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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

2    The Larger Context

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

  Box 1
  Box 2
  Box 3
  Box 4
  Box 5
  Box 6
  Box 7
  Box 8
  Box 9
  Box 10
  BOX 11
  Box 12
  Box 13

BOX 11.

Challenges of understanding integrated natural-socioeconomic systems are neither purely ecological nor purely economic. Each discipline has essential knowledge, but each discipline alone is insufficient. To understand and predict natural-socioeconomic systems, we require genuine interdisciplinary collaboration, which builds from the foundations of the individual disciplines to create a new, integrative body of knowledge. In studies of water quality, for example, an interdisciplinary team comprised of an ecologist, an economist, and a mathematician has discovered that economically optimal management goals are radically different from the status quo when the economic analyses account for nonlinear dynamics of lakes (Carpenter et al. 1999b). Integrated ecological-socioeconomic models of watersheds behave in ways that are similar to case histories of watershed management, yet unexpected from the behavior of isolated models of ecosystems or social systems (Carpenter et al. 1999a). This example shows remarkable new insights sparked by an interdisciplinary collaboration rooted firmly in the knowledge of the parent disciplines.

Ecology has made great strides in understanding complex interactions among processes that change slowly or infrequently (such as evolution, soil development, or populations of long-lived organisms like trees and whales) and processes that change rapidly (such as pest outbreaks, some species invasions, and blooms of toxic algae). Yet integrating people into an ecological understanding of nature in a rigorous fashion remains a challenge. Economists have made enormous progress in understanding how decisions made by vast numbers of people lead to equilibrial patterns of markets and economies that shape our lives. Yet economic theory has so far been unable to account for the slow dynamics, multiple stable cycles, contingent evolution, and intrinsic variability of ecological systems. The time is right to build on the strengths of the two disciplines and bridge the gaps between them. Some research priorities include:

  • identification and quantification of ecosystem services and natural capital, including their contributions to human welfare and their economic valuation (see Box 1);

  • management of complex systems characterized by interactions across scales of time and space, multistable oscillatory attractors, and the capacity to create novelty;

  • improved capacity to forecast ecological dynamics under given management scenarios, with explicitly quantified uncertainties;

  • analysis of the role of uncertainty and its dynamics in environmental decision-making, including the reduction of uncertainty via experimental management; and

  • dynamics of learning and the role of bounded rationality in ecological-socioeconomic systems.

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