Government Affairs Report: The Continuing Saga of the National Institute for the Environment (11/99)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the November 1999 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

With the birth of the present decade, a movement surfaced to create a new federal science agency to confront severe national and global environmental challenges. The effort began with the meeting of scientists, environmentalists, and policy experts led by Stephen Hubbell of Princeton and Henry Howe of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The group formed a Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE) apparently driven by the belief that the existing Environmental Protection Agency, the President's Council on Environmental Quality, and other agencies within the federal establishment did not provide the nation with sufficient scientific knowledge to make informed environmental decisions.  They also shared the concern that federal agencies responsible for setting environmental policies or enforcing regulations are subject to political influences.

The proposed new agency, which was labeled the National Institute for the Environment (NIE), became the subject of congressional hearings in the spring of 1990. Those hearings led to bipartisan legislation for a National Academy of Sciences study to report on the existing state of the environmental sciences. The Academy report, released in June 1993, suggested that an organization such as the NIE could indeed improve the quality, scope, and utility of environmental research and training. Then in August 1993, Representatives George Brown (D-CA) and James Saxton (R-NJ), with strong bipartisan support, introduced legislation to establish a NIE to improve the scientific basis for decision-making on environmental issues.

For several years in multiple congresses, attempts were made to establish an independent, non-regulatory environmental agency.  But the nation was in the throes of desire for smaller government, and the birth of a new agency ran contrary to that philosophy.

Enter the National Science Foundation
A new tactic emerged in October 1997, when the annual appropriations bill funding the National Science Foundation (NSF) instructed that agency to study how it would incorporate and operate a NIE within NSF. Although this represented a step down from the status of an independent agency, subsequent authorizing legislation introduced by Saxton and Representative Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) clearly indicated that the NIE would have its own governing board and administrative authority, hence it would essentially be autonomous within NSF.

In March 1998, NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board (NSB), issued a resolution in opposition to the placement of a self-governing entity within the NSF, but did strongly support the need for increased research into environmental problems. The following month the NSF's own internal task force issued the same conclusions in their report to Congress. Both the NSB resolution and the NSF report were immediately attacked by the CNIE and Representatives Saxton and Abercrombie, all of whom indicated that Congress clearly mandated the NSF to report on how the NIE would be incorporated, and not on whether it should be placed within the NSF. The battle raged on ultimately involving 146 colleges and universities, the business community, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, congressional Republicans, and the Administration. As a result of the wide range of interests and concerns, the NSB established a Task Force on the Environment to address the broader issue of how NSF handles environmental research.

One area of particular concern to the geoscience community was the planned creation of a national library for the environment within the NIE, which could have a deleterious effect on the U.S. Geological Survey’s library that essentially served as the nation’s library for the environment and natural resources. There was also a sense of uneasiness over the lack of geoscience input within the CNIE. To overcome this deficiency, AIPG officers have met with CNIE representatives on numerous occasions, and the AGI Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee prepared a white paper for CNIE in 1995 on the role of the geosciences in a NIE.

Task Force on the Environment
The task force was instituted to assist the NSF in defining the extent of its role concerning environmental research, education, and assessment. In an attempt to guarantee the inclusion of the geosciences in the task force’s vision of environmental research and education, AGI presented testimony at the task force’s town meeting in March of this year. Although the testimony did not address the possible placement of the NIE within the NSF, it stressed the role of the earth sciences in environmental research and education. Three of AGI's member societies – the American Geophysical Union, Soil Science Society of America, and Council of Undergraduate Research – also presented testimony.

On July 30th, there was a public briefing to release the NSB Task Force on the Environment interim report Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation. The two key recommendations of the report were 1) environmental research, education, and scientific assessment should be one of the highest priorities at NSF, and towards that end environmental funding over the next five years should be increased by $1 billion over the present $600 million; and 2) NSF management should insure a well-integrated, high priority, high-visibility, cohesive, and sustained environmental portfolio within the agency.

All interested parties are encouraged to comment on the report with no closing date given for the comment period. The report is available online at

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted January 4, 2000

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