaborations take hold
and lead environmental science in new
directions. To realize the Nation's
environmental research agenda, we
need to understand the process of
scientific collaboration better. Perhaps
the vehicle here is information.
Therefore, the Board could well explore
how we bring information technology
more fully to the environmental
research agenda W. Franklin Harris,
University of Tennessee
The Digital Library Interoperability project at the University of
CaliforniaSanta Barbara, Stanford University, and the University
of CaliforniaBerkeley may provide lessons. The Internet allows
computers to exchange data, and the web gives computer users
interactive access to information. But users of digital libraries and
information grids need services to help them manage raw information
and organize data. This NSF-NASA-Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency-supported project is building tools and
services to allow people to exploit the remarkable opportunities for
collaborative creation and sharing of knowledge that a digital world makes possible.
Develop And Exploit State-Of-The-Art Technology To Advance Environmental Studies And Address Environmental Problems
New computational algorithms, remote sensing, new kinds of sensors, genome sequencing,
laser technologies, and other advanced approaches are moving environmental research into a
new era. Previously inconceivable advances are being suggested. A variety of tools from
molecular biology (e.g., oligonucleotide probes) are letting us interrogate microbial assemblages
to find out what microbial types are present, what they can do, and what they are
doing. One scientist testified to the Board, for example, that genomic barcoding of the
pathogen Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay may become a reality thanks to microchips that
will identify the organism's genome as quickly as a supermarket scanner. Tools from molecular
chemistry (e.g., advanced x-ray methods) allow scientists to collect unprecedented kinds
of information about geochemical environments at the microbe scale.
Powerful new computers and algorithms are letting scientists construct models that include
the true complexity of biogeochemical systems. We are beginning to access the information
processing capability to connect the many processes of environmental and human systems
coherently so that we achieve a comprehensive understanding. But the kinds of profound
advances that we foresee require integrated research and application of these advanced tools
across a broad front of fundamental questions and environmental issues.
Other kinds of advances should be supported in the newly emerging environmental technology
area of industrial ecology, a field that takes a systems view of the use and environmental
implications of materials, energy, and products in industrial societies. Specifically, it places
industrial activity in its environmental context and draws on nature as a model for the
processes involved in industrial activity. The rich research agenda for industrial ecology has
grown from more traditional research on particular materials and economic sectors to
include needs for cross-sector and multiscale approaches.
The Board also heard that fundamental research is needed to enable the shift from waste
management and remediation to avoidance of environmental harm. For example, fundamental
studies in chemistry and engineering have led to environmentally benign alternatives
to chlorinated hydrocarbons for use in the synthesis of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and in
manufacturing processes. Industries have been quick to adopt new products such as these, as
well as new approaches to polymer production, drycleaning, and paint application that
prevent pollution and thereby avoid environmental harm.
Support Inventory And Monitoring Programs To Characterize
Animal And Plant Resources And To Determine Their Status And Trends
Plant, animal, and microbial species provide the basis for economically productive enterprises,
including crop and timber agriculture, livestock husbandry, fishing, and consumptive
and nonconsumptive wildlife recreation. The Board learned that protecting the basis of these
endeavors calls for a more extensive understanding of the wild relatives of these species (as
rich sources of new genes), of threats from invasive species including pests and pathogens,
and of the ways in which the relevant ecosystems will respond to the plethora of ongoing
global changes. In addition, studies of genetic diversity and the rich array of chemicals and
structures found in plants, animals, and microbes contribute directly to many facets of the
biotechnology industry and biomedical research. The need for evaluation of patterns and
causes of change goes beyond the need for information on individual species. Assessing the
status and trends of ecosystems providing essential services is increasingly recognized as vital
to economic and health interests. Ecosystem services of particular interest include pollination,
pest control, water purification, and flood control (PCAST 1998).
Support Research That Connects More Effectively With Decision-Making
(Policy, Regulatory, Management, Institutional, And
There has been a growing interest over the last decade in improving the scientific basis of
environmental decision-making. Several recommendations the Board heard and read on this
topic are of relevance here: (1) research results should be communicated to potential users in
a useful and understandable form; (2) research should include a focus on those environmental
problems where users need better information (see Box 12); and (3) public understanding
of science, in particular in the environmental area, needs to be improved.
Knowledge assessments are one route toward providing a common base of understanding. A
model for such knowledge assessments might be the Issues in Ecology series produced by the
Ecological Society of America. These peer-reviewed publications report, in lay language, the consensus
of a panel of scientific experts on issues relevant to the environment.
Unlocking Our Future, the Report to
Congress of the House Committee on
Science (1998), emphasizes that the
role for science in helping society
make good decisions will take on
increasing importance, particularly as
we face difficult decisions related to
The Corson Report, the Committee for the National Institute for
the Environment, the American Institute of Biological Sciences,
and the Ecological Society of America, among others, suggest
specific ways to improve the use and usefulness of knowledge resulting from the research enterprise (see e.g., NRC 1993, CNIE
1994, Blockstein 1997). Suggestions include: improved coordination
across the environmental research portfolio; setting priorities to produce a more comprehensive
knowledge base; better mechanisms for the communication
of urgent societal needs to the research community; better communication of research results
to multiple audiences; improved mechanisms for organization, management, and distribution
of data; and improved public understanding of science and environmental issues.
Include Educational Elements In Environmental Programs And Plans
The Board heard that education and training in the Nation's universities are strongly
disciplinary, whereas solution of environmental problems also requires broadly trained
people and multidisciplinary approaches. Opportunities for broadly based interdisciplinary
graduate degrees are few, and faculty are often not as well rewarded for interdisciplinary
activities as they are for disciplinary work. Additionally, environmental scientists are often
not appropriately trained to address pressing needs and fill positions in career paths outside
Complexity, and biocomplexity in particular, offers roadmaps for training the next generation
of scientists. Creativity in building the educational support system for this new integrative
environmental science is an especially important challenge. It will require new models of
institutional cooperation and new degrees of freedom on the part of NSF program officers to
assess and build creative, integrative research/educational programs.
Improve Coordination Among Programs And Agencies
The need for good communication and coordination across agencies was highlighted as an
ongoing challenge (see Box 13). CENR provides a mechanism for this coordination and has
overseen a variety of highly successful interagency activities. For example, USGCRP has for a
decade focused multiple Federal agencies on understanding the components of the Earth
system and modeling at the global scale. Within a coordinated framework, progress has been
made in understanding the loss of stratospheric ozone, the important roles of terrestrial and
marine ecosystems in the overall carbon cycle, and past changes in the Earth's environment
that provide a context for anthropogenic changes now ongoing. USGCRP has also provided
predictive information about El Nintilde;o that has been useful to natural resource management
and agencies concerned with human health and safety.
Not all testimony supported coordination of Federal agency activities through a committee
structure. The Board heard testimony that interagency programs may lack the necessary
ownership within each agency and can lead to renaming of existing activities rather than
major new initiatives.
The Board also learned of excellent examples of interagency coordination that have not
involved CENR. One example is NSF's interaction with universities and other Federal
agencies to develop and implement the network of LTER sites. Many of these projects
involve complex partnerships with mission agencies, and the scientific yield has been
extraordinary. The Board heard that NSF must continue its leadership role and its partnering
efforts with other agencies.
Finally, the Board heard that scientific assessments, by establishing and communicating a
base of scientific knowledge on a given topic, can provide a mechanism for improving
collaborations between Federal agencies and between the Federal and private sectors.
Improve Predictive Capabilities In A Variety Of Environmental Areas
Our ability to predict the behavior of environmental systems has grown steadily with an
increase in understanding of many of these complex systems. For example, interdisciplinary
paleoclimatic research is improving our understanding of the Holocene climate. This is
important because it is within the Holocene that the boundary conditions for modern
natural climate variability can be identified and from which the relative importance of
natural versus anthropogenic climate forcing can be assessed. Understanding of modern
climate and prediction of future climate will require a detailed understanding of Holocene
climate forcing and response.
Most environmentally related scientific inquiry focuses on components of the environment
or the individual effects of one component on others. Simulation and other models provide a
framework within which to place our understanding of all the components simultaneously as
they occur in nature. This framework allows quantitative accounting of the interaction of the
component parts with factors outside the system and the sometimes surprising responses
resulting from feedback among interacting components. For example, at the Central Plains
Experimental Range LTER site, scientists have studied and modeled the long-term effects of
grazing on vegetation succession dynamics. Surprisingly, heavy grazing in this system resulted
in little change in annual net primary production, increased plant density, and decreased
abundance of exotic invading species. LTER scientists speculate that this response reflects the
importance of native herbivores in these ecosystems over evolutionary time. This particular
response to grazing has not been generalizable to all grassland ecosystems, however: Sensitivity
to grazing varies with gradients of productivity and environmental conditions.
Comparison of model output with data from environmental experiments indicates how
much confidence can be placed in the models. And models that have been tested successfully
in a variety of situations permit more robust predictions about the complex behavior of the
environment. Modeling experiments can be conducted to help design research in unexplored
areas. Additionally, sets of environmental drivers can be used in models to represent management
or impact scenarios of particular interest to scientists or society. Simulation models
have thus become tools of necessity for environmental research.
Get Input On Priority Setting From People And Organizations
Familiar With Research, Education, And Assessment Issues
No multifaceted program can be accomplished without setting priorities. The Board
examined several examples where research or education agendas were defined in an inclusive
and integrated manner. For example, the Freshwater Imperative Research Agenda (Naiman et
al. 1995) was developed with NSF support over a 2-year period of study and consensus
building involving a broadly interdisciplinary array of scientists, managers, and educators.
This research agenda sets priorities and develops detailed research questions as well as makes
recommendations for implementation. Such research agendas are the exception rather than
the rule, however, and it became clear to the Board that this is an area that needs much more
attention, in particular where priorities are set in interdisciplinary areas.
Throughout the public input process, it became increasingly clear that citizens, government
officials, representatives of other Federal agencies and of professional scientific and engineering
societies, and individual scientists look to NSF for leadership in environmental research,
education, and scientific assessment. The expectation that NSF will play a key role was
highlighted for the Board in a number of ways and by groups ranging from National
Research Council committees to advocacy groups. The strong message running throughout
the hearings was that NSF can, and is expected to, respond vigorously to the new challenges
of providing and communicating the fundamental knowledge base, and educating and
training the workforce to meet the environmental challenges of the new century. A parallel
message underscored the requirement for significant new resources to accomplish these goals.
INPUT RECEIVED IN RESPONSE TO THE INTERIM REPORT
After the release of the report as an interim document in July 1999, the Task Force on the
Environment web site received almost 7,000 "hits." The Task Force also received comments
on the Interim Report from a variety of individuals and professional organizations representing
several thousand environmental scientists, engineers, and educators (see Appendix D).
The vast majority of these comments were quite positive, reinforcing the input received earlier
and supporting the recommendations. A number of the suggestions were very helpful to the
task force in strengthening and clarifying the report. Several additional points were made by
The Report Should Be Implemented In A Way That Is Recognizable As
A New Approach In Order To Be Successful In Receiving Funding
And Providing Scientific Information That Will Make A Difference
In addition to this explicit point, several organizations commented that the report should be
implemented as a cohesive program, not treated as a menu from which selections might be
made. Several organizations were interested in how NSF would collaborate with interested
parties to pursue implementation and in how NSF would integrate research, assessment,
education, and information. The point was also made that outcome assessment tools should
be developed by which the success of the report could be measured.
In recommending a unique implementing entity, multiple respondents suggested that
interdisciplinary programs be established and separated from disciplinary units to most
effectively nurture interdisciplinary approaches. The underlying concern expressed was that
as long as interdisciplinary programs compete for resources within a single budgetary
organization, they will be at a disadvantage for the simple reason that interdisciplinary
proposals will be perceived as less relevant to the core goals of the disciplinary unit. This
point was coupled to the observation that most interdisciplinary activities cannot be sustained
over the necessary time periods without an organizational home within NSF. It was
of interest to the Board that these comments were made multiple times and across virtually
NSF Should Consider Different Approaches To Establishing
Several respondents suggested that NSF include stakeholdersestablished environmental
groups, scientists, policy-makers at all levels of government, and NGOsin the process of
determining research priorities. Others suggested that
priorities should be developed in large part through a series of scientific assessments.
Several respondents advised NSF to palce the discussion of research
needs into a broader national context and fully consider leveraging
With regard to the NSB report
overall, we applaud the Board's
recommendation that environmental
research be made one of NSF's
highest priorities and agree that
funding should be substantially
augmented, particularly in five
specific areas emphasized in the
report: interdisciplinary research;
environmental education; economic
valuation of ecological goods and
services; long-term, large-scale
research; and improving environmental
assessment capabilities.President's Committee of Advisors on
Science and Technology, 1999
NSF Should Work To Break Down The Barrier
Between Applied And Basic Environmental Research
Many respondents commented on what has emerged as a continuum
between applied and basic research, and several suggested that NSF allow
policy-relevant basic research to flourish alongside more traditional
approaches. It was pointed out that the illustrative boxes in the Interim
Report concentrated on problem-focused science and engineering, while
the text emphasized fundamental research. Several respondents wondered
if this was a disconnect or an intentional effort to highlight where
the most exciting advances were occurring. Others asked if NSF would
now support science that meets intellectual merit criteria but is primarily
directed toward environmental improvement rather than scientific