T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E

NSB Environment Science & Engineering for the 21st Century, Letter

Help Site Map Text Only

 December 3, 1999

Neal Lane
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

Dear Neal,

As you requested, we have taken a close look at the interim report ofthe National Science Board, “Environmental Science and Engineering forthe 21st Century.” Specifically, you asked our advice on how the NSTC shouldaddress the report's recommendation on reevaluating the government's environmentalR&D portfolio and on what implications there might be for the overallFederal effort.

With regard to your specific question, doing an adequate job of providingthe science we need to respond to the environmental challenges facing theNation will unquestionably require the involvement of all federal agenciesthat support such research. We believe that NSF must weigh its responsesto the report in the context of the entire federal environmental researchportfolio.  The resources and processes of the CENR should be usedto help NSF optimize coordination, build on existing agency strengths,and minimize conflict.  The Board's suggestion that the NSTC reevaluatethe portfolio to identify research gaps and set priorities is very appropriate. In fact, this process is already well underway with the development ofthe “Integrated Science for Ecosystem Challenges” (ISEC) initiative developedfor the FY 2000 and 2001 budget requests.  As you know, this effortinvolved dozens of representatives of the CENR agencies in an effort tobegin an expansion of ecosystem research to improve the information availableto decision makers.  The PCAST Environment and Natural Resources Panelhas been carefully tracking the development of ISEC and believe that muchof the thinking that has gone into the initiative could form a startingpoint for the development of future priorities.

It is perhaps also an appropriate time to enlist the assistance of OMBto do an evaluation of the status of environmental R&D funding acrossall agencies to update the budget information that was prepared for the1995 CENR strategy document, “Preparing for the Future Through Scienceand Technology.”  We are well aware that it is no simple task to developan accurate picture of the environmental portfolio.  On the otherhand, we do not see how the identification of research gaps and the settingof priorities for expanding the portfolio can be adequately done withoutaccurately determining where we are at the moment, both inside NSF andacross the environmental R&D agencies.  We would be happy to workwith OMB and the CENR leadership to develop an appropriate taxonomy forsuch an exercise.

With regard to the NSB report overall, we applaud the Board's recommendationthat environmental research be made one of NSF's highest priorities andagree that funding should be substantially augmented, particularly in fivespecific areas emphasized in the report: interdisciplinary research; environmentaleducation; economic valuation of ecological goods and services; long-term,large-scale research; and improving environmental assessment capabilities. As you know, PCAST has recommended increasing the priority and fundingof environmental science in several of our own recent reports. Those ofus in the environmental field know that such funding increases are justified;many in policy positions may need to be convinced.  Perhaps the Boardadding its voice on this issue will tip the balance and gain the attentionof Congressional decision-makers in a position to help implement this recommendation.

The funding increase recommended (ultimately an additional $1 billionper year at the end of a five year period) is very large, equal to about20 percent of the entire current federal environmental R&D portfolio.We do not disagree that an increase of this magnitude is needed. But we believe, as noted above, that if NSF were to carefully address theintegration of its efforts with other ongoing Federal research to ensureminimal duplication of effort, cooperation, not competition for resources,and sharing of expertise and research infrastructure as part of its planningto make effective use of new funding, it would greatly help to justifysuch an increase.

We strongly agree with the Board's call for increased support for interdisciplinaryresearch. It is clear that, despite many earlier calls for increased interdisciplinaryresearch by numerous prestigious groups, this is a very difficult thingto accomplish in practice. While we do not mean to advocate additionalbureaucracy, we do think the “focal point” recommendation must be takenseriously and should be addressed using some creative thinking. We do notbelieve that the increased emphasis on interdisciplinary activities calledfor in the report will materialize without the establishment of some mechanismdesigned to foster such activities.

We also note with satisfaction that the Board has reiterated the needfor enhanced attention to work that addresses the interface between ecologyand economics, including ecological goods and services and the social,cultural, and economic aspects of the environment.  We believe thisis an area of study that only NSF can promote at the moment, because thereis no other logical focal point in the federal government for such work. As we did in Teaming With Life, we urge the Foundation to find a way tomake this possible and we appreciate the Board's seconding one of our keyrecommendations.

We are also pleased to see an added emphasis on issues of larger spatialand longer temporal scales, which is crucial to being able to address emergingproblems, such as climate change and loss of biological diversity, andagree that an increased emphasis on “assessment” is appropriate. With respect to the latter, however, we think it is essential for the reportto be much more specific about what kinds of “assessment” are includedin the recommendation for increased attention by NSF. We agree that appropriatekinds of assessment include not just synthesis, but also “evaluation andcommunication of scientific understanding.”  The addition of somespecific examples of what the Board views as appropriate and inappropriatetypes of assessment activities for NSF would clarify the recommendation. It would also be helpful in providing reassurance to other CENR agenciesabout where NSF is likely to be headed as it implements the NSB's guidance.

In closing, we would like to make one additional comment on NSF's “Biocomplexity”initiative and its relationship to the recommendations in the report. The NSB indicated to us that “Biocomplexity in the Environment” has nowbecome the descriptor of the full portfolio of environmental science andengineering at NSF.  Furthermore, the Board has stated that the fundingincreases obtained for an FY2000 “Biocomplexity” initiative ($50 million)represent the beginnings of the increased investment in environmental sciencecalled for in the Board's report.  We urge NSF to clarify which ofthe Board's recommendations will benefit from the increases this year,as well as those proposed for 2001.  Such information will be veryimportant to the CENR for further development of ISEC across all of theagencies.

We very much appreciate having had the opportunity to comment on thisimportant report.  We would be happy to discuss our views with youfurther.


Peter Raven

John Holdren



PCAST Environment Panel

CAST Energy Panel

President's Committee of Advisors
on Science and Technology
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W
Washington, DC 20502

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House
White House for Kids | White House History
White House Tours | Help | Text Only

Privacy Statement

PCAST Review of the Interim Report

NSB Environment Science & Engineering for the 21st Century, Letter

Transmittal Letter from Dr. Lane to National Science Board