American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program SPECIAL UPDATE

House Tells NSF to Study National Institute for the Environment


This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies

IN A NUTSHELL: House appropriators have told NSF to study how it would establish and operate a national institute for the environment (NIE). This move represents a victory for NIE supporters who recently shifted goals from that of a fully independent agency to a semi-autonomous entity within NSF. NIE backers are now pushing for additional funds from the Senate.


For several years, efforts to create a non-regulatory, independent environmental science agency -- a national institute for the environment (NIE) -- have made limited progress. At a time when entire cabinet departments are being targeted for closure, the creation of new agencies is out of vogue. This year, NIE supporters -- led by the Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE) -- changed tactics, developing a proposal to create an NIE within the National Science Foundation (NSF). This new approach appears to be paying off in Congress. At last week's House Appropriations Committee markup (voting) session on the Fiscal Year 1998 appropriations bill that funds NSF, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) offered an amendment to allow NSF "to study how it would establish and operate [an NIE], including the potential cost of such an institute." The amendment states that the Appropriations Committee is "very interested in the idea of establishing an institute that provides a major role for stakeholders in defining the questions needing scientific attention and which funds ongoing knowledge assessments, extramural research, on-line information dissemination, and education and training through a competitive peer reviewed process." The bill requires that NSF report to the Committee by April 1, 1998.

Spurred on by their success, the CNIE is now seeking to persuade the Senate Appropriations Committee to tack on extra money to the NSF budget for establishing the NIE rather than just studying the idea. An interdisciplinary NIE would involve a number of current NSF directorates, including Geosciences, Biological Sciences, and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

According to CNIE Executive Director Peter Saundry, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-NJ) is currently drafting separate legislation that would authorize the creation of a National Institute for the Environment funded under the National Science Foundation budget. In the last Congress, Rep. Saxton introduced H.R. 2827, the Sound Science for the Environment Act, to authorize NIE as a stand-alone agency. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Science where it received no further attention, despite the support of over fifty cosponsors.

According to CNIE, the overarching goal for NIE is to improve the science on which environmental decisions are based by performing the following activities:

The effort to create a National Institute for the Environment was started in 1989 and is predicated on the need for an organization that is not tied to an advocacy group, business or government agency to analyze and research environmental issues. The CNIE emphasizes that the NIE's role would be one of "an independent, nonregulatory federal science institute for the environment." The NIE would not create environmental policies; rather, its research would complement work done by other agencies.

In March 1995, the AGI Environmental Geosciences Advisory Committee authored an issues paper on the role of Earth science in such an environmental science agency. The study of environmental issues is inherently interdisciplinary, thus requiring the inclusion of earth sciences in the NIE, and the paper emphasizes the important role that the Earth sciences play in several critical environmental issues. To read that paper, visit the AGI website.

For additional information on this issue, including the text of CNIE's discussion memorandum proposing the NIE as a chartered institution under NSF, visit AGI's NIE legislative update. You can also read a Geotimes "Political Scene" column on Establishing a National Institute for the Environment (4/96).

To read the original proposal for the NIE, visit CNIE's website.

All of these documents can also be obtained by contacting AGI's Government Affairs Program at (703) 379-2480 or

Sources: Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, Journal of Environmental Education

Contributed by Stephanie Barrett and David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

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

Posted July 15, 1997

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