Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  May 1999 

Making Environmental Science Policy at NSF

by David Applegate

The idea of a town hall meeting usually conjures up an image of a white clapboard meeting house in a quaint New England village. But the town hall meeting I attended this March was in the 12-story National Science Foundation headquarters in northern Virginia. The meeting was held by the National Science Board’s Task Force on the Environment to hear testimony from interested parties on the task force’s mission to help NSF define the scope of its role in environmental research, education, and assessment, and to determine the best means of implementing NSF activities in these areas. My purpose in participating was to provide a geoscience perspective on that mission on behalf of the American Geological Institute (AGI).

The task force is an outgrowth of a resolution the science board passed in March 1998, on a proposal to establish a National Institute for the Environment (NIE) within NSF. The science board — which serves as NSF’s governing body — was responding to a congressional instruction that NSF should examine how it might implement a semi-autonomous NIE within its current structure (“Political Scene,” Geotimes, June 1998). The science board’s resolution offered a rather dim view of the NIE-in-NSF proposal but stated that there was a need for expanded environmental research, education, and assessment. The first two of these activities are clearly within NSF’s mission. But the third activity — assessment of the current state of research on topics of interest to society — has not been an NSF role, although it is a central component of the NIE proposal. Thus, the task force is certain to have a major impact on defining environmental science at NSF and potentially could recommend that the foundation significantly broaden the scope of its mission.

Although rooted in the science board’s reaction to the NIE proposal, the task force reflects much broader currents affecting NSF’s priorities and mission. The foundation’s new director, Dr. Rita Colwell, is the first biologist to lead NSF. She has pioneered research in environmental impacts on human health, focusing on tropical diseases, and she is a firm believer in the importance of environmental science. Her interest is translating into real shifts in NSF’s budget priorities. The bulk of new NSF research money in President Clinton’s budget request for fiscal year 2000 is funneled into two initiatives: information technology and “Biocomplexity and the Environment.” Although the initiatives are intended to fund multidisciplinary research, there will inevitably be winners and losers among NSF’s disciplinary directorates, depending on each directorate’s ability to establish its relevance to these initiatives.

Geoscience and Environmental Science
Clearly, the increasing emphasis on environmental science at NSF has major implications for the Geosciences Directorate (GEO). Ever since the International Geophysical Year in the late 1950s, the geosciences have received a major portion of NSF’s research budget. GEO is currently the foundation’s second largest disciplinary directorate. In addition, the NSF Office of Polar Programs funds a substantial amount of geoscience research. The future vitality of GEO — and especially of the Earth Sciences Division within it — depends in large part on the role it carves for itself in environmental science.

That challenge is not at all unique to NSF and is mirrored in the university geoscience departments that receive much of their research funding from the foundation. A quick look through the AGI Guide to Geoscience Departments in the U.S. & Canada presents a dizzying array of departmental monikers, many with the phrase “environmental science.” The name “Department of Geology” is a vanishing breed. The course offerings at these departments provide even more evidence of the shift toward environmental science topics as departments respond to the high level of student interest in environmental issues, hoping to attract more students to the geosciences. That is particularly true at the undergradu-ate level but increasingly so at the graduate level as well.

The rush by geoscientists in academia and government to emphasize the environmental aspects of their work quickly encounters a daunting hurdle: university administrators, federal policy-makers, environmentalists, students, and the public at large tend to equate environmental science exclusively with biological science. Just as public land agencies have redefined “natural resources” to mean flora and fauna rather than water and minerals, now the geosciences risk being marginalized in environmental research initiatives rather than serving their proper role as an integral component of such research.

AGI Delivers the Geoscience Perspective
Against that background, it was imperative that the National Science Board’s Task Force on the Environment hear from the geoscience community. Hence, AGI’s testimony during the March town hall meeting focused on the important role the geosciences play in NSF’s future environmental research and education programs. Two AGI member societies — the American Geophysical Union and the Soil Science Society of America — also delivered an earth science perspective at the town hall meeting.

Given the task force’s origins from an NIE-related resolution, it was appropriate that the AGI testimony drew on a 1995, AGI Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee white paper on the role of the earth sciences within an NIE. The testimony cited three examples of geoscience contributions to cross-disciplinary environmental research: the earth sciences hold the record book of environmental change over time; rock, soil, and water form the foundation of ecosystems and define the habitats of nearly all biological organisms; and natural hazards such as earthquakes and floods play an important role in the Earth system and represent a key environmental challenge before us.

AGI’s testimony also focused on environmental education, noting that science education is at its best when it draws on children’s inherent curiosity about the world around them. The environment is a valuable subject for teaching about a wide range of interrelated scientific disciplines. Because environmental subject matter has a direct relevance to students’ lives, it can help attract a greater diversity of students to the sciences.

The task force will present its report to the full National Science Board during its spring meeting this month. The report and its reception merits our collective attention as an important measure of how NSF policy-makers perceive the geosciences in the environmental-science equation. The report will also help geoscientists gauge what more they must do to communicate the value and relevance of their work for understanding our environment.

David Applegate
AGI Government Affairs Program
govt@agiweb.org
The AGI testimony is available on the Web at http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis106/nsbupdate.html. The National Science Board Task Force on the Environment web site is http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/tfe.


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