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National Institute for the Environment Update (1-31-00)

The need for better science supporting environmental decisionmaking is a rare point of agreement -- however generic -- in the often-heated debates surrounding environmental issues. The Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE) has for a number of years sought to create a federal entity to provide focused environmental research, information, and assessments related to key policy issues. Originally, CNIE's goal was to establish an independent, non-regulatory agency, but in recent years their focus has shifted to establishing NIE as a semi-autonomous entity within the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 1998, Congress asked NSF to report on how it would implement such an undertaking. Although NSF's governing body, the National Science Board, rejected the NIE proposal, it subsequently undertook a re-evaluation of NSF's environmental science programs.

Most Recent Action
On January 26, 2000, CNIE announced that it was changing its name to the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), declaring victory in translating its goals for improving science information for environmental decisionmaking into National Science Foundation initiatives. CNIE originally formed in 1989 with the goal of establishing a new federal agency -- the National Institute for the Environment -- but in recent years shifted toward a goal of establishing a semi-autonomous NIE within NSF. The National Science Board rejected the idea but undertook a study of environmental science at NSF. The ensuing report called for a major increase in funding for environmental research and, in CNIE's opinion, recommended implementation of "most of the activities initially proposed for a National Institute for the Environment." As a result, CNIE announced last October it fully supported implementation of the report and was suspending its call for the creation of a NIE. The newly named NCSE will work to "develop an online information dissemination system through which users can find understandable, science-based information about the environment."

The National Science Foundation held a public briefing on July 30, 1999 to announce the release of the National Science Board's interim report Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation. The report was prepared by the board's Task Force on the Environment, and it is available online at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/tfe/nsb99133/start.htm. NSF is currently seeking comments from all interested parties. No formal closing date for comment submissions was given, but task force chair Dr. Jane Lubchenco stated that comments received in the next month would be the most helpful.  A summary of the report focusing on its treatment of the geosciences has been developed by AGI's Government Affairs Program.

According to NSF, the Task Force on the Environment was established "to assist the Foundation in defining the scope of its role with respect to environmental research, education, and assessment, and in determining the best means of implementing activities related to this area." The forward to the interim report explains that the report is based on extensive review of relevant policy documents and reports, a process of hearings and consultations with invested communities, invited commentary from a variety of organizations and individuals, and feedback from a public website.

The report offers two "keystone" recommendations: 1) environmental research, education, and scientific assessment should be one of the highest priorities at NSF, and towards that end recommend increasing the level of environmental funding from the current level of approximately $600 million by $1 billion dollars over five years; and 2) 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 NSF."

Prior Action During the 106th Congress
An AGI alert sent to the member societies in February 1999 provided information on the opportunities to provide input to the NSB Task Force on the Environment. In an effort to ensure that the task force's vision of environmental research and education includes the geosciences, AGI provided testimony on March 8th at a town meeting held at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The testimony drew on previous AGI congressional testimony on NSF as well as the AGI Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee's 1995 white paper on the role of the earth sciences in a National Institute for the Environment. The white paper is available on the AGI web site at: http://www.agiweb.org/legis104/niepaper.html.

Three of AGI's member societies -- the American Geophysical Union, Soil Science Society of America, and Council on Undergraduate Research -- also provided testimony at the town meeting.

Background
The Fiscal Year 1998 VA, HUD, & Independent Agencies appropriations bill, passed in October 1997, mandated that NSF "study how it would establish and operate" a semi-autonomous National Institute for the Environment. In April 1998, NSF reported back to Congress on the feasibility of creating a NIE within the agency. Then-NSF Director Neal Lane summarized the report by stating that an NIE "exceeds the boundaries of NSF." The previous month, the National Science Board passed a resolution opposing creation of an NIE within NSF, warning that it "could isolate environment al research from related science and engineering research."

Both the NSB resolution and the NSF report came under heavy fire from NIE supporters in Congress, but report language in the next NSF appropriations bill did not mention NIE in stating: "The Committee concurs with the Foundation's view that environmental research is an important area that should be strengthened. The Committee believes that this objective can be accomplished without the creation of additional bureaucratic structure. The Committee looks forward to forthcoming proposals from OSTP, NSF, and the National Science and Technology Council concerning a national science and technology strategy for the environment, which was recommended in the NSF's April report to the Committee."

For more on events in the 105th Congress, including the CNIE proposal for a NIE within NSF, please see the AGI update at: http://www.agiweb.org/legis105/nie.html, and the June 1998 Geotimes Political Scene column "NSF Says No to National Institute for the Environment" at http://www.agiweb.org/geotimes/scene698.html.


Sources: Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, Library of Congress, National Science Foundation

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by David Applegate and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs
Posted August 30, 1999; Updated January 31, 2000


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