Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE April 1996

Establishing a National Institute for the Environment

Just before last Christmas, legislation was introduced once again in the House of Representatives to establish a National Institute for the Environment (NIE). The agency would be specifically charged to sponsor scientific research on the environment and would have no regulatory authority. NIE would receive no new funding but instead would assume many of the environmental research functions currently housed in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 21 other agencies.

The current bill, H.R. 2827, was sponsored by Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), who was lead co-sponsor of a similar bill in 1993 following the release of a congressionally requested National Academy of Sciences study on the subject. Bearing the official title "Sound Science for the Environment Act", the bill has 21 original cosponsors, both Democrats and Republicans. An additional 10 cosponsors had signed on through February.

Support for the bill has been organized by the Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE), which argues that an independent science agency is necessary to provide a "national source for credible environmental information". Supporters have compared NIE to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), although NIE would have no laboratories of its own and would operate primarily as a grant-funding entity. NIH is certainly a desirable object of comparison given its 8% funding increase in a year when other federal science agencies were lucky to break even or suffer only minor cuts.

As introduced, H.R. 2827 establishes NIE "to consolidate and improve governmental environmental research," eliminating duplication and improving "the scientific basis for decisionmaking on environmental issues." The Institute would have four components: a Center for Environmental Assessment "to undertake comprehensive assessments of the current state of knowledge of environmental issues", a research directorate to award peer-reviewed grants for extramural scientific research, a National Library for the Environment, and a directorate for education and training. One of the key aspects of the NIE proposal is that the agency would be run by a Board of Governors composed equally of nonfederal scientists and users of environmental data.

The NIE would most likely incorporate the research functions currently in EPA as well as many other agencies, but which ones and to what degree? For example, both the National Biological Service and the U.S. Geological Survey perform environmental research. What about them? H.R. 2827 does not state which programs should be transferred to NIE but requires the President to submit legislation within a year of the bill's enactment proposing appropriate functions that fit the NIE mission, are nonregulatory, and support extramural, interdisciplinary scientific research.

The first step for any bill is to have a legislative hearing called by the chairman of a committee or subcommittee. Although Saxton chairs the Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans subcommittee of the House Committee on Resources, this bill was referred to the Committee on Science and its Energy and Environment subcommittee chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Nevertheless, a Saxton staffer was quoted in the December 22 issue of Science as saying that the bill could make it through the Science Committee and be sent to the full House as early as this spring.

Such a prognosis clearly sounds overly optimistic given the fact that environmental legislation has been bottled up in both this Congress and the last. Saxton argues, however, that "the NIE fits in with Republican principles -- making government work better, cheaper, and more efficiently with smarter regulations and sound science." Similar arguments have been employed by Republican supporters of risk assessment measures proposed as part of regulatory reform. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) supported Saxton's NIE bill in the last Congress.

Republicans are also concerned by the Democrats' success at portraying them as "anti-environment" at a time when voters overwhelmingly see themselves (however vaguely) as "pro-environment". Congressional leaders are eager to pass some environmental legislation so that they can portray themselves during the election campaign as proponents of rational environmental laws. Efforts are expected this spring to push through reauthorization of the CERCLA/Superfund law and possibly revisit regulatory reform. In such a climate, the NIE legislation may be viewed as an easy win since it does not require additional funding and would reduce funding for EPA, long a source of ire for conservatives.

The Administration's response to H.R. 2827 has been lukewarm at best. This February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Baltimore, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere James Baker expressed support for the NIE's goals but was skeptical whether a new government agency was the solution. He expressed concern that creating NIE would do nothing more than shuffle boxes around with no real impact. Administration officials have argued for some time that the Office of Science and Technology Policy already serves as a "virtual agency" coordinating the work of various federal science agencies.

AGI has sought to remain constructively involved in the effort to establish the NIE. Responding to a request from CNIE, AGI convened a workshop last spring that resulted in a white paper entitled The Role of the Earth Sciences in the National Institute for the Environment. Prepared under the auspices of AGI's Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee, the paper reflects AGI's concern that geoscience-based components were not being fully integrated into the plans for the NIE, which were primarily directed by the life-science community. The paper stresses the importance of earth science in NIE focus areas such as global climate change and measuring sustainable resources. In addition, the paper suggests additional focus areas including natural background levels of contaminatnts, soil diversity issues, and western water resources.

Although it is not clear that this document resulted in changes to the NIE proposal, AGI again responded to a CNIE request in December, writing letters to members of the House Science subcommittee on Energy and Environment asking them to co-sponsor H.R. 2827 with the caveat that AGI "conceptually supports the mission and goals of the NIE and will work to ensure that the NIE addresses the contributions that the earth sciences must make in addressing environmental issues."

Those seeking to establish NIE may find a cautionary tale in the difficulties faced by the nonregulatory (and soon to be eliminated as an independent agency) National Biological Service, which became a congressional hot potato when when it sought formal authorization. Supporters argue that the agency became a lightning rod for growing opposition to restrictive environmental laws but that few would contest its stated purpose -- separating scientific research from regulatory authority. If they are correct, then the 104th Congress may indeed turn the NIE into a reality.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

(Sources for this article include the Committee for the National Institute for the Environment. The text of H.R. 2827 along with a legislative history and digest are available on AGI's home page and gopher site, as is a copy of the AGI White Paper on the role of earth sciences in the NIE.)

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