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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

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BOX 4.

Understandable, credible, and easily accessible information is essential for managing our environment and natural resources. Recent revolutionary changes in computation and communications capabilities have opened up previously unimagined possibilities in the field of information technology. These trends are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the amount of data beaming down from satellites, emerging from laboratories, and arriving from environmental research of all kinds is exploding—the equivalent of more than a Library of Congress worth of data every day. Research and development are needed to harness the power of the new information technologies, capture the wealth of new information, and provide new and invaluable information for decision-making and future research (PCAST 1998).

Acquiring data is no longer the major hurdle—managing, validating, and understanding the data are the new challenges. The web and Internet connectivity have fueled expectations by citizens, policy-makers, scientists, and managers for ready access to online data and metadata (i.e., documentation essential for understanding the who, what, where, and how of the data). While knowledge about environmental systems, even though incomplete, is a vast and complex information domain, a second source of complexity in this information is sociologically generated. This type of complexity includes problems of communication and coordination— between agencies; between divergent interests; and across groups of people from different regions, different backgrounds (academia, industry, government), and different views and requirements. The kinds of data that have been collected vary in precision, accuracy, and numerous other ways. New methodologies for converting raw data into comprehensible information are now feasible.

The relatively new field of informatics is developing tools to manage the complexity of scope of modern databases. The biodiversity databases in museums, for example, are an untapped rich source of knowledge, representing more than 750 million specimens of animals and plants nationwide and 3 billion worldwide. A "next generation" National Biological Information Infrastructure is presently being planned to address the needs of this community of scientists (Frondorf and Waggoner 1996, PCAST 1998). High-performance computer tools that could integrate access to information from museum collections with ecological, genomic, weather, and geographical data would be immediately useful for studies of emerging diseases, exotic species, and ecological restoration.

Much of the talent needed to invent better means of converting data to useful information is currently employed in the private sector. The potential benefit arising from public-private partnerships that would bring together software and hardware designers with environmental scientists and engineers is prodigious.

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