National Science Foundation Home National Science Board Home
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

3    Scope of
NSF's Current

4    Input Received About Unmet Needs and Opportunities


»  Keystone Recom-

»  Specific
Findings and

6    Conclusion


Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Appendix D

Appendix E

Appendix F

Appendix G

Final Page

Chapter 5.

Three interrelated conclusions provide a compelling rationale for making the environmental portfolio a central activity of the Foundation: (1) environmental issues are significant to national health, prosperity, equity, and well-being; (2) environmental research, education, and scientific assessment are essential to environmental problem solving; and (3) within the family of Federal agencies, NSF is positioned to play a leadership role in providing and communicating the fundamental knowledge base on environmental topics. To be effective in this role, NSF's activities must complement and enhance, not duplicate or replace, the extant portfolio of Federal activities in this area.

Environmental sciences and engineering have matured significantly over the last decade. New knowledge and new technologies have combined to bring the environmental sciences to an unprecedented threshold of discovery and understanding. Although NSF already supports more environmental research and education than is generally realized, the Nation's need for fundamental environmental knowledge and understanding requires further attention. To expand and strengthen the Foundation's environmental portfolio, environmental activities within NSF must:

  • be organized more effectively, and
  • receive greater funding.

The growing frustration with the lack of adequate scientific information about environmental issues has led to a plethora of reports and suggestions. The majority of these focus on enhancing the disciplinary and interdisciplinary fundamental understanding of environmental systems and problems, improving the systematic acquisition of data, the analysis and synthesis of these data into useful information, and the dissemination of this information into understandable formats for multiple uses. A number of these reports and policy documents examined by the Board made specific recommendations regarding the level of funding required to meet the Nation's needs in these areas (see Appendix B). The Board received additional testimony during the hearing process on the scale and scope of the needed investments. These substantial inputs—together with a thorough review of NSF's current investment—form the basis for the Board's budget recommendation.

Suggestions for Federal organizational changes have included the creation of a new Federal National Institute for the Environment, a strengthened interagency environmental committee that would involve NSF, an environmental institute within NSF, and a new directorate inside NSF. These suggestions have been tremendously helpful in promoting dialogue and raising awareness of the issues, and the Board considered these carefully in light of its immediate focus on environmental research, education, and scientific assessment within NSF. The suggestion of a new institute within NSF, for example, was deemed less desirable than a new mechanism that would simultaneously retain and strengthen existing disciplinary units but at the same time provide more effective integration, cooperation, visibility, and continuity across the Foundation.

Based on these reports and the broad input received by the task force, the Board identified the following characteristics as necessary for an effective organizational structure. NSF's environmental portfolio should be well-integrated, high priority, highly visible, cohesive, and sustained. It must work effectively with and enhance the current disciplinary structure and, simultaneously, provide more and more effective interdisciplinary efforts. Moreover, NSF's activities should continue to complement and enhance those of other Federal agencies. To this end, the Board made two overarching recommendations.

Back to Top





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.



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 acknowledges the attention and priority that the Foundation recently has placed on identifying possible new organizational structures. The Board further recognizes that it is a challenging task to satisfy all of the criteria specified in the organizational recommendation. At the same time, it stresses the importance of doing so in order to respond effectively to the unprecedented emphasis on integrative, sustained, interdisciplinary activities called for in this report.

Back to Top



The above keystone recommendations are complemented by 10 more specific findings and recommendations. These are organized into three basic activity categories (research, education, and scientific assessment) and four crosscutting categories (physical infrastructure, technological infrastructure, information infrastructure, and partnerships).



The fundamental understanding of environmental pattern and process requires analysis in balance with synthesis to provide a foundation of knowledge upon which paradigm development and predictive modeling can be based. As the field of environmental research has matured intellectually, its 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 areas.

The role of the research component of NSF's environmental portfolio is to foster discovery across the fields of science and engineering that seeks to elucidate environmental processes and interactions, thereby providing an integrated understanding of the natural status of, and the anthropogenic influences on, Earth's environment. Information and understanding from certain disciplines are especially relevant to environmental problems, but are often lacking. The Board finds that lack of knowledge in biological/ecological and social sciences and environmental technology is limiting. Specific research areas needing enhancement in the NSF environment portfolio include ecosystem services, integrated environmental systems, biosphere and society, and strategic environmental technologies (see Table 4). Note that these specific areas do not represent a comprehensive list of all high-priority unmet research needs. Rather, they illustrate examples of exciting, emerging areas ripe for advance and immediately relevant to environmental needs that were identified repeatedly in the task force's inquiry.

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 may be required to facilitate successful interdisciplinary programs. The current mechanism of establishing special competitions to address interdisciplinary needs is useful to initiate programs, but does not address the need to provide long-term stability of interdisciplinary efforts.


Table 4. Programmatic Gaps Or Areas Needing Enhancement In The Current NSF Environment Portfolio Identified By The Board

Programmatic Area Description

Ecosystem Services The interface between ecology and economics, especially mechanisms for incorporating ecosystem services into market systems.

Relationship between biological diversity, the area occupied by the ecosystem, and the delivery of critical services.

Biogeochemical cycles.

Discovery of unknown species, understanding their relationships to known organisms, and evaluation of their genetic and other potential for ecosystem functioning and services to humans.

Integrated Environmental Systems Carbon cycle connections: terrestrial-atmospheric-oceanic. Emphasis to improve balance of knowledge among components.

Coastal zone research and other interface areas: watersheds, coastal waters and estuaries, large rivers.

Ecosystem experimentation and the systems theory/complexity theory interface.

Spatially explicit studies of biogeochemistry, land cover, and land use.

Ecology of infectious diseases.

Integration of systematic biology with molecular and evolutionary approaches to improve predictive understanding of invasive species, human disease, and other areas.

Climate and the hydrological cycle.

Biosphere and Society Valuation and decision-making research on risk, existence values, ethics, and intergenerational tradeoffs of well-being.

Historical ecology: e.g., tracing human-environment relations by integrating evidence from physical, biological, and social sciences and the humanities over space and time.

Social ecology: e.g., studies of social, cultural, and economic processes, societal institutions, and public policies in relation to the environment and its spatial context.

Research on the innovation process for environmentally benign materials, designs, and processes.

Strategic Environmental Technologies Integration of classic environmental technologies with new capabilities in molecular biology, informatics, gene expression, robotics, observing capabilites, and other enabling technologies.

Industrial ecology: e.g., materials flow accounting, scale issues research including the scale of human perturbations to natural material flows, studies of urbanization/transportation and land use, and product/process life-cycle assessment research.

Energy and environmental implications of emerging 21st century patterns: e.g., service economies, movement of certain production processes to lesser developed countries, and remanufacturing.

The Board acknowledges that the time scales of environmental phenomena are much longer than funding cycles and program durations. Long-term databases, observations, and experiments are necessary to provide understanding of many environmental problems, yet insufficient support exists for sustained research efforts.



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.


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.


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



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. Environmental issues offer excellent vehicles for developing and exercising many of these skills using a systems approach. Moreover, environmental education and training should be science based, but should be given a renewed focus on preparing students for broad career horizons; they should also integrate new technologies, especially information technologies, as much as possible. Finally, changes should be made in the formal educational system to help all students, educators, and education administrators learn about the environment, the economy, and social equity as they relate to all academic disciplines and their daily lives.

To this end, NSF should create educational and training opportunities that enhance scientific and technological capacity associated with the environment. These opportunities should be made available not only through formal education channels, but also through more informal education channels such as science centers, aquariums, and similar facilities; television and radio programs; web sites; and other learning foci that are attractive to the public. In this way, the agency can help enhance the public's ability to deal with complex information in the environmental area and encourage access to information on, and opportunities to learn and make informed decisions about, the environment as it relates to citizens' personal, work, and community lives.



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

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. The Board finds that NSF's role is to facilitate the development of methods and models of scientific assessment and foster scientific assessment, both domestically and internationally.

Research on how to do effective, credible, and helpful scientific assessments is timely. Approaches to scientific assessment need to be refined, standardized, 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.



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.


Physical Infrastructure

Environmental research depends heavily on effective physical infrastructure. Environmental observatories, ranging from telescopes to undersea platforms to LTER sites are complemented by high-speed communications links, powerful computers, and well-constructed databases. Another category of physical infrastructure is natural history collections that provide a baseline against which to measure environmental change and provide essential resources for biology and biotechnology. Finally, centers- both traditional and virtual- are magnets for interdisciplinary teams that can address problem-focused issues and complement the types of activities that individual investigators perform. Consequently, NSF must foster the development of facilities, instrumentation, and other infrastructure that enable discovery, including the study of processes and interactions that occur over long time scales.

The physical and virtual infrastructure required for an effective environmental program should be enhanced. Some of this enhancement can be done in partnership with other agencies; some is primarily NSF's responsibility. In addition to traditional areas of physical infrastructure, more attention is needed to informatics, web accessibility of data sets, and maintenance of natural history specimens (extracted genetic, living, and preserved) to ensure that researchers and educators can leverage past and future investments.



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.


Technological Infrastructure

The Board finds that a critical NSF role is to foster research that seeks to develop innovative technologies and approaches that help the Nation conserve its environmental assets and services.

The convergence of 21st century science and technology with emerging paradigms of ecological understanding provides an unprecedented opportunity. Wholly new fields of inquiry and analysis that address complex ecosystem processes and resource stewardship have emerged in just the past few years. The Board finds that the thoughtfully planned integration of these sciences offers great promise for accelerating fundamental understanding of environmental principles and injecting contemporary science and technology into the study and management of ecological systems. Table 5 presents examples of technologies with promise for environmental research.


Table 5. Examples Of Technologies With Promise For Environmental Research

Technology Description

Genome sequencing and derivative technologies DNA chips and other new biotechnologies to increase understanding of how biological processes are controlled by genetic limitations and environmental variables; design principles borrowed from biological systems to guide biocatalysis and bioremediation.
Networked observational systems Data provided by robust sensors, autonomous ecological monitoring devices, biochemical tracers, and satellite-based imaging of landscapes and bodies of water are networked for better integrated and more accessible information.
Smart technology New molecular design methods and smart technology can lead to environmentally benign materials, device miniaturization, and advanced processing methods.
Software and statistics New software for computational analysis, modeling, and simulation combined with new statistical approaches to provide a better basis for comparison of patterns emerging from data at different levels of detail.

NSF can play an important role in facilitating innovation and stimulating a shift from relatively small incremental advances to bold technological transformation in response to environmental problems. The Foundation should facilitate an effort to identify technologies that represent order-of-magnitude improvements over existing environmental technologies, and—in cooperation with other Federal agencies, the academic community, and the private sector—support the scientific and engineering research needed to underpin these technologies.



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



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



Information Infrastructure

Lack of knowledge and poor communication of existing information constrain both the progress of discovery and the processes of society. As good stewardship of environmental systems becomes increasingly vital, the need for ease of analysis and synthesis of information about them will become ever more important. NSF should, in partnership with other Federal agencies, stimulate the development of mechanisms and infrastructure to synthesize and aggregate scientific environmental information and make it more accessible to the public. A coordinated electronic network linking distributed information and databases at all levels is vital; this network must ensure efficient and effective information access by and transfer to the public.

The state of environmental monitoring is imperfect; even the data that exist are not routinely checked for comparability and quality, nor are they made conveniently available for analysis in the way in which labor statistics, for example, are managed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A central source of comparable, quality-controlled time-series measurements of the environment is needed.



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

Collaborations and partnerships are essential to high-priority environmental research, education, and scientific assessment efforts. Furthermore, collaborations are most effective when they are based on intellectual needs. The collective results should be greater than what could have been achieved independently. 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.

Within the Federal Government, many mission agencies conduct research, education, and assessment activities in the environmental arena. There are thus many opportunities to partner in bilateral agreements or via National Science and Technology Council science and engineering initiatives. In addition to bridging common interests and objectives, partnerships should provide for more effective coordination of complementary expertise and experience, and broadening of perspectives among participants. The Board endorses strong NSF participation in the NSTC coordinating mechanism.

On the international front, many of NSF's environmental research collaborations address fundamental scientific questions at the root of current environmental issues (e.g., the role the equatorial ocean plays in controlling the timing and magnitude of El Niño) and reflect the drive to develop an international scientific consensus for consideration by policy-makers (e.g., the scientific basis for the depletion of stratospheric ozone and the international policies within the Montreal Protocol). Just as research informs the policy dialogue within the United States, so research in which national policy-makers have confidence undergirds international policy negotiations. By collaborating with scientists from around the world— including those in countries with limited means—NSF-funded projects help expand the knowledge base needed for scientific consensus.

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.



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.

Back to Top



Back to the Chapter 4Go to Chapter 6

National Science Board
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1225
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Telephone: (703) 306-2000
FAX: (703) 306-0181 ~ TDD: (703) 306-0090
Last Modified: