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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




»  Context and Framework for the Study

»   Strategy for the Conduct of the Study

»   Principal Findings
»  Recommend-

»   Conclusion

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



The junction between present and future societies lies in the global commons: the shared physical, biological, and intellectual resources of the planet. The environment—specifically intact, functioning ecological systems—is essential to opportunities for individual development, the health and well-being of citizens and communities, and the generation of new wealth. Environmental science and technology are therefore a vital component of productive knowledge and thus a high priority for the Nation.

As connections between humans and the goods and services provided by the ecosystems of Earth become better understood, the scale and rate of modifications to these ecosystems are increasing. Environmental challenges are often exceedingly complex, requiring strengthened disciplinary inquiry as well as broadly interdisciplinary approaches that draw upon, integrate, and invigorate virtually all fields of science and engineering. Within the broad portfolio of science and engineering for the new century, the environment is emerging as a vigorous, essential, and central focus.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the largest supporters of environmental research in the Federal Government and the major supporter of environmental research conducted by the academic community. Consistent with NSF's mission, the agency primarily supports awards based on external, peer-reviewed national competition, and these investments drive advances in fundamental understanding of environmental systems. Therefore, because of its mission and record of accomplishment, NSF is primed to provide dynamic leadership in advancing the new insights and fundamental knowledge essential to addressing a range of emerging environmental issues.

NSF activities must complement and enhance, not duplicate or replace, the extant portfolio of other Federal activities in this area. The Foundation and other Federal agencies and interagency coordinating bodies, such as the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), have responded to the need for research, education, and scientific assessment activities in many environmental areas. However, the scope and significance of the emerging environmental issues in our Nation and around the world suggest a need to evaluate the challenges and opportunities that these critical issues raise for NSF. Therefore, the National Science Board established a Task Force on the Environment, whose findings and recommendations are detailed in this report. The recommendations set the stage for a more vigorous NSF role in environmental research, education, and scientific assessment in the 21st century.

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The Board, through its Task Force on the Environment, conducted hearings and town meetings; solicited input from scientists, government agencies, and the private sector; reviewed hundreds of reports and documents related to environmental research, education, and assessments; and sought suggestions through a public web site. Hundreds of suggestions and recommendations were received and considered. Scholars in every scientific discipline participated. Comments were received from community groups, local and Federal agency officials, professional scientific and engineering societies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, and concerned citizens. 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. The Board focused on the overall level, scope, robustness, balance, funding, and organization of the Foundation's environmental activities.

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A number of themes emerged from this diverse input. Foremost among them was a strong endorsement of the fundamental operating principles of NSF. At the same time, the Board heard many ideas that framed ways in which NSF could and should expand its environmental portfolio. The majority of these suggestions focus on enhancing both the disciplinary and interdisciplinary understanding of environmental systems and problems; improving the systematic acquisition, analysis, and synthesis of data; and improving the interpretation and dissemination of this information into understandable formats for multiple uses and users. Throughout the public input process, it was clear that citizens, government officials, other Federal agencies, professional scientific and engineering societies, and individual scientists look to NSF for leadership in environmental research, education, and scientific assessment. The strong message running through the input process was that NSF is poised 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 next century. A parallel message underscored the necessity of significant new resources to accomplish these goals and an effective organizational structure to implement NSF's total environmental portfolio.

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NSF is supporting significantly more environmental research and education than is generally appreciated. However, the Nation's need for fundamental environmental knowledge and understanding requires further attention. To expand and strengthen the Foundation's environmental portfolio, the Board developed 12 recommendations: 2 overarching keystone recommendations addressing critical funding and organizational issues; 5 recommendations on research, education, and scientific assessment; 4 crosscutting recommendations focusing on the requisite physical, technological, and information infrastructure; and 1 recommendation emphasizing the importance of partnerships, coordination, and collaborations to NSF's programs and activities in research, education, and scientific assessment.


Keystone Recommendations

Recommendation 1:
Resources and Funding

Environmental research, education, and scientific assessment should be one of NSF's highest priorities. The current environmental portfolio represents an expenditure of approximately $600 million per year. In view of the overwhelming importance of, and exciting opportunities for, progress in the environmental arena, and because existing resources are fully and appropriately utilized, new funding will be required. We recommend that support for environmental research, education, and scientific assessment at NSF be increased by an additional $1 billion, phased in over the next 5 years, to reach an annual expenditure of approximately $1.6 billion.

The Board expects NSF management and staff to develop budget requests and funding priorities for the coming years that are consistent with this and the following recommendations. It further expects that, consistent with its normal way of operating, NSF will involve the scientific community in identifying specific priority programmatic areas and in elaborating the specific recommendations below.

Recommendation 2:
Organizational Approach

NSF management should develop an effective organizational approach that meets all of the criteria required to ensure a well-integrated, high-priority, high-visibility, cohesive, and sustained environmental portfolio within the Foundation. These criteria include:

  • A high-visibility, NSF-wide organizational focal point with:

    • principal responsibility for identifying gaps, opportunities, and priorities, particularly in interdisciplinary areas;

    • budgetary authority for enabling integration across research, education, and scientific assessment, and across areas of inquiry;

    • responsibility for assembling and publicizing, within the context of the Foundation's normal reporting, a clear statement of NSF's environmental activities; and

    • a formal advisory process specifically for environmental activities.

  • Continuity of funding opportunities, in particular in interdisciplinary areas.

  • Integration, cooperation, and collaboration with and across established programmatic areas, within NSF and between NSF and other Federal agencies.

The Board recognizes that it is a challenging task to satisfy all of the criteria specified in the organizational recommendation. Nonetheless, we are confident that it can and should be done. The Board further acknowledges the attention and priority that the Foundation recently has placed on identifying possible new organizational structures. The unprecedented emphasis on integrative, sustained, interdisciplinary activities called for in this report requires the establishment of a policy-driven strategy as well as a mechanistic approach to ensure effective implementation.


Research Recommendations

As the fields of environmental research have matured intellectually, their requirements for knowledge across all scientific, engineering, and mathematics disciplines have increased. The Board finds that meeting this challenge will require increasing disciplinary research efforts across all environmental fields. Information and understanding from certain disciplines that are especially relevant to environmental problems are often lacking. Most environmental issues are interdisciplinary, and their drivers, indicators, and effects propagate across extended spatial and temporal scales. Increased resources are needed for interdisciplinary, long-term, large-scale, problem-based research and monitoring efforts. In addition, special mechanisms will be required to facilitate successful interdisciplinary programs.

Recommendation 3:
Disciplinary Research

Environmental research within all relevant disciplines should be enhanced, with significant new investments in research critical to understanding biocomplexity, including the biological/ecological and social sciences and environmental technology.

Recommendation 4:
Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary research requires significantly greater investment, more effective support mechanisms, and strengthened capabilities for identifying research needs, prioritizing across disciplines, and providing for their long-term support.

Recommendation 5:
Long-Term Research

The Foundation should significantly increase its investments in existing long-term programs and establish new support mechanisms for additional long-term research.


Education Recommendation

NSF's role is to create educational and training opportunities that enhance scientific and technological capacity associated with the environment, across both formal and informal educational enterprises. Environmental education and training should be science based, but should be given a renewed focus on preparing students for broad career horizons and should integrate new technologies, especially information technologies, as much as possible. The twin goals of learning are to gain knowledge and to acquire skills such as problem solving, consensus building, information management, communication, and critical and creative thinking.

Recommendation 6:
Environmental Education

The Foundation should encourage proposals that capitalize on student interest in environmental areas while supporting significantly more environmental education efforts through informal vehicles. All Foundation-supported education activities should at their core recognize potential and develop the capacity for excellence in all segments of society, regardless of whether they have been part of the scientific and engineering traditions.


Scientific Assessment Recommendation

Scientific assessment, as used here, is defined as inquiry-based synthesis, evaluation, and communication of understanding of relevant biological, socioeconomic, and physical environmental scientific information to provide an informed basis for (1) prioritizing scientific investments and (2) addressing environmental issues. Research on how to do effective, credible, and helpful scientific assessments is timely. Approaches to scientific assessment need to be refined, and made more transferable between environmental issues. In addition, the Board finds that there is an identified need for a credible, unbiased approach to defining the status and trends, or trajectory, of environmental patterns and processes. The Board acknowledges the ongoing scientific assessment activities of other agencies and urges that additional scientific assessment efforts by NSF complement present efforts.

Recommendation 7:
Scientific Assessments

The Foundation should significantly increase its research on the methods and models used in scientific assessment. In addition, NSF should, with due cognizance of the activities of other agencies, enable an increased portfolio of scientific assessments for the purpose of prioritizing research investments and for synthesizing scientific knowledge in a fashion useful for policy- and decision-making.


Infrastructure Recommendations

Environmental research depends heavily on effective physical infrastructure. These include environmental observatories complemented by high-speed communications links, powerful computers, well-constructed databases, natural history collections that provide a baseline against which to measure environmental change, and both traditional and virtual centers. The Board finds that an important NSF role is to facilitate the development of instrumentation, facilities, and other infrastructure that enables discovery, including the study of processes and interactions that occur over long time scales.

Recommendation 8:
Enabling Infrastructure

NSF should give high priority to enhancing infrastructure for environmental observations and collections as well as new information networking capacity. The agency should create a suite of environmental research and education hubs, on the scale of present Science and Technology Centers and Engineering Research Centers, that might include physical and/or virtual centers, site-focused and/or problem-focused collaboratories, and additional environmental information synthesis and forecasting centers.

The Board finds that a critical NSF role is to foster research that seeks to develop innovative technologies and approaches that assist the Nation in conserving its environmental assets and services. NSF should facilitate an effort to identify technologies that represent order-of-magnitude improvements over existing environmental technologies, and—in communication with other Federal agencies, the academic community, and the private sector—define the scientific and engineering research needed to underpin these technologies.

Recommendation 9:
Environmental Technology

The Foundation should vigorously support research on environmental technologies, including those that can help both the public and private sectors avoid environmental harm and permit wise utilization of natural resources.

The Board further finds that technological advances are often keystone enabling elements that profoundly advance scientific research. The future of scientific research, education, and assessment will increasingly depend on new and advanced technological developments in instrumentation, information technologies, facilities, observational platforms, and innovative tools for science and engineering.

Recommendation 10:
Enabling Technologies

The Foundation should enable and encourage the use of new and appropriate technologies in environmental research and education.

The Board finds that the role of NSF, in partnership with other Federal agencies, is to stimulate the development of mechanisms and infrastructure to synthesize and aggregate scientific environmental information and to make it more accessible to the public.

Recommendation 11:
Environmental Information

The Foundation should take the lead in enabling a coordinated, digital, environmental information network. In addition, NSF should catalyze a study to frame a central source that compiles comparable, quality-controlled time-series measurements of the state of the environment.


Partnerships, Coordination, and Collaborations Recommendation

The Board finds that collaborations and partnerships are essential to important and high-priority environmental research, education, and scientific assessment efforts. Furthermore, collaborations are most effective when they are based on intellectual needs. Partnerships among Federal agencies, with nongovernmental bodies (e.g., private sector entities, NGOs, and others), and with international organizations can provide the intellectual and financial leveraging to address environmental questions at the local, regional, and international levels. There are thus many opportunities to partner in bilateral/multilateral agreements or via NSTC science and engineering initiatives. The Board endorses strong NSF participation in the coordinating mechanism provided through NSTC.

The most effective partnerships involve the evolution of trust among participants, strategic thinking processes to identify and evaluate common interests and objectives, and relatively simple, flexible administrative arrangements. They also require sufficient staff, resources, and time to mature.

Recommendation 12:
Implementation Partnerships

NSF should actively seek and provide stable support for research, education, and assessment partnerships that correspond to the location, scale, and nature of the environmental issues. Such partnerships and interagency coordination should include both domestic and international collaborations that foster joint implementation including joint financing when appropriate. This report clearly establishes the need for an expanded national portfolio of environmental R&D. Therefore, the Board suggests that NSTC, with advice from the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, reevaluate the national environmental R&D portfolio, including identification of research gaps and setting of priorities, and the respective roles of different Federal agencies in fundamental environmental research, education, and scientific assessment.

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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.—President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1999 (Appendix E)

Scientific understanding of the environment, together with an informed, scientifically literate citizenry, is requisite to improved quality of life for generations to come. As the interdependencies of fundamental and applied environmental research become more evident, NSF should capitalize on the momentum gained in its past support for premium scholarship and emerging new research areas and technologies. The time is ripe to accelerate progress for the benefit of the Nation.

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