RESEARCH WITHIN AND ACROSS AGENCIES
The national investment in science and engineering R&D produces a wide variety of
benefits ranging from new knowledge and new technologies to better inform policies and
practices. Many Federal agencies contribute to the national investment in environmental
science and technology. Overall, the Federal Government supports an environmental R&D
portfolio estimated in excess of $5 billion per year
Collaboration and cooperation across agencies is enabled through multiple mechanisms. Many
efforts have been coordinated through the White House. NSTC's Committee on
Environment and Natural Resources, operating through the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy,
coordinates several interagency environmental R&D activities. The President's Committee of
Advisors on Science and Technology provides complementary advice on the roles of science and
technology in achieving national goals.
Current annual Federal R&D spending on environmental research is only 5 percent of annual
expenditures on environmental management. Thus the achievement of even a small
improvement in management efficiency would pay for the incremental research many
times over.CENR, 1995, Preparing for the Future Through
Science and Technology (paraphrased)
Established in 1993 and chaired by the President, the cabinet-level NSTC serves
as an initiator and coordinator of interagency science and technology R&D.
CENR is one of five committees under NSTC. With respect to NSF, CENR informs
and influences the process by which the Foundation establishes research priorities and
responds to policy concerns. NSF plays an active role in a variety of important
multi-agency CENR activities, including the successful U.S. Global Change Research
Program (USGCRP) (http://www.usgcrp.gov),
the new Integrated Science for Ecosystem Challenges activity, and the National Biological
Information Infrastructure (http://www.its.nbs.gov:8000/cbi/programs/nbii.html),
a CENR effort to set standards for environmental information and make that information
available to researchers, industry, and the general public.
The CENR research agenda, published in 1995, provided the initial framework for coordinating agency research programs to address environmental issues in an integrated manner (http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP
/OSTP/NSTC/html/enr/enr-plan.html). CENR has sought, and continues to seek, advice from academia, industry, other private sector groups, Congress, and state and local governments. CENR seeks to involve experts from all stakeholder groups in conducting broad and credible national scientific and technical assessments of the state of knowledge. The point of these assessments is to develop consensus that explicitly acknowledges what is known, what is unknown, and what is uncertain. The consensus understanding can then be used to project the implications of alternative policy options and to involve stakeholders and policy-makers in understanding the basis, uncertainties, and likely consequences of those projections.
CENR has also encouraged increased extramural R&D in the overall mix of Federal R&D. In addition, CENR recognizes the diversity of strengths afforded by the Federal laboratories, national laboratories (government owned, contractor operated), universities, and private industry in environmental research. As CENR works to ensure that the capabilities and resources of each of these sectors are appropriately integrated, it looks to NSF for leadership in supporting fundamental academic environmental research, in ensuring that our academic institutions continue to provide an adequate supply of well-trained scientists and engineers, and in laying the foundation for a scientifically literate citizenry.
A number of bi- and multi-agency environmental activities complement the CENR initiatives (see Table 1). NSF's unique relationship with the university-based science and engineering community allows it to bring a valuable outside perspective from the researchers themselves.
TABLE 1. Examples of NSF's Multi-Agency Environmental Activities
International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups
NSF, NIH, USDA
Joint Program on Bioremediation
NSF, EPA, DOE, ONR
National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program
NSF, USGS, FEMA, NIST
Partnership for Environmental Research, including four grants competitions:
NSF, EPA, USDA
Decision-making and Valuation for Environmental Policy
Technology for a Sustainable Environment
Water and Watersheds
NSF, EPA, USDA
U.S. Global Change Research Program
NSF, USDA, DOC/NOAA, DOE, HHS/NIH, DOI, EPA, NASA, SI
U.S. Weather Research Program
NSF, NOAA, NASA, DOD
EDUCATION AND OTHER KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER
Just as the inability to read puts a child at risk of truancy and becoming a school dropout, deficiencies in mathematics and science have become a barrier to higher education and the 21st century workplace. In the recently released National Science Board report Preparing Our Children: Math and Science Education in the National Interest (NSB 1999), the Board urges a Nation-wide consensus on a core of knowledge and competency in mathematics and science. The Board believes it is both possible and imperative to develop national strategies that serve the national interest while respecting local responsibility for K-12 teaching and learning. NSF support for integrated environmental research and education in this context emphasizes the involvement of the science and engineering communitiesboth individually and through their institutionsas a special resource for local schools, teachers, and students. Together with elected officials, school administrators, classroom teachers, parents, and employers, scientists and engineers bring a valuable perspective on mathematics and science as a way of knowing, a transferable skill, and a citizenship tool as we enter a new millennium.
New knowledge is perhaps the single most important driver of economic growth and the most precious and fully renewable resource available to individuals and societies to advance their material well-being (NSB 1999). An important approach to carrying out NSF's mission is to help the Nation use new knowledge in science and engineering for the benefit of society. The transfer of such knowledge is a vital ingredient in enhancing the Nation's industrial competitiveness. NSF's knowledge transfer activities are focused on building working relationships at the research project level between academia, industry, and other potential users, such as local and state governments (NSF 1995).
ASSESSMENT ROLES AND BOUNDARIES
NSF's involvement in environmental activities is directed toward discovery, with the goal of
achieving a more comprehensive understanding of environmental systems. Discovery alone is
insufficient, however. New knowledge must be integrated and communicated, both to other
scientists and to society at large. The Foundation, as well as other agencies, thus has a role in
"scientific assessment," which the Board uses to mean the synthesis, evaluation, and
communication of scientific understanding.
The Board distinguishes scientific assessment from other types of assessment, including:
Resource assessment, which is the evaluation of the quality and/or quantity of a particular
natural resource such as timber, water, or fisheries. This type of assessment is usually
done by the relevant Federal management or regulatory agencies in cooperation with
the cities, states, or regional entities that are naturally involved. NSF is not routinely
involved in support of resource assessments.
Human health risk assessment, which refers to the process that scientists and government
officials use to estimate the increased risk of health problems in people who are
exposed to different amounts of specific toxic or other harmful substances, for example,
persistent organic pollutants.
Ecological risk assessment, which is the process of analyzing data, assumptions, and
uncertainties to evaluate the likelihood of adverse ecological effects resulting from a
particular activity, e.g., a chemical spill. These types of assessments are extensively used
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as tools in risk management and
are an integral part of EPA's regulatory approach. NSF is not involved in support of
These other kinds of assessments are important, but beyond NSF's scope. Many fall within
the purview of other agencies or are tied explicitly to their missions.
Although scientific assessments do not constitute a major suite of activities at NSF, the
Foundation does fund two kinds of assessment activity. NSF currently provides (1) support
for research on the conduct of assessments and (2) grants for specific scientific assessments
(often in partnership with other agenciessee "Scientific Assessment"
section in Chapter 3).
Both activities are funded by grants to parties outside NSF, as opposed to being conducted
by NSF personnel. For example, some scientific assessments are conducted by the National
Research Council; others by independent panels of experts assembled for that purpose.
The purpose of a particular scientific assessment may vary. Some are intended to summarize
the state of knowledge of a particular scientific field, with the goal of identifying new
research opportunities and setting priorities. Other scientific assessments are designed to
evaluate the knowledge about a particular topic with the goal of informing policy decisions.
Scientific assessment may also be called knowledge assessment. A scientific assessment may
pose a range of questions, depending on the intended purpose of the assessment. For
example, it may ask:
- What is known at present and with what degree of certainty?
- What is not known?
- What types of additional research would likely lead to significant scientific gains?
- What additional knowledge would be useful for decision-makers?
- In view of the answers to questions 1 and 2, what are the likely consequences of
different alternative societal or policy options?
In many cases, a scientific
assessment may combine elements of both an assessment of the
state of knowledge in a scientific field as well as an assessment of the relevance of that
knowledge to policy decisions and societal welfare (see Box 3).
Some scientific assessments are particularly appropriate for an
interagency partnership approach, especially when the agencies
involved share responsibility for a topic or must be prepared to act
on the information resulting from the assessments. NSF has a
responsibility to engage in assessments, enabling the synthesis,
analysis, and clear communication of research findingsparticularly
basic research findingsin a timely fashion. In addition, NSF
can provide a valuable service to other agencies and to the scientific
and engineering community by supporting the development of
explicit research agendas and by providing for improved understanding
of the actual process of conducting assessments.
For a study analyzing the methodology
of integrated assessments and their
application to global environmental
concerns, see the Organisation for
Economic Cooperation and
Development's report on a Workshop
on Global-scale Issues (OECD 1998).
The scale and nature of the problem or information being assessed should dictate the scale of
the assessment. Some scientific assessments need to be performed at an international level,
while others can and should be conducted at the national level. NSF has a role in both. In
the international arena, NSF should award grants to the coordinating entity as well as
allocate funds to sponsor U.S. scientists to participate in assessments. A number of international
and national scientific assessments would be beneficial; many would involve partnerships
with other agencies or international bodies. One international scientific assessment that
has been proposed and that is well within the purview of NSF's mission is the Millennium
Assessment of the World's Ecosystems (Ayensu et al. 1999).
INFRASTRUCTURE IN CONTEXT
In addition to physical infrastructure provided directly by NSF, an international array of
research sites, facilities, centers, and platforms provide immense benefit for the NSF-supported
researchers who use them. These physical infrastructure capabilities are provided
by a variety of entities: other nations; other U.S. Federal agencies; tribal, state, and local
governments; and, in some cases, NGOs and the private sector. For example, several Federal
agencies are committed to maintaining infrastructure and monitoring efforts that provide
long-term data sets for our lands and waters.
Information infrastructure is a special type of physical infrastructure (see Box 4). The recent
report of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC 1998)
highlights not only the inadequacy of Federal information technology R&D investment, but
also the drawback that it is focused too heavily on near-term problems. In the environmental
area, the information infrastructure has been tuned to several different needs and opportunities.
For example, the National Biological Information Infrastructure and the National
Spatial Data Infrastructure represent critical pieces of a larger need. Similarly, the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Earth Observing System Data and
Information System provides important lessons on the efficiency and effectiveness of a
centralized mechanism for collecting and providing specific information. NSF has a legitimate
role, in partnership with other agencies, to support the infrastructure needed to
synthesize and aggregate environmental information and make it more accessible to the
public. Further, NSF can focus on the long-term, fundamental environmental information
infrastructure needs that more mission-focused agencies are unable to support.
Numerous initial efforts have identified the kinds of information infrastructure required to
track environmental topics. For example, the Heinz Center (1999) has recently released
"Designing a Report on the State of the Nation's Ecosystems," which takes important steps
toward identifying and describing environmental indicators in a scientifically credible,
nonpartisan way for use by decision-makers. This kind of synthetic activity depends heavily
on information infrastructure.
INVESTMENTS IN ENVIRONMENTAL TECHNOLOGY
Immense advances in science and engineering have been made possible by national policies
that promote research at the frontiers of knowledge. A concomitant policy is to ensure that
discovery in science and engineering is used to benefit all citizens, promote economic
growth, improve the quality of life, and ensure national security. In many areas of science and
engineering, the interval between discovery and industrial innovation is becoming shorter. As
a consequence, there is a need for stronger university-industry partnerships in order to
exploit new opportunities that will arise in environmental technologies and supporting
fields. At the same time, a rich base of fundamental research in science and engineering must
be maintained to ensure future innovations in environmental technology (see Box 5).
Overall, industry sees strength in its ability to link inventions to markets and to commercial ize
new technologies (Resetar et al. 1999).
The environmental market is increasingly technology-driven, indicating that suppliers must
make continuing substantial R&D expenditures. The large multinational environment
companies are most R&D intensive, spending 8 to 10 percent of turnover on research;
smaller firms in lower technology environmental sectors may spend less than 2 percent of
turnover on R&D (OECD 1998). According to Resetar et al. (1999), from a company's
point of view, collaborative research on environmental technologies may be an opportunity
to share expenses for technologies necessary to comply with environmental regulations. They
may also be a way to reduce the risks associated with introducing new technologies to
comply with regulations and the risks of environmental liability.
The Federal role in fostering R&D to advance environmental technologies was articulated by
Appropriately balance avoidance, monitoring, control, and remediation technologies,
stressing the need for a shift toward technologies that emphasize sustainable use of
natural resources and avoidance of environmental harm while still maintaining the
commitment to remediate past environmental damages.
Focus Federal R&D support on viable technologies that require assistance to attract
private sector investment because of high technical risk, long payback horizons, or
instances in which the anticipated returns are not evident to individual firms or
distinct industrial sectors.
Foster international cooperation on understanding, monitoring, and assessing environ mental
changes and impacts on a global or multinational scale.