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
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.
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
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 planetincluding forests,
grasslands, kelp forests, deserts, wetlands, rivers, estuaries, coral
reefs, lakes, and open oceansprovide 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).
THE PROCESS USED TO PRODUCE THIS REPORT
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:
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.
Received input and feedback from invested communities via:
Inventoried the current portfolio of and reviewed the current approach to environmental activities at the National Science Foundation.
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.
OLD FRAMEWORKS AND APPROACHES
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
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)
The problems that exist in the world
today cannot be solved by the level
of thinking that created them.Generally attributed to Albert Einstein
THE NECESSARY RESPONSE
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. 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.
GOALS FOR ENHANCING THE ENVIRONMENTAL PORTFOLIO
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 audiencesincluding scientific, public, and policy audiences, and the private sectorvia 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.