Summary of Geoscience Role in National Science Board Interim Report Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21th Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation (8-26-99)

On July 29, 1999, the National Science Board's (NSB) Task Force on the Environment released its interim report Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation.  This re-evaluation of National Science Foundation's (NSF) environmental program followed NSB's rejection of a proposed National Institute for the Environment within NSF.  Further information on efforts to create a National Institute for the Environment is available on this website.

NSF is currently seeking comments from all interested parties. No formal closing date for comment submissions was given, but at a July 30 public briefing, task force chair Dr. Jane Lubchenco stated that comments received in the next month would be the most helpful.

Report Summary

This report stresses the importance of environmental science and engineering.  It states that "Ongoing alterations to the biology, chemistry and in some cases physical structure of the land, air and water of the planet will present formidable challenges in the years to come."  It strongly endorses the role of NSF as "one of the largest supporters of environmental research in the Federal government and the major supporter of environmental research conducted by the academic community."

The report sets goals for NSF's role in environmental sciences, reviews the current scope of the agency's environmental activities, describes the external inputs the task force received, and presents the task force's findings and recommendations for the future. The report specifically addresses research, education and scientific assessment components of NSF activities.  In addition to these areas, the findings and recommendations cover physical, technological and information infrastructures, and partnerships, coordination and collaborations.

Overall, the report praises current efforts and urges increased funding (an additional $1 billion over five years) and a more effective organization within NSF.

Interdisciplinary Focus
The Task Force heavily emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary activities in environmental science.  The report states "Environmental science and engineering are broadly interdisciplinary, drawing upon, integrating and invigorating virtually all fields of science and engineering."  Among the goal set for NSF's environmental portfolio is "discovery across the fields of science and engineering to elucidate the processes and interruptions among the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and socio-economic systems."

During the review of current NSF projects relating to the environment, the report cites "recent examples of highly successful multidisciplinary special competitions" including "environmental Geochemistry and Biogeochemistry which supports research on the chemical processes that determine the behavior and distribution of inorganic and organic materials in environments near the earth's surface."

This focus extends beyond integrating traditional scientific fields to include the social sciences. It stresses the importance of connecting environmental issues to human health and the economy.  The report notes that "interdisciplinary graduate degrees are few, and faculty are not rewarded as suitably for interdisciplinary activities as they are for disciplinary activities."

Role of Geosciences
The task force states that "researchers supported by NSF continue an age-old quest to understand Earth's life forms and their complex relationship to their physical habitat."  The report does not specifically address the role of the geosciences in environmental science and engineering.  Instead it refers to the "physical habitat", "physical environment" or "physical processes in the environment."  The report does mention a number of geoscience issues as significant to the environmental sciences.  

Among the "programmatic gaps or areas needing enhancement in the NSF environment portfolio identified by the board" are biogeochemical cycles, terrestrial carbon cycle connections, coastal zone research and other interface areas (watersheds, coastal waters and estuaries, large rivers), spatially-explicit studies of biogeochemistry, land cover and land use, climate and the hydrological cycle, and historical ecology (tracing human-environment relations by integrating evidence from physical, biological, social science and the humanities over space and time).

However, the geosciences are not emphasized in the task force's recommendations as heavily as some other sciences.  The report states that "an improved understanding of the dynamics of complex systems, especially complex biological systems will be essential" to meet future environmental challenges.  It also states that "biocomplexity research will integrate expanding knowledge about living organisms, including humans, with an enhanced understanding of Earth's systems."  Finally the report states that "the Board finds that lack of knowledge from biological/ecological and social sciences and environmental technology is limiting."  Natural hazards are mentioned only in the context of programs NSF already supports.

National Institute for the Environment
This re-evaluation of NSF's environmental program followed NSB's rejection of a proposed National Institute for the Environment within NSF. The report states that "The suggestions of a new institute or directorate within NSF... were deemed less desirable than a new mechanism which would simultaneously retain and strengthen existing disciplinary units but at the same time provide more effective integration, cooperation, visibility, and continuity across the Foundation."

External Input
The task force included in the report highlights the themes they saw emerge from the "diverse input" they received from scholars, professional societies (including AGI), community groups, local and federal agency officials, non-governmental organizations and concerned citizens. The report lists a number of perceived strengths of current NSF programs as well as suggestions for improvement.  These recommendations include recognition that "expertise from multiple disciplines -- including physical, biological and social sciences and engineering -- is required to advance understanding and solve environmental problems." Although geoscience-related studies and technologies are noted in this section of the report, the emphasis on the geosciences is minimal.

The interim report clearly does not emphasize the role of the geosciences in environmental science and engineering to the degree that some would like it to. However, it does make room for the geosciences in many of its recommendations.

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

Contributed by AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Althea Cawley-Murphree

Updated August 26, 1999

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