Government Affairs Program SPECIAL UPDATE

AGI Testifies Before National Science Board Task Force on the Environment


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

An AGI alert sent to the member societies on February 22nd provided information on the National Science Board's Task Force on the Environment, which was established to help the National Science Foundation (NSF) define the scope of its role with respect to environmental research, education, and assessment. In an effort to ensure that the task force's vision of environmental research and education includes the geosciences, AGI provided testimony today at a town meeting held at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The testimony, which follows below, 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: The NSB task force is itself partly an outgrowth of the board's rejection last year of a proposal to create a National Institute for the Environment within NSF. More on that at

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. For those interested in providing input into the task force process, NSB is still accepting comments through the end of March via email: The task force is slated to submit a report with final recommendations during the NSB's May 5-7, 1999 meeting. More information on the initiative is available on the NSF website at

The testimony follows.


Statement by
Dr. David Applegate, Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute
at the
National Science Board Task Force on the Environment Town Meeting
March 8, 1999

Good morning. Let me begin by thanking you for holding this town meeting and for this opportunity to testify. My name is David Applegate, and I am Director of Government Affairs at the American Geological Institute. On behalf of AGI, I would like to commend the National Science Board for undertaking this effort to define the scope of the National Science Foundation's role in environmental research, education, and assessment. I will focus my presentation today on the role of the earth sciences in future integrated approaches to environmental research and education.

The American Geological Institute is a nonprofit federation of 34 geoscientific societies and professional associations that represent more than 100,000 geologists, geophysicists, and other earth scientists. Celebrating its 50th anniversary last year, AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in our profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role that the geosciences play in mankind's use of resources and interaction with the environment.

The work of the task force is of great interest to the geoscience community. NSF is the principal source of research funding for academic earth scientists who are seeking insight into the fundamental earth processes that ultimately sustain and transform life on our planet. It is clear from the NSF budget request that environmental research is and will be a high priority for the Foundation, and it is our hope that the earth sciences will play an important role in the cross-disciplinary Biocomplexity and the Environment initiative. The ultimate success of this initiative will depend on how well it can take advantage of the strengths of many diverse disciplines to yield a more complete picture of the earth system.

Environmental Rationales Support NSF

In examining the role of NSF in environmental research and education, the task force also has the opportunity to emphasize two very important rationales for public and congressional support of the Foundation -- human health and societal decisionmaking. After the Cold War ended, NSF replaced the national security rationale that previously had underpinned most federal support for science with one focused on fundamental research as the fuel for technological advances that drive economic growth. The economic rationale is a strong one, but the fast-rising budgets of the National Institutes of Health suggest that human health is even stronger. NSF Director Rita Colwell is to be commended for making the case for the connection between fundamental research in the physical sciences and the significant advances in the medical sciences. She has also made the case for better understanding of environmental influences on public health. NSF's role in this arena includes such earth science-related topics as natural background levels of various contaminants and the bioavailability of geologic materials to living organisms.

The recent House Science Policy Study set down a fourth rationale for federal support of science that should join national security, economic growth, and human health. The study aptly summarized it as "helping society make better decisions" and referred specifically to environmental issues. Such a rationale is highly applicable to NSF, because well-informed decisionmaking must rest upon improved fundamental understanding of how the Earth and its systems function. The challenge for NSF is that such a rationale also requires improved communication of the results and meaning of such fundamental research to policymakers and society as a whole. The task force report should make a strong case for how environmental research and education across many disciplines can lead to improvements in human health and societal decisionmaking.

The Earth Science Role in Environmental Research

Given that this task force arose out of the National Science Board's 1998 resolution on the proposed National Institute for the Environment (NIE), it is appropriate that my testimony draws upon a white paper prepared by AGI's Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee on the role of the earth sciences in an NIE. Although written four years ago, the document is quite current in highlighting areas of environmental research where the earth sciences can and should play a significant role. The document is attached to my written testimony and is also available on the AGI web site at AGI has not taken a position on the proposal to establish an NIE within NSF.

The earth sciences have much to contribute to environmental research, and I would like to cite just three examples here:

NSF's Role in Environmental Education

I would like to turn now to NSF's equally important education mission. Science education is at its best when it draws on children's inherent curiosity about the world around them. NSF has played a major role in developing curricula to implement the science education standards developed by the National Academy of Sciences. These standards encourage students to think about environmental change and their role as part of earth systems. The environment as a theme cuts across multiple disciplines as well as representing one of the "big ideas" that the standards-based curricula focus on within disciplines. The environment is a terrific subject with which to expose students to a diverse range of interrelated scientific disciplines, not only the earth and biologic sciences, but also integrating the theories and methods of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. I would hope that the task force will recommend that NSF continue to play an active role in the major transformation that is taking place in science education.

It is unlikely that the sciences can flourish without greater participation by all Americans. With that in mind, using subject matter that has direct application to students' lives and the world around them can help to make science more appealing and thus encourage greater participation by historically underrepresented groups such as ethnic minorities and women. I urge the task force to consider how environment-based science education can help NSF increase recruitment and retention of students from these underrepresented groups.

In closing, I wish to thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I wish you success in completing the task force's final report. If there is any way that AGI can be of assistance, please let me know.

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

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

Posted March 8, 1999

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