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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





»  The Issues

»  Old Frameworks and Approaches are Inadequate

»  The
Necessary Response

»  Goals for

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

Chapter 1.

Within the broad portfolio of science and engineering for the new century, the environment is emerging as a vigorous, essential, and central focus. At the same time that connections
If in the 20th century science and technology moved to the center of the stage, in the 21st century they will command it. Quality of life will depend in large measure on the generation of new wealth, on safeguarding the health of our planet, and on opportunities for enlightenment and individual development. The contributions of research and education in science and engineering make possible advances in all these areas.—National Science Board Strategic Plan, 1998
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. Our growing understanding of the complex connectedness and vulnerability of Earth's ecosystems and of human dependence on them is changing how we view environmental research. The environment is no longer simply a background against which research is conducted, but rather the prime target for enhanced understanding.

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New discoveries have highlighted unappreciated linkages between the environment and human health, prosperity, and well-being (e.g., Arrow et al. 1995, Lubchenco 1998, WMO/UNEP 1998). Simply put, the ecological systems of the planet—including forests, grasslands, kelp forests, deserts, wetlands, rivers, estuaries, coral reefs, lakes, and open oceans—provide us with goods and services. The goods are familiar: food, fiber, medicines, genes. Only recently have we begun to understand and appreciate the essential local, regional, and even global services provided by ecological systems (Daily 1997, Daily et al. 1997). Examples include purification of water and air, partial regulation of climate, provision of fertile soil, cycling of nutrients, decomposition, provision of pollinators, control of pests and pathogens, storage of water, and modulation of floods. Ecosystems provide yet another type of service: as places for recreation, enjoyment, inspiration, and learning. It has become clear in recent years that these services are provided as a byproduct of the functioning of intact ecological systems (see Box 1). In many cases, we are becoming aware of these ecological services only because they are being disrupted or lost.

Ecological goods and services constitute the life support systems of and for life on Earth (WMO/UNEP 1998, Levin 1999). Over the last century, increased global population pressures and a broad spectrum of human activities have inadvertently resulted in substantial changes to many ecosystems (Vitousek et al. 1997b; see Box 2). As land is transformed, as ecosystems are fragmented, reduced in size, or lost, or as species become extinct or are transplanted, the functioning of the system is frequently disrupted or lost, and the provision of services is often impaired (UNEP 1995). Both imperceptible and broad-scale alterations to the biology, chemistry, and physical structure of the land, air, and water of the planet will continue to pose formidable challenges for the quality of human life and the environmental sustainability of the biosphere. This in turn intensifies the need to focus on the environment as an area of study, in particular to achieve a fundamental understanding of environmental systems commensurate with the consequences of alterations transforming them (Lubchenco et al. 1991).


On August 12, 1998, the National Science Board established the Task Force on the Environment under its Committee on Programs and Plans. The task force was created to assist the Foundation in defining the scope of its role with respect to environmental research, education, and scientific assessment, and in determining the best means of implementing activities related to this area (NSB 1998; reprinted here in Appendix A).

The task force initially carried out four parallel activities to meet the objectives of hearing from invested communities and gathering data to inform its deliberations:

  1. Reviewed and considered recommendations from approximately 250 reports and policy documents concerning the scientific and engineering aspects of environmental research, education, and scientific assessment; this included outreach to underrepresented communities to ensure that the reports consulted were as balanced as possible. This literature list appears in Appendix B.

  2. Received input and feedback from invested communities via:

    • a public hearing in Portland, Oregon, on January 14, 1999;
    • a public National Science Board symposium in Los Angeles, February 17-18, 1999;
    • a public town hall meeting in Arlington, Virginia, on March 8, 1999; and
    • a web site launched to communicate the activities of the task force and provide a vehicle for public input and electronic registry of comments (
    • The task force also invited written views from a number of relevant organizations and individuals. Appendix C lists all the people and institutions that provided formal input to the task force prior to the release of the Interim Report.

  3. Inventoried the current portfolio of and reviewed the current approach to environmental activities at the National Science Foundation.

  4. Examined a variety of environmental programs at the Foundation to determine the factors most likely to result in effective new research and educational activities.

Information from these sources was considered by the task force and synthesized into an Interim Report that, following several iterations, was unanimously approved by the Board on July 29, 1999.

The Interim Report was then released publicly and posted on the task force web site. During the next several months, almost 7,000 hits were recorded for the web site, and several dozen specific comments were received, a number from professional organizations representing thousands of environmental scientists, engineers, and educators. Appendix D lists the people and institutions that provided formal input following the release of the Interim Report.

Presentations of the rationale, key findings, and recommendations of the Interim Report were made by members of the task force, Board, and Foundation staff to other federal agencies, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, and the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology reviewed the Interim Report, endorsed its recommendations, and made several key suggestions that greatly improved the document. Its letter to the Chair of the National Science Board is reprinted in Appendix E.

Feedback from this wide range of sources was carefully considered in revising the Interim Report to produce the final report. The National Science Board unanimously approved the report (NSB 00-22) on February 2, 2000.

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The environmental challenges facing the Nation and the world have emerged relatively recently and rapidly. Moreover, they 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. The current level of effort and existing conceptual approaches are proving to be insufficient. New approaches and frameworks are needed to provide the requisite understanding, guidance, and tools. In particular, solutions will require credible information about the rates, scales, and kinds of changes; improved understanding of the underlying dynamics of the relevant biogeophysical and social systems and their interactions; new analyses of alternative technologies or methodologies and their tradeoffs; new institutional mechanisms and conceptual frameworks for
The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.—Generally attributed to Albert Einstein
making decisions; and more. Meeting these challenges will require significant scientific and technological advances, and rapid communication of our new understandings to the private and public sectors as well as to the electorate. An improved understanding of the dynamics of complex systems, especially complex biological systems, will be essential to future progress. Finally, emerging interdisciplinary perspectives must enrich not only the research enterprise, but educational and scientific assessment approaches as well. (see Box 2)

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Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF), several other Federal agencies, and inter-agency coordinating bodies such as the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) are responding to the need for research, education, and scientific assessment activities in many environmental areas. But the magnitude of the challenges cited above and the urgent time scale required for many of these opportunities demand a whole new level of integrated activities and programs (see, for example, PCAST 1998). Implementation of such activities and programs will require significant new scientific advances, improved public understanding of environmental topics, more effective communication of new knowledge, and incorporation of new knowledge into policies and practices. NSF has significant responsibilities in the first three of these areas (see Figure 2).

By virtue of its mission and track record, NSF is poised to provide a more vigorous and intellectual leadership role. The Foundation can provide the fundamental understanding of the complexity of Earth's environmental envelope and its human interactions through discovery, focused education and training, information dissemination, and scientific assessment. This role is consistent with its mission, as stated in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..."

Figure 2. NSF Leadership Role.
FIGURE 2. Of the four challenges in environmental research, education and assessment identified above, NSF makes its greatest contribution in the first three.

To this end, the National Science Board posed the question: What should the environmental portfolio of NSF look like, in the context of external activities, in order to provide and communicate the knowledge required to respond to current and future environmental challenges? In developing this answer, the Board focused on the overall level, balance, and organization of environmental activities within NSF and within the context of other Federal programs and activities. This report provides the answer to the question, beginning with a description of the goals to be accomplished, a summary of current and anticipated activities within the Foundation, a synopsis of suggestions and information received by the Board during its review, and the Board's findings and recommendations.

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Three goals should guide the design and implementation of the Foundation's environmental portfolio (see Figure 3):

  • Provide an integrated understanding of the natural status and dynamics of, and the anthropogenic influences on, Earth's environmental envelope. Achieve this through discovery across the fields of science and engineering to elucidate the processes and interactions among the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and socioeconomic systems.
  • Provide for education and training that enhance scientific and technological capacity associated with the environment, across both formal and informal educational enterprises.
  • Integrate and disseminate research results effectively to multiple audiences—including scientific, public, and policy audiences, and the private sector—via credible scientific assessments of broad environmental phenomena and the transfer of technological knowledge.

Achieving these goals will require several supporting elements:

  • facilities, instrumentation, and other infrastructure that enable discovery, including the study of processes and interactions that occur over long time scales;
  • research to develop innovative technologies and approaches that will help the Nation conserve and wisely use its environmental assets and services;
  • mechanisms and infrastructure to synthesize and aggregate scientific environmental information and provide open access to these informational materials; and
  • partnerships with other Federal agencies, state and local governments, citizens' groups, the private sector, and other nations to advance knowledge, understanding, and solutions.

In view of these goals and enabling infrastructural needs, the remainder of this report presents the Board's analysis of current and anticipated environmental activities within the Foundation.

Figure 3. Goals and Supporting Elements for NSF's Environmental Portfolio.
FIGURE 3. Goals and supporting elements for NSF's environmental portfolio.
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