Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE  June 1998 

NSF Says No to Institute for the Environment

By David Applegate

When Congress passed the annual appropriations bill that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF) last October, it instructed NSF to "study how it would establish and operate" a National Institute for the Environment (NIE). The request was the culmination of long-standing efforts to create an institute that would improve the scientific basis for environmental decision-making. As described in the request, such an institute would be nonregulatory, funding "ongoing knowledge assessments, extramural research, on-line information dissemination, and education and training through a competitive peer- reviewed process."

Until this past year, NIE supporters had sought to create a stand-alone, nonregulatory environmental agency, and authorization bills were introduced in each of the last two Congresses by Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.). In an era of smaller government, however, creating new agencies ran counter to the political tides, and the concept of creating NIE within the National Science Foundation represented a tactical retreat. Both the study request and a new authorization bill, introduced by Saxton and Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) in November, reflected the new tactic. The retreat is a small one -- the authorization bill, H.R. 2914, makes clear that the NIE would be virtually autonomous within NSF, with its own governing board and administrative authority.

The first signal of how NSF would react to the congressional request came this March, when the National Science Board (NSB) -- NSF's governing body issued a resolution opposing the plan. While agreeing that there is a need for expanded environmental research, education, and assessment, the resolution concludes that "a separate entity would not be an effective means of achieving the intellectual goals connected with the proposed NIE." Two reasons were given: A separate institute could isolate environmental research from other research areas and would duplicate existing structures.

The NSF study -- released in late April -- makes the same basic points, arguing that the NIE goals can best be achieved through improvements in existing mechanisms for interagency cooperation. The study calls for a "National Science and Technology Strategy for the Environment" to strengthen coordination of the estimated $5 billion per year that the federal government spends on environmental research and development. This coordination should be provided by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), operating through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The study also concludes that the autonomous nature of the NIE would duplicate existing management functions in NSF, resulting in additional costs.

NIE Politics
NIE supporters, both on and off the Hill, have been quick to decry the NSB resolution and the NSF study. The Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE), which has operated as a sort of shadow NIE for the past five years, blasted the resolution and study for failing to comply with the congressional request. Saxton and Abercrombie wrote to NSF that "Congress clearly directed the NSF to prepare a report as to how it would incorporate an NIE, not whether it would do so."

While the study was underway, CNIE enlisted NSF's primary constituency -- the university community -- as well as a key Republican constituency -- the business community -- to lobby NSF. In January, the presidents and chancellors of 146 colleges and universities wrote to NSF in support of the NIE proposal, urging the agency to "be bold and enthusiastic." CNIE also arranged for a letter from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be sent to NSF that portrayed federal environmental research as "fragmented and ineffective" and presented NIE as "a lasting mechanism to link credible science to sensible environmental decisions."

Not surprisingly, CNIE's efforts to court the congressional majority have not done much to improve the administration's support, which has never risen above tepid. The NSF study reflects the administration view that environmental issues must be addressed in a coordinated interagency fashion, with coordination provided by the NSTC.

Mixed Reviews
Despite assurances in H.R. 2914 that no money will be taken from existing NSF programs to fund the NIE, many scientists are concerned that in practice NIE would do just that, replacing broad investigator-driven grants with highly focused calls for specific research.

In expressing concern over possible isolation of environmental research, the NSF study emphasizes the need to involve all science and engineering disciplines, reflecting ongoing concerns that NIE's focus was almost exclusively on the life sciences. In 1995, AGI's Environmental Geoscience Advisory Committee developed a white paper on the role of the earth sciences in an NIE, addressing focus areas such as global change and sustainability, and suggesting additional focus areas such as water resources and soil diversity.

A major bone of contention for the geoscience community is the plan to create a national library for the environment as part of NIE. Today, the U.S. Geological Survey's library is the de facto national library for the environment and natural resources. With the inclusion of biologists into the USGS, the library could, if properly supported, grow to fully deserve such a title. At a time when many in our community are concerned about the future of this invaluable but endangered resource, the NIE proposal could further marginalize the USGS library.

Right Goal, Wrong Mechanism?
The NSF study correctly credits NIE proponents with focusing attention on the need for increased research into environmental problems. To take an example from AGI's 1995 report, the lack of basic understanding on natural background levels of contaminants is just one area in which improved understanding could lead to more effective allocation of expenditures for environmental cleanups. Moreover, CNIE has done an excellent job of reminding policy-makers and scientists alike that without adequate dissemination mechanisms and better communication, the best science will have no effect on the policy- making process.

Congress must now decide whether to accept NSF's conclusions or to move forward despite them. Bold action is needed to improve scientific input into environmental decision making, but NSF is justifiably reluctant to become the chosen vehicle. As the concept of an NIE has evolved from simply research to more user-oriented assessment and dissemination functions, NSF should be a key partner but not the institution housing such an entity. The NIE debate represents an excellent opportunity to reassess and bolster interagency coordination through the National Science and Technology Council, which has demonstrated its potential with the current natural disaster initiative. By constructing a "virtual" NIE from new and existing components, properly staffed and funded, the administration can ensure that the results of relevant, useful, and multidisciplinary environmental research are brought to bear on the environmental challenges ahead.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program
For more information on this topic, including AGI's 1995 white paper, visit

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