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 institutionspublic,
private, local, state, and Federalthroughout 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 millionwas 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:
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?
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
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
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
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 discoveryincluding new genomic methods, increased
computational capacities, and more sensitive and versatile analytical instrumentationand
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
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
(http://lternet.edu/), 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
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)
(http://www.ncar.ucar.edu/)and the National Center for
Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS)
(http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu), 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
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.
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
Education Through Research
Manyif not mostNSF-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 projectsa 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
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.
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 modelingall proven techniques of scientific assessmentprovide 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 assessmentsthey 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 laterin the
short or long termbecome 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
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.