Teamwork Needed to Decipher Environmental Science

By J.R. Pegg

ARLINGTON, Virginia, January 8, 2003 (ENS) - A new internal report calls on the National Science Foundation to embrace a more interdisciplinary approach to its work in order to provide the public and policymakers with the information and tools to address critical environmental challenges.

Advances in science have expanded the horizons of what can be studied, the report's authors wrote, and have created the demand for collaborative teams of engineers and natural and social scientists to move beyond current disciplinary research and educational frameworks.

The report, "Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century," provides recommendations for the National Science Foundation's next decade of environmental research and education programs. It was prepared over the past two years by the foundation's Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education and presented to National Science Foundation (NSF) directors today at the foundation's headquarters in Arlington.

"Environmental researchers and educators in the next decade have to be synthesizers," said NSF Director Rita Colwell. "This is not just another report."


Rita Colwell heads the National Science Foundation. (Photo courtesy NSF)
The National Science Foundation needs to build on its solid accomplishments in a wide variety of science and engineering disciplines, according to the report, in order to integrate its efforts and expertise into a more interdisciplinary culture.

"This is a calling for a cultural change of the foundation," said Margaret Leinen, NSF assistant director for geosciences and coordinator for environmental research and education. "We must enhance current efforts and emerging interdisciplinary efforts."

The advisory committee found that NSF is "uniquely suited to carry out fundamental, complex environmental systems across broad areas because it funds all fields of science and engineering."

This support for environmental programs, according to the report, needs to be expanded in the social sciences, cyberinfrastructure, observing systems and education.

"This report represents a significant advancement in our thinking on environmental science and education," said David Skole, current chair of the NSF Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education. Skole is also the professor and director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations at Michigan State University.

A key component of the strategy outlined in the report is the call for long term funding plans to incorporate interdisciplinary approaches.

"The concept of synthesis based research is a touchstone for environmental research and education and long term support is necessary to fulfill its promise," said Stephanie Pfirman, past chair of the advisory committee and chair of the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College.

The report does not directly call for more funding for NSF's Environmental Research and Education efforts, which received some $825 million in fiscal 2001.

The National Science Foundation currently operates on some $5 billion a year. According to the foundation, it reviews some 32,000 competitive proposals a year and funds some 20,000 awards annually.


Warren Washington chairs the National Science Board. (Photo courtesy NSF)
"There is very strong support among all board members for this effort," said Warren Washington, the chair of the National Science Board. The 24 member National Science Board guides NSF's activities. The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports all fields of science, mathematics and engineering.

The report calls for increased focus on three specific, interrelated areas - coupled human and natural systems, coupled biological and physical systems, and people and technology. Within these areas, the report identifies 10 research areas, and should serve as a "rallying call" for new efforts, Pfirman said.

Under coupled and natural systems, the report lists four interrelated major research challenges - land, resources and the built environment; human health and the environment; freshwater resources, estuaries, and coastal environments; environmental services and valuation.

A better understanding of the effects of changing land use, for example, could shed light on a host of other related concerns, such as human health and disease, food security and pollution, Skole said.

The report details a NSF supported program in the Miombo Woodlands of southern Africa that is exploring ecology and land use, focused on an interdisciplinary study of processes, interactions, and impacts of environmental changes on livelihoods.


Miombo woodlands in Tanzania (Photo by David Olson courtesy WWF)
The Miombo Woodlands system includes all those Southern and Central African ecosystems which occur under a hot, subhumid, seasonally wet climate on soils derived from acid crystalline geologies. Miombo woodlands occupy about five million square kilometers (1.93 million square miles), and support about 100 million people with food, fuel, building materials, medicines and water.

Within coupled biological and physical systems, the report lays out three interrelated major research areas - biochemical cycles, climate variability and change, and biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics. Improved understanding of climate variability, the report explains, requires the integration of a region's biological, social and economic characteristics and trends.

For the area of people and technology, the report focuses on materials and process development, decision making and uncertainty, and institutions and environmental systems.

The integration of the physical, biological and social sciences is fundamental for increased understanding of individual and collective human behavior and for the successful implementation of new environmental technologies and policies, according to the report.

To succeed in these 10 areas of research and to better integrate research and education, the report points to a dire need for improved environmental education, training, infrastructure and technical capacity. The authors call for more diversity within environmental science and education.

"Science and engineering alone can't provide all the answers," Colwell said. "We need innovative approaches for education."


Margaret Leinen is NSF assistant director for geosciences and coordinator for environmental research and education. (Photo courtesy NSF)
Interdisciplinary science, engineering and education must be built from the ground up, said NSF's Leinen, through a range of strategic partnerships within the National Science Foundation, with other U.S. government agencies, with international organizations and governments.

Officials from seven other U.S. government agencies attended today's presentation, and Colwell believes NSF has a good track record of working with other organizations.

"The interaction with other government agencies has never been stronger," she said. "We need to process data into answers and into the wisdom we so desperately need."

The current focus on national security should benefit, rather than harm, the NSF's funding, Colwell believes.

"Fundamental research is absolutely essential to national security and economic prosperity," Colwell said. "Working in the environment is an important component in how we protect our nation."

For a copy of the NSF report, see: