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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


»  Research

»  Education

»  Scientific

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 3.

NSF is a Federal funding agency that provides support to enable and facilitate scientific and engineering research and education. The Foundation makes merit-based awards to individual researchers and groups in partnership with colleges, universities, and other institutions—public, private, local, state, and Federal—throughout the Nation. These awards are made based on peer-reviewed national competition.

NSF plays a pivotal role in the Nation's investment in environmental R&D. It 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. About 20 percent of NSF's total 1998 budget—$542 million—was dedicated to environmental activities in a broad range of disciplines. The FY 1999 investment in this area totaled $595 million; $659 million is estimated for environmental activities in FY 2000. Consistent with NSF's primary mission, the majority of these funds go to integrated research and education projects, with scientific assessment receiving more modest support. By way of context, the larger Federal investment in environmental R&D was approximately $5.3 billion in FY 1995 according to the most recent budget crosscut published by CENR (1995).

In the environmental arena, the Foundation works with outside experts, primarily representing the academic community, to identify the Nation's most important environmental research needs. A cogent argument for maintaining a vigorous fundamental research effort in environmental science and engineering is for the country to have information available that can be used to address as yet unknown environmental problems likely to arise. Moreover, the significance of particular research in advancing specific fields of study has been a prime criterion for inclusion in the agency's portfolio. The relevance of such research to societal issues is also vital.

In line with these objectives, NSF has recently promulgated revised review criteria that address both the intellectual merit as well as the broader impacts of work it supports:

  1. What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity? How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? How qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative and original concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?

  2. What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity? How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability, geography, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What might be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

As discussed in the previous sections, the challenges and opportunities required to study and understand the environment demand a broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research approaches. This diversity is reflected in NSF's broad environmental portfolio and in the multiple approaches it employs for funding work in this area. These include:

  • Ongoing core programs that define areas of interest and are continually revitalized by new ideas from individuals or small groups of investigators whose proposals are subjected to the rigors of the merit review process.

  • Special competitions that respond to new topical areas, are often interdisciplinary in nature, and provide opportunities for interagency cooperation (see Table 2). NSF's approach has been to enable these topical areas to mature and to foster connections among participating investigators; it may then fold the area into ongoing programs, allowing new areas to emerge.

  • Center or large group activities that provide a framework for long-term studies of complex, cutting-edge topics. NSF supports several centers that have environmental work as all or part of their portfolio (Appendix F).


Table 2. Examples of Interdisciplinary Special Competitions

Special Competition


Environmental Geochemistry and Biogeochemistry Supports research on the chemical processes that determine the behavior and distribution of inorganic and organic materials in environments near Earth's surface
Life in Extreme Environments Addresses such fundamental questions as determining the evolutionary and physiological processes that led to the formation and adaptation of life on Earth
Water and Watersheds (with EPA and USDA) Integrated socioeconomic, physical, and ecological research that takes a systems approach to questions of pattern and process at the whole-watershed scale

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As in other scientific and engineering arenas, NSF's environmental research activities serve as the fulcrum for advances by other Federal agencies, state and local governments, the private sector, and individual citizens. The knowledge derived from NSF-sponsored research fosters advances in our fundamental understanding of environmental systems. This knowledge in turn drives new technologies and other applications; enables sound policy and management decisions; and provides the basis for improved human health, prosperity, and well-being.

A Diverse Portfolio Across the Foundation

From the search for understanding microbial processes in Antarctic ice to tracing contaminant effects in the Arctic ocean, from investigation of nanoscale interactions on mineral surfaces to the influence of solar flares, from the turnings of DNA to changes in animal migration patterns, researchers supported by NSF attempt to understand Earth's life forms and their complex relationship to their physical habitat. In the last few years, that search has been augmented by new tools for discovery—including new genomic methods, increased computational capacities, and more sensitive and versatile analytical instrumentation—and by increasing interest in interdisciplinary research. Concerns about the effects of human activity have focused greater attention on the development of environmentally benign advanced technologies and a deeper understanding of the socioeconomic dimensions of environmental systems.

Terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems around the world are probed, sometimes through interdisciplinary approaches. Of note in this area are the opportunities for long-term studies essential to understanding ecosystem dynamics and the impact of stressors. Many long-term studies are carried out under the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program (, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. NSF also supports a multiplicity of biological and biogeochemical research areas, including but not limited to: the patterns and causes of biological diversity at levels of organization ranging from genes to the biosphere; experimental, theoretical, and modeling studies on the structure and functioning of complex biotic-abiotic associations; the conceptual and synthetic linkages between scales of organization; and molecular evolution and organismal adaptation to changing environments.

Research on physical processes in the environment is a major current effort. Cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements is under active investigation and is driven not only by curiosity but also by societal concerns about biogeochemical and climatic changes (see Box 6). New space-based and remote-sensing technologies have enabled large-scale measurement and informative visualization. NSF supports research in integrated interagency programs such as Climate Modeling, Analysis and Prediction, and the World Ocean Circulation Experiment ( Ongoing programs support studies of ocean, Earth, and atmospheric systems.

NSF is interested in the role that humans play in contributing to changes in the environment and to mitigating the effects of environmental harm. Engineering, computational and mathematical sciences, materials, and chemistry programs at NSF support work on environmentally friendly industrial processes, materials synthesis, natural hazards, and development of environmentally relevant sensors, simulation methods, and database strategies ( Some special initiatives in these areas take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other agencies. A joint NSF-EPA venture on environmental statistics is developing algorithms for use on environmental problems (see Box 7); another competition on decision-making and valuation focuses on choices made by humans about the environment. Research on urban communities attempts to identify the set of complex factors that give rise to vigorous, healthy communities and sustainable growth.

A growing trend is the synthetic integration of data sets and greater use of modeling. Such integration takes place both at large NSF-funded centers such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) ( the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) (, and increasingly within individual investigator projects. These trends are facilitated by high-speed computers, new software and modeling methodologies that allow integration of disparate data sets, and the use of integrated assessment techniques. New software and hardware for computational analysis, modeling, and simulation are leading to more reliable models for ecosystem complexity across scales, integrated assessments, forecasting, and analysis of management options (see Box 8).

Importance of Partnerships and Collaborations

As NSF and other organizations move into a new era that calls for greater contributions to national and global well-being and more efficient use of resources, the potential for a more effective use of partnerships is extraordinary. NSF presently cooperates with other Federal agencies, state and local governments, private sector firms, organizations and foundations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and scholarly associations in carrying out its science and engineering portfolio. Outside the United States, NSF works with counterpart agencies of foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations, and NGOs such as the International Council of Scientific Unions.

NSTC/CENR provides a mechanism to facilitate and foster interagency research. CENR has highlighted the importance of coordinating research relevant to national initiatives and priorities, environmental statutes, and regional and global agreements and conventions. CENR also notes areas for improvement for such research, including the need to strengthen extramural academic research programs, encourage external peer review of all Federal R&D programs, and invest in future human resource and technical research capabilities.

Building on the success of the U.S. Global Change Research Program in developing a successful interagency initiative, NSTC is overseeing similar efforts in several other areas. Two of these are the Federal Geographic Data Committee, which is developing common standards for geographically based research and observation; and Integrated Science for Ecosystem Challenges, which features multidisciplinary approaches to such problems as invasive species and harmful algal blooms. NSF has also developed a wide range of bi- and multilateral interagency environmental activities that are not specifically part of the larger NSTC efforts. Additionally, the Foundation has helped other agencies develop NSF-style peer review systems.

The need to understand our global environment, its natural variability, and the changes imposed on it through human activities is recognized internationally. Environmental processes occur over a wide range of spatial scales. Some environmental problems are local (waste disposal), some are regional (loss of migratory species due to habitat destruction in one seasonal habitat), and some are global (stratospheric ozone depletion). Therefore, certain environmental research and scientific assessment efforts demand international collaboration and cooperation.

New Directions

NSF's activities in environmental science and engineering reflect the evolution of the Foundation's thinking as to how agency activities can best exploit opportunities provided by recent research advances and best contribute to the overall program of Federal activities related to the environment. The full portfolio of environmental science and engineering activities at NSF is described on the web at

NSF's FY 2000 budget for an initiative in Biocomplexity in the Environment represents the beginning of an increased investment in environmental science and engineering. This initiative will build on the broad environmental portfolio by addressing specific areas of opportunity in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies that promise to advance our ability to understand the complex interactive processes that occur in environmental systems. These opportunities will emphasize the use and further development of cutting-edge technologies such as genomics, molecular sequencing, informatics, robotics, remote sensing, new computational algorithms, newly developed x-ray scattering and surface spectroscopic methods, and advanced mathematics and modeling to enable new approaches to understanding these interrelationships (see Box 9).

The term " biocomplexity" refers to phenomena that arise as a result of dynamic interactions that occur within living systems, including human beings, and between these systems and the physical environment, both natural and human-made. These systems, which range from microscopic to global in scale, exhibit properties that depend not only on the individual actions of their components, but also on the interactions among these components. Biocomplexity in the Environment is a timely area for intensified research because understanding of many system components is sufficiently advanced to provide the intellectual platform for addressing how these components interact in complex systems. Studying biocomplexity in investigations of the environment will engender a more complete understanding of natural processes and the interactions between humans and their environment (see Box 10). Individual research and education activities in NSF's broad environmental science and engineering portfolio contribute knowledge toward the understanding of biocomplexity at all levels of aggregation.

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As part of its mission to promote the progress of science and engineering, NSF supports individuals and groups working to ensure a scientifically literate populace and a well-trained cadre of scientists and engineers to study present and future environmental issues. Some of these activities take place in the context of projects aimed at advancing the frontiers of knowledge; others take the form of projects dedicated to education and human resource development.


Education Through Research

Many—if not most—NSF-supported environmental research projects support graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows. Many also support undergraduates via NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (NSB 1999). Moreover, a growing number of activities primarily focused on research are adding education components. For example:

  • The Long Term Ecological Research program has begun a broad-scale, long-term effort to combine scientific research and K-12 science education. Projects include using LTER resources to enhance hands-on science learning for students; developing long-term research sites on or near schoolyards; and facilitating communication between scientists, science educators, and school teachers.

  • The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis has established a partnership based on a science curriculum developed by the Santa Barbara, California, school system called Los Marineros (Spanish for "The Mariners" ). Under this partnership, NSF-supported scientist volunteers from NCEAS adopt a fifth grade class and develop an ecology experiment which the class conducts during the school year.

  • The Environmental Molecular Science Institutes were established in 1997 through an NSF Division of Chemistry and U.S. Department of Energy competition to support collaborative research on the molecular behavior of complex, dynamic environmental systems (NSF 1997). The proposals were evaluated, in part, on the quality of their education and training components, especially their plans to involve students and underrepresented groups including women, minorities, and people with disabilities.

  • The NSF-EPA-U.S. Department of Agriculture Water and Watersheds special competition has added an education and outreach element. Investigators are encouraged to include involvement of local school groups in field sampling, lab analyses, or other project activities. In addition, projects must demonstrate involvement of local governments and/or community groups from inception (developing the research questions) to completion of the project and dissemination of the results.


Informal and Formal Education

Beyond the education accomplished through research project support, approximately $29 million was spent in FY 1998 on environment-related projects funded by NSF's Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR). In line with an increasing public awareness of environmental issues, more environmental courses and placement exams at the secondary school level, and a growing demand for undergraduate environmental science degrees, EHR has been receiving an increasing number of education proposals related to the environment. These trends have also fueled an increase in the number of teachers seeking professional development in the field.

EHR provides support for science and mathematics education across all levels of formal education as well as for informal education approaches. Funds are not targeted at specific topical areas, such as the environment; however, a significant number of environment-related projects are funded via the standard proposal process. Types of activities funded by EHR that relate to the environment include:

  • teacher preparation and professional development projects;
  • development and dissemination of educational materials and experiences such as textbooks, CD-ROM interactive programs, classroom science kits, laboratory and field equipment, web-based curricula, video lessons, and exercises; and
  • informal education projects such as the development of museum exhibits, video documentaries, radio programs, large-format IMAX films, and television series.

Other NSF directorates have been joining with EHR to fund education projects—a trend that has been increasing in recent years. For example, EHR collaborates with the Directorate for Geosciences, along with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in funding the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program. GLOBE is a worldwide network of students, teachers, and scientists from over 6,000 schools working together to study and understand the global environment. Scientists use GLOBE data in their research and provide feedback to the students to enrich their science education. NSF invests approximately $2 million per year on GLOBE awards (

A project on Arctic Connections, co-funded by EHR and the Office of Polar Programs, will produce a CD-ROM that incorporates an inquiry-based approach designed to stimulate interest in science among Alaskan Native middle school students. The CD-ROM will contain story modules that discuss both scientific and Native ways of understanding, teaching modules with classroom lessons followed by adventure stories with scientific content and problem-solving activities relevant to Arctic communities, and laboratory activities.

Additionally, a joint effort between EHR and the Plant Genome Venture Fund in NSF's Biology Directorate is developing instructional kits to help biology students in grades 6-12 make the conceptual connection between molecular genetics and gene expression in plants. The kits will let students make a visual connection between the results of DNA analysis and observations of plant morphology.

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Scientific assessment, as used by the Board, refers to the synthesis, evaluation, and communi cation of scientific understanding. Such activities are vital to the effective integration and communication of scientific research findings, since the results of individual and team research efforts rarely themselves provide the synthesis needed to set research priorities or provide guidance for environmental policy or management decisions. Scientific assessment is particularly desirable where there are complex data sets and results from multiple research sites, disparate time intervals, or varying environmental conditions. Scientific analysis, synthesis, and modeling—all proven techniques of scientific assessment—provide rational mechanisms for integrating and evaluating results or for defining the most productive research avenues to pursue.

NSF currently funds only a small number of assessment activities, totaling about $4 million annually (see Table 3). Some of these focus on the science of assessments—they provide grants to analyze the process of conducting effective assessments (i.e., the USGCRP Methods and Models for Integrated Assessments special competition). Other activities involve grants to groups of recognized experts with the goal of synthesizing information and reporting it in a credible and useful fashion. In this regard, it is useful to remember that the traditional audience for the vast majority of scientific research has been the scientific community, and publication in scientific journals has been the communication vehicle of choice. Alternative avenues of communication also can be employed, taking findings from peer-reviewed journals and making them accessible to a broader audience.

Most of the innovative science and engineering research funded by NSF is by its nature anticipatory. Pioneering research often identifies environmental problems that later—in the short or long term—become established as specific research areas (e.g., carbon dioxide increase, ozone hole, acid rain, species extinction rates, exotic species invasions). The ability to anticipate future environmental problems can help prevent them from happening or keep them from becoming prohibitively expensive and difficult to address. NSF has just begun to tap opportunities for coupling its support of anticipatory research to scientific assessment activities.


Table 3. Recent Scientific Assessments Supported By NSF




USGCRP National Assessment United States; interagency To analyze and evaluate the potential consequences of global change for the United States. Focuses on the consequences of climate variability and change; timed to provide input to the third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Habitat Conservation Plan Assessment Nationwide graduate seminar funded through NCEAS: 106 graduate students & 13 faculty advisors at 8 universities To examine the role of science in habitat conservation plans (HCPs). Private landowners are legally required to provide HCPs that outline how they intend to minimize the impact of planned activities on endangered species and habitats. The 90,000-entry peer-reviewed HCP database was used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in revising its HCP handbook.
Grand Environmental Challenges Interdisciplinary; National Research Council Project To identify and prioritize grand challenge research opportunities in environmental sciences. Focuses on identifying on a scientific basis the most important and challenging questions in environmental sciences, including social sciences and engineering.

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