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Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment (1993)

Chapter:3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs

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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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3
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF CURRENT FEDERAL ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH PROGRAMS

This chapter assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the current federally supported environmental research effort and evaluates its success in responding to some of the needs identified in Chapter 2. This assessment is illustrative but not comprehensive, given the large number of fields of science and engineering–such as chemistry, mathematics, water resources, and marine biology–that are important to the understanding and solution of environmental problems but that cannot be encompassed in this brief report. Appendix A describes the environmental research programs of federal agencies.

On the basis of the assessment presented here, Chapter 4 describes the desirable characteristics of a federal environmental program. Chapter 5 then proposes cultural and organizational changes to deal with the deficiencies identified here.

CREATING THE KNOWLEDGE NECESSARY TO CHARACTERIZE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS AND CHALLENGES

A body of knowledge about environmental issues must be generated to enable us to interact with the environment so that it continues to provide resources and amenities for humans and retains its functional characteristics for the benefit of future generations. This is a difficult task because the sun, atmosphere, oceans, earth, and ecological systems are all individually complex, and their interactions are even more complex.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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GLOBAL ATMOSPHERIC, OCEANIC, AND EARTH SYSTEM

The atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial systems interact with one another and with organisms in complex ways to produce the richly varied environment that supports all life, including our own. Until recently, scientific studies have concentrated primarily on processes in each of these sectors separately because of the need to understand simpler pieces before tackling the larger system.

How Well Are We Doing?

Much is known about the earth and its space environment as a result of investigations extending over centuries. We know about the general magnitude and quality of changes in the physical environment that have occurred over the history of the planet, and we can make some projections about what might happen in the future. But our knowledge is still sparse. Although we are beginning to have some success in predicting large-scale phenomena, such as El Niño, many months in advance, we can predict local weather patterns with useful accuracy only a few days in advance. We still know little about how the oceans work–how their chemical, biological, and physical processes interact. Vast areas of the oceans remain unmeasured in any systematic way, and we have little idea of the long-term variability of marine systems. We have good observations of the surface geology of the earth, but we have only a few samples from below the surface, most of them from shallow depths. Our knowledge of the interior of the earth comes almost exclusively from indirect measurements.

New insights from research and new technology, such as accurate chemical techniques and satellite imagery, supported by powerful computers, have given us the ability to view the earth with greater comprehension. During the last two decades, the atmospheric, oceanic, and geophysical communities have developed coordinated global research programs that use the new insights and technology that are now available. Examples of such programs are the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), the International Ocean Drilling Program (begun in 1968), the Global Atmospheric Research Program (begun in 1979), and the World Climate Research Program and International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (begun in the 1980s) (Fleagle, 1992).

The federal government has provided considerable support for research on the physical and chemical components of the global system, but good ideas

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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for productive research outstrip the available support. Shortfalls in funding have already affected the global nature of some programs and could impair our ability to develop global data sets critical for sensing long-term trends and for testing hypotheses. Moreover, the present structure for funding science in the United States is not well organized to support U.S. contributions to international programs.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Global environmental research programs are costly, because they require expensive technology–such as satellites, weather stations, ships, and supercomputers–and dedicated personnel. In addition, to enable trends to be distinguished from normal environmental variability, long-term data sets are required. Such requirements make it difficult for this type of research to compete effectively for funding. Long-term monitoring inevitably appears less exciting than research designed to test new hypotheses. Only recently has the value of long-term research been recognized by the scientific community, Congress, or the funding agencies. And no federal agency has been given a mandate, accompanied by appropriate resources, to support long-term, large-scale research on the global environment.

ECOLOGY

Ecological research has the potential to make major contributions to our understanding of the ability of the environment to sustain human activities and populations of other species in the long term. Among the many themes of ecological research, five were identified as especially important by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (ESA, 1991):

  • Ecological causes and consequences of changes in climate, soil, water chemistry, and land-use patterns.

  • Ecological determinants and consequences of biodiversity and the effects of global and regional change on biological diversity.

  • Definition and detection of stress in natural and managed ecosystems.

  • Restoration of damaged systems.

  • Management of pests, pathogens, and disease on a sustainable basis.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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How Well Are We Doing?

Ecological science is unable to provide answers to the key questions posed by ESA. Not only are the underlying processes complex, but they must be studied at different spatial and temporal scales. For example, we must be able to understand how changes in the physical environment affect individual leaves and then extrapolate what we learn to effects on whole plants, interactions among plants, and vegetation dynamics. In addition, we need to consider different species, many of which are as yet undescribed and each of which has unique responses and its own relevant scales of space and time. We need to understand how important are species differences for the behavior of larger-scale systems.

Because dominant organisms in many ecosystems, such as trees, in forests are long-lived, many important ecosystem changes are too slow for us to sense directly. Our abilities to interpret slowly-occurring cause-effect relationships are even less developed. Therefore, processes acting over decades are hidden and reside in what has been called the invisible present (Magnuson, 1990). In the invisible present, one finds the time scales of acid precipitation, the invasion of nonnative plants and animals, the introduction of synthetic chemicals, and carbon dioxide-induced climate warming. Only long-term, sustained research can reveal the slow but important changes of the invisible present, but such studies are rare. The Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is an unusual example of a program designed to investigate long-term processes (Callahan, 1984). It is still a relatively young program, but it has already made important contributions to our understanding of responses of watersheds to disturbance, lake acidification, wood decomposition, and modeling of ecosystem processes (Franklin et al., 1990).

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

The unsatisfactory state of current ecological science reflects both the complexity of the processes it studies and the relatively low level of funding that has been allocated to ecology. Shortage of funds has resulted in intense competition between the still-needed small-scale, investigator-initiated research and large-scale, and often multi-investigator, long-term research. Until recently, computational power was insufficient to handle the complex data sets being generated by ecologists.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Ecologists traditionally have concentrated their attention on small-scale processes and have seldom continued experiments or observations for long periods. A review of ecological experiments conducted from January 1980 to January 1987 found that 50% of all studies were done on plots less than 1 m in diameter and 25% on plots less than 25 cm in diameter (Kareiva and Anderson, 1988). In addition, 40% of ecological experiments lasted less than 1 year and only 7% 5 years or more (Tilman, 1989). Large-scale and long-term experiments were often deemed too expensive relative to the resources available to support ecological research. Consequently, the field was unprepared intellectually to respond to challenges of global research. This problem is fortunately diminishing rapidly. Nonetheless, support for long-term research is still meager, and ecologists still have only modest ties with the physical scientists with whom they must interact if they are to deal effectively with regional and global problems.

BIODIVERSITY

Research on biodiversity provides basic information on the earth's biota–its taxonomy, distribution, uses for human society, management, and contribution to ecosystem services. Biodiversity has genetic, taxonomic, and ecological components (Appendix B). The study of biodiversity should do for biology what the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) does for geology, that is, the study can provide better knowledge about biological resources and thus increase society's ability to realize economic benefits from those resources (e.g., natural-products development and tourism), improve conservation practices, and promote better appreciation of the full range of benefits that can be derived from the biological resources of the country.

Research priorities in biodiversity need to be set and continually influenced by four groups of people: users of biotic resources, those concerned with protecting it, scientists, and those responsible for setting policy (for land use, water resources, etc.). Biodiversity research requires a long-term perspective and sustained funding because the tasks of description and inventory are complex and because monitoring of trends must continue for many years to reveal useful patterns. The infrastructure elements required by research on biodiversity include museums, specimen-based databases, and data synthesis. Also critical are systematists and taxonomists qualified to identify and classify specimens, especially of the more difficult and special taxa.

The components of a successful program of biodiversity research include

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×
  • Intellectual and financial input from the users of biodiversity.

  • Flow of data from generators of the data (taxonomists, conservation biologists, ecologists, ethnobiologists, and natural-products chemists) to users (agriculturalists and bioengineers).

  • Inclusion of local people in research and development opportunities.

  • Long-term funding of field research and monitoring.

  • Financial support of maintenance of collections.

How Well Are We Doing?

The United States has only a few scattered centers of research on biodiversity. As recognized by several reports, including an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) report commissioned by Congress (OTA, 1987) and the report of the National Commission on the Environment (NCE, 1993), there is a need for centralized research planning, for assembling and synthesizing existing information, and for making information more accessible to policy-makers. The Smithsonian Institution performs some research in biodiversity, but its programs are not centrally planned. For most biodiversity programs, there is no connection between research and policy needs and little integration between fields of study (even between ecology and systematics, both of which are performed within the same institution but largely in different laboratories). University research in biodiversity is difficult because funding cycles are too short.

There is no national data center or network for biodiversity, as there is for medicine and several physical environmental disciplines. USGS and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration conceptually include biological data in some of their plans, but they do not have the staffing or the resources to place a high priority on biodiversity data-collecting or even on building a database of databases. Several conservation organizations, state agencies, and the Fish and Wildlife Service have databases on endangered taxa and environments, but they are necessarily narrowly focused and often developed from secondary sources. One of the greatest needs for biodiversity research is to provide quality data to state agencies continuously. Research institutions are becoming overwhelmed by requests for biodiversity data and lack the resources to support their activities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a germplasm program that concentrates on wild relatives of crop plants. Collection of germplasm of plants that are not agriculturally important has little support and depends primarily on volunteer centers, such as the Center for Plant Conservation, and

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×

botanical gardens. Zoos, a few museums, and such institutions as the American Type Culture Collection (a private, not-for-profit research and culture-distribution center) hold animal and microbial germplasm. However, all have resources inadequate to cover demands made on them for research and conservation purposes.

There is potential industrial support of research on biodiversity, but the sums involved are small. Some pharmaceutical companies are engaged in prospecting for natural products. Most tropical countries receive no payment from prospecting within their boundaries, but Merck Pharmaceutical Company recently signed an agreement with Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity to share in the costs of exploration for and benefits of the marketing of useful natural products; the agreement has attracted much international attention, but it is too early to evaluate the long-term potential of such arrangements.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

The serious underfunding of biodiversity research is due, in part, to a lack of public appreciation of the importance of knowledge about biodiversity. Within the biological sciences, taxonomy and systematics have been overshadowed by the spectacular successes of molecular biology and have been crowded out of biology departments at many leading research universities. Many universities have found it difficult to continue supporting museums and herbariums during times of fiscal stringency. Therefore, although there is now increasing recognition of the importance of biodiversity research, the United States lacks a sufficient cadre of trained taxonomists, has inadequate and insufficiently curated collections, and is confronted with huge backlogs of specimens waiting to be identified or described as new species.

ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING

Engineering research is needed to develop new environmental-control and pollution-prevention technologies, advances in process-engineering concepts and techniques that are pollution-free, recycling technologies, resource-conservation methods, and energy-efficient technologies. The need for research and related technological advances is important because of global population growth and the related drive to increase the developing world's standard of living. Because the costs of pollution control are projected to be

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×

high–approaching $200 million annually in the year 2000 in the United States alone–it is important to find low-cost methods of preventing or minimizing pollution (Carlin, 1990). The currently known methods are inadequate and expensive, and additional investments in research and development will return substantial economic benefits. Engineering solutions coupled with better approaches to public participation and communication might lead to increased public acceptance of environmentally benign technologies.

How Well Are We Doing?

Some critical technologies are being developed by the private sector. For example, decreasing the emission of pollutants by a process is often possible through process changes and material substitutions. Secondary pollution effects can be reduced in some industries by creating more efficient manufacturing or pollution-control technologies, which might, for example, require much less energy. If industry can capture the economic benefits of those technologies, no government incentives are needed to encourage them. However, development of new technologies is usually possible only for large companies. The aggregate of small entrepreneurs (e.g., metal platers, dry-cleaners, and farmers) generates substantial environmental pollution, but such firms individually do not have the means to undertake cost-effective research. They need a government-organized effort to create new effective, efficient, and economical pollution-prevention and pollution-control technologies. Government programs have so far been inadequate to the task. Indeed, creating incentives to develop better pollution-control technologies has received a low priority in the federal government for many years.

Dealing with hazardous materials, solid wastes, waste-treatment residues, and radioactive wastes already released into the environment will require substantial local, regional, state, and national programs. Superfund and its parallels in state governments, Department of Energy (DOE) cleanups, underground storage tanks, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act actions, and radioactive-waste disposal programs are estimated to cost thousands of billions of dollars. Not one of these problems has adequate technology to meet the needs of our nation, let alone of a growing world population. Breakthrough research is essential, if the collective costs of these programs are ultimately to be affordable.

Municipalities face serious environmental problems in dealing with human wastes, especially because higher population densities require higher levels of treatment to keep discharges within the capacities of the receiving

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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environments. Municipalities also need better methods of detecting and treating toxic substances and nutrients. Every 2 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes a list of needs for publicly owned treatment plants in the United States. The cost of those needs for the coming decade is estimated at about $100 billion. Timely research in those issues alone could save hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of pollution-control facilities over the next several decades and potentially enable local and state governments to improve environmental quality and public health at substantially lower cost.

Most of the engineering research needed to develop technologies to solve pollution problems is not being conducted. Much of the mission-oriented engineering research of federal agencies appears to be overlapping; good interagency communication is lacking, there is little peer review by outside scientists and engineers, and results are not adequately diffused to the governments, firms, and citizens most likely to use them.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

No federal agency has a central mandate to foster pollution-control research and development of suitable control technologies. Because the United States has relied almost exclusively on a regulatory command and control approach to environmental pollution, the private sector perceives little incentive to invest in development of cleanup technologies from which a direct economic benefit appears unlikely. Therefore, the task of carrying out most pollution-prevention research has been thrust on federal agencies whose primary responsibilities are to promulgate and enforce regulations. Resources have been insufficient to address even the regulatory component of their responsibilities, and there is little money to devote to pollution prevention. In addition, in contrast with the governments of Japan and Germany, the U.S. government has little appreciation of the global market for pollution-prevention technologies.

SOCIAL SCIENCES

Although many environmental problems are the result of natural disasters, most are created by human activities. Attempts to solve the latter kind are at bottom experiments in political science, economics, psychology, and sociology. Many proposed solutions to environmental problems require

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×

changes in human behavior, and they suggest methods by which behavior can or should be changed (persuasion, economic incentives, or prohibitions). The natural environment and the activities of humans that modify it have been studied to different degrees by the social-science disciplines. We briefly summarize below their contributions to knowledge as related to environmental policy and environmental studies.

  • Geography. Geography is in many respects the oldest environmental science, and its practitioners combine both natural-science and social-science expertise in how human activities and the natural world are organized spatially. Geographers have pioneered in studies of deforestation and other changes in land use. Geographers have invented the mapping techniques that underlie the collection of spatially organized information, and they are playing a central role in the development of spatial databases, known as Geographic Information Systems (GISs). Scholars in geography have pioneered humanistic studies of ''sense of place," an interdisciplinary focus on the philosophical, historical, and psychological elements of human attachment to particular landscapes. Because geography as a discipline naturally crosses the intellectual boundaries of both the natural and the social sciences, many contributions to environmental research that have geographic components, such as regional economic models, also appear within other disciplines. The interdisciplinary character of the field might also contribute to the tendency of geography to be underrepresented in higher education–indeed, many institutions have no department of geography.

  • Economics. The economic study of environmental and natural-resource problems is a well-established discipline with a clear framework of assumptions and methods. Research in environmental economics has made important and widespread contributions to public policy, particularly the application of cost-benefit analyses of government decision-making. These contributions have included cost-benefit analyses in support of government rule-making and decision-making and in analyses of other governments' taxation policies as they apply to taxes on atmospheric emissions. Economic studies of the role of technology in shifting the value and use of resources provide important insights into the origin and development of human uses and abuses of natural resources.

  • Decision sciences. Two decision sciences, operations research and risk analysis, are particularly pertinent for the environmental sciences. Operations research is a formal approach for analyzing information. It has been used effectively in selecting chemicals that require further research and in selecting environmental projects to fund with a diminished overall budget.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Risk analysis is a hybrid discipline that combines the individualist framework of economics with a set of statistical tools to analyze rational choices in the face of uncertainty. Risk analysis provides a rubric within which EPA proposes to set priorities for all its regulatory and research activities. Risk analysis has been applied to human-health issues. It involves the combined use of data from many sources–such as atmospheric emission, resident population, costs of preferred control technologies, and statistical analyses–to estimate the potential impact of an exposure on human populations and to develop alternative management approaches. Ecological risk assessment, an evolving interest of several agencies, is not yet as well developed as risk assessment for human health (NRC, 1993a).

  • Political science. Investigations of government, politics, and law are a central component of environmental research. Environmental law has emerged as a distinct specialty in law schools and in legal practice. Its research tradition has been eclectic, following both legal and substantive changes in policy as the environmental roles of government have taken shape in case law, statute, and regulation. Political science has contributed analyses of the environmental, economic, and institutional conditions under which the users of "common pool" natural resources–including water, air, land, and marine resources–are able to develop durable practices and rules for managing and sustaining those resources.

  • Sociology. Studies of community structure and social responses to rapid change have been widely used in environmental-impact analyses, for example, to illuminate human responses to the construction of large facilities in rural areas. Sociologists have also probed the processes by which fears of environmental degradation arise. Sociological studies have emphasized the complexities of risk analysis and the ideologically loaded assumptions that underlie its theory and often its application as well. Rural sociology as a discipline forms an influential link between environmental studies and the applied social sciences related to agriculture.

  • Anthropology. The study of humans from an ecological perspective provides an important conceptual link between social and natural sciences by dealing with how humans take part in the cycles and changes of the natural world. Although anthropological theory has not yet had a large direct influence on environmental policy, anthropological and historical analyses of societies that declined because their economies were not sustainable over the long term have shaped contemporary thinking about the purpose of having environmental policies. Anthropologists are also beginning to work with botanists and others to understand historically and prehistorically stable agricultural systems in fragile ecosystems, such as tropical forests and dry habitats.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×
  • Psychology. The study of what motivates human behavior and how it can be changed–a basic concern of psychology–is central to much of environmental policy. Explicitly or implicitly, environmental laws assume the efficacy of particular methods of altering human behavior. The analysis of risk also involves applied psychology–the examination of how concerns are valued when an expensive outcome is not certain to occur. Cognitive psychologists have discovered over the last 20 years, for example, that there are systematic biases in how humans perceive probabilistic occurrences. These biases, which are likely to be a side effect of how humans manage their lives in a complex world, suggest that policies that rely on busy, underinformed people to make fine discriminations are likely to fail or even to be counterproductive.

How Well Are We Doing?

The effects of social-science research on human behavior and policy are largely indirect for two reasons: the way in which values and value conflicts enter studies of human activities and the reluctance of policy analysts and policy-makers to engage directly with the human causes of environmental problems. The physical and biological sciences spawn technological applications whose utility can be foreseen, at least in part, in the laboratory. The social sciences have shaped the conceptual ground on which human action is played out but have not necessarily provided tools and tactics to rechannel those actions. Nevertheless, the social sciences are essential as an intellectual foundation. One cannot imagine the human community without using notions like self, power, and collective interest that have been studied by social scientists. However, the fundamental concepts of the social sciences are characteristically intertwined with value premises. As a result, the basic propositions of any social science are bound to express value commitments, either implicitly or explicitly. Given the variety of human circumstances and histories, value commitments are inherently controversial. Scientific consensus lags, not because there is no applicable scientific method, but because truth in the scientific sense is not the only aspect of most social studies. Therefore, the instances in which social science has produced effective social engineering remain few, and that situation is likely to persist.

Even in the absence of social engineering, however, social science provides essential substantive information on the magnitudes and historical dynamics of population growth and migration, economic development, political behavior, and technological change–forces that shape the human imprint on the natural world in fundamental, large-scale ways. Each of these forces has

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×

been studied in different academic disciplines: population in sociology, development in economics and political science, and technological change in history and economics. Because universities and professional associations have been organized principally along departmental lines, there has usually not been a single organizational focus for assembling such information into a body of knowledge clearly identifiable as environmental social science.

Moreover, in a society that puts high value on both individual freedom and technological capability, the idea of altering human behavior to solve the collective problems of environmental quality has often seemed less acceptable than finding technological substitutes or palliatives. For that reason, the fragmentation of the universities has not been countered by environmental research in the social sciences sponsored by either government or the private sector. More recently, as such issues as changes in the constitution of the atmosphere or loss of biodiversity in tropical nations have arisen, it has become clear that global environmental problems, like the "nonpoint" problems that have defied technological cures in the United States, raise unavoidable questions about how changes in human behavior can be attained in ways that are fair and efficient. The contributions to understanding that can be realized by simply bringing together what we already know–and those who already know it–have begun to gain attention in government.

As concluded by the Committee on Human Dimensions of Global Change, there is "an almost complete mismatch between the roster of federal agencies that support research on global change and the roster of agencies with strong capabilities in social science" (NRC, 1993b, p. 232). There is a similar mismatch between the roster of federal agencies with environmental responsibilities and the roster of agencies with strong capabilities in social science. The failure to support or organize environmental social science is deeply structural.

Environmental social-science research is scattered across many agencies under many labels. There is consistent effort in agricultural economics and extension, energy-consumption surveys, use of national parks and rangelands, and social-impact assessments of government projects. But in no mission agency is such research integrated well into high-level research planning. Although it is difficult to obtain reliable numbers, because social-science research has many labels, it is doubtful that any federal mission agency devotes as much as 1% of its research budget to environmental social science. It is usually no one's job to ask such broad questions as "How can we improve methods for assessing the social, economic, and environmental consequences of environmental policies?" or "What knowledge base do we need to predict the response of industry X to new environmental incentives or regulations or

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×

to price changes for energy or other natural resources?" When good environmental social-science research is carried out, it is usually despite incentives for short-time goals and the bolstering of political agendas.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Many factors have resulted in chronic underinvestment in environmental social science. The inherently value-laden component of social-science research and its attendant controversies are clearly part of the problem. The agencies that most need social-science research tend to have cultures that are unreceptive to social science; social-science research has never been a central part of the mission of these agencies. Moreover, the utility of social-science research depends on informed communication between physical scientists and social scientists–an interchange that is all too rare on university campuses, let alone in federal agencies. Many aspects of environmental social-science research pertain broadly to the missions of various agencies. Thus, no agency perceives such research to be central to its particular mission. That is a good formula for activities to fall into the cracks between agencies. Because many of the topics not only cut across agency missions but also require a cumulative base of knowledge, it is perhaps not surprising that mission-oriented agencies have not been a supportive home for environmental social-science research.

ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING

Research programs constitute only one way to understand the global environment. Also needed is a monitoring system that can provide early warnings of changes of regional and global importance. The general goal of monitoring is to provide quantitative or qualitative data to document the state of systems over time. A number of objectives are served by different types of monitoring:

  • Trend monitoring. Measurements made at regular intervals to determine long-term trends in particular characteristics.

  • Baseline monitoring. Measurements to determine existing conditions and to establish a database for planning and for comparison with future states of the system.

  • Implementation monitoring. Measurements to assess whether management activities were carried out as planned or mandated.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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  • Effectiveness monitoring. Measurements designed to evaluate whether a specific management activity had or is having the desired effect.

For a monitoring program to be successful, there must be a clear definition of its purposes, what is being measured, why, and for how long. The questions to be answered or the hypotheses to be tested must be clearly stated. Oversight of the monitoring program–including planning, implementation, and evaluation phases–by scientists who are interested in the goals of the program is essential. Because trends can be detected only with long-term measurements, a monitoring program requires reliable funding, institutional stability, and continuing quality control and evaluation.

An effective and cost-effective environmental monitoring program is important, because billions of dollars are spent each year in the United States alone on environmental research and on setting and implementing environmental policies and regulations. Compliance with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization of CERCLA Act–to name only a few–has forced many businesses and consumers to spend further large amounts. Whereas it is clear that some of those expenditures represent the internalization of environmental costs (i.e., the operator, instead of society at large, pays for the cost of environmental damage), it is also clear that some of the money is being misspent or wasted. For example, a recent National Research Council (NRC) report, Rethinking the Ozone Problem in Urban and Regional Air Pollution (NRC, 1992a), suggests that, whereas some regulations designed to control ozone should be strengthened, others are ineffective and should be relaxed or abandoned. Many other NRC reports (e.g., Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Problem-Solving, 1986; Adequacy of Environmental Information for OCS Oil and Gas Decisions: Florida and California , 1989a; and Managing Troubled Waters: The Role of Marine Environmental Monitoring, 1990a) emphasize the importance of monitoring to assess the effects of projects, the effectiveness of policies and regulations, and the high costs of failing to monitor adequately.

How Well Are We Doing?

Monitoring and the institutional structures needed to support it cannot be evaluated with a single assessment, because monitoring serves a variety of purposes and the types of monitoring differ in the quality and quantity of their

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×

applications. Implementation monitoring raises no conceptual problems, but funds typically are not available to do it properly. Only a few long-term measurements of environmental processes have been established. Global measurements of sea level were begun in the nineteenth century, measurements of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the late 1950s, and measurements of ozone concentrations in the 1980s. Those few long-term data sets have already played key roles in alerting humanity to impending serious problems.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires that environmental-impact statements (EISs) be developed for any proposed major federal action. New developments are, in effect, large-scale experiments being performed on the nation's environment. The EIS process does not take full cognizance of that fact and so does not take advantage of an opportunity to learn from the "experiment." The EIS is designed as a disclosure statement that is part of the legal process for commencing action on a project. It has become a document that provides a snapshot of current environmental conditions and projects the potential for impacts on the environment if a particular course of action is pursued. Unlike other environmental regulations that require continuous monitoring, the EIS has no required followup. As a result, no coherent body of information is being generated that can lead to a comparison of predicted environmental effects of construction and operation with actual effects. We seldom learn what effects the projects cause, and we enter the next, similar project no better informed as to the likely consequences of developments than we were previously. Fundamental changes in EIS procedures, requirements, and goals are needed to increase the rate at which we learn from these experiments, which are repeatedly performed on the environment.

Trend monitoring and baseline monitoring are chronically underfunded in the United States, and existing institutions are poorly designed to support and strengthen them. Mission-oriented agencies are repeatedly deflected by the "crisis-of-the-month" syndrome, which siphons resources away from long-term programs. Basic funding agencies, such as NSF, while paying lip service to the value of long-term monitoring, usually find imaginative, new, "pioneering" projects more exciting to support than long-term monitoring programs. The scientific panels that evaluate proposals are strongly attracted to innovative proposals.

Existing institutions have tapped to only a small extent the rich resource provided by the many concerned and talented amateurs who could usefully be incorporated into a monitoring effort. Amateur climatologists have made long-term observations of weather (temperature and precipitation) for scores of years, and these records are very valuable. Amateur bird-watchers have

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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provided long-term data on breeding and wintering bird populations; these data are used extensively to monitor range expansions and population increases and declines. The advantages of using amateurs include great reductions in the cost of gathering data and the political capital flowing from their increased awareness of and sense of involvement in a clearly identified national program. The costs include establishment and maintenance of a complex network and the need to provide regular reports to participants to sustain their involvement.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Monitoring is often viewed as a pedestrian activity with little intellectual challenge. Consequently, little attention has been paid to design of monitoring programs and statistical analyses of the data they generate. Programs of baseline and trend monitoring are difficult to sustain, because they require insulation from political concerns and influences of the moment, long-term stability of funding, capacity to store and synthesize data, and an ability to communicate synthesized information regularly to users.

Several barriers to success in current monitoring programs are evident. First, the institutions with responsibilities for baseline and trend monitoring lack sufficient scientific credentials and are not well buffered against environmental and political crises. Some of them have the conflicting missions to assess environmental changes and to establish and enforce environmental regulations.

Second, current institutions carrying out monitoring activity find it difficult to attract and maintain sufficient internal expertise and to take advantage of the expertise of the broad scientific community. Wise use of intramural and extramural scientific expertise is essential, because the environmental processes and products that could be monitored are virtually infinite. Careful thought must be given to determining which information would best inform society of important environmental changes to which more detailed attention should be directed. Indeed, long-term monitoring programs should be initiated only after extensive review and evaluation to determine the feasibility, reliability, and utility of various measurements that might be made.

Third, there is a general failure to recognize the importance of monitoring, the wide variety of purposes it serves, and the necessary conditions for its functioning. Such lack of understanding of monitoring accounts for its underfunding and for the failure to establish appropriate

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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institutions to perform it. Because this barrier is primarily an informational one, its solution requires education of appropriate decision-makers.

In addition to assembling data already collected, the monitoring of important social indicators, such as the extent and condition of land under cultivation in countries susceptible to famine, appears likely to yield useful results for both policy and basic research in the near term. As discussed above, it is important to define monitoring carefully and skeptically, because information-collection costs can mount swiftly without timely administrative review of the utility of what is being collected.

CREATING AND MANAGING INFORMATION SYSTEMS

A system must be provided for storing information, coordinating databases, analyzing information, monitoring data quality, and identifying potentially useful databases that are not yet being assembled. Such capability is necessary to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts, ensure comparability and quality of data, assist in the massive job of synthesizing large data sets, and make information readily available to all appropriate users. All too often, data sets are collected at great expense and then not used at all or not used to their full potential. As a consequence, environmental decisions are made without the benefit of valuable existing information that could and should inform them.

The ingredients of a good information system are the following:

  • Involvement of information producers and users in the development of all aspects of the system, including design of experiments, quality control, interpretation and archiving of data, and design of systems to permit easy access to the data.

  • Either a central facility connected to a network of users who can gain access to the data remotely or a distributed network.

  • Definition of "community" and "individual" data sets. Those who collected the data should have some period of preferred status to analyze and publish their results, but after a reasonable time (1-2 years) the data sets should be available to the full user community.

  • Standardization of formats or use of "self-describing" data sets through user-friendly software.

  • A steering committee composed of knowledgeable scientists to oversee production, archiving, and use of the data.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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  • Quality control for the accuracy of the data.

  • Availability of funds to analyze archived data and to collect new data.

How Well Are We Doing?

No coordinated system exists to store, synthesize, and distribute data in many important fields of environmental science, such as biodiversity and environmental biology (OTA, 1987). Data from many reports and environmental-impact assessments go unused. The 1987 Office of Technology Assessment report on biodiversity listed only federal sources of data and not data from other sources. Environmental biological data are housed by individual university and institute researchers. Data-sharing is often based on personal research ties. Museums and related natural-history institutions also house large data banks on identity, relationships, and distributions of organisms, but much of the information stored in collections is yet to be captured electronically. Federal-agency databases are scattered and are adapted for narrow, mission-oriented purposes. Their quality is variable and often hard to assess, and they are not readily available to extra-agency users. The Association of Ecosystem Research Centers has called for establishment of a new center for analysis of ecological data.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Until recently, computers were not powerful enough for scientists or teams of scientists to handle massive data sets. The capacity to do so developed much more rapidly than the institutional arrangements to facilitate collection, storage, analysis, and communication of large amounts of data in a format accessible to a broad range of users. In addition, funding agencies have given higher priority to collection of new data than to analysis and synthesis of existing data. Indeed, the task of funding synthetic work in environmental science has fallen primarily to private foundations that have moved in to fill this serious gap. Graduate students rarely can get a degree based on synthetic research. To remedy those problems, both changes in priorities and creation of centralized or coordinated facilities will be required.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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SUPPORTING THE RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE

An infrastructure to meet continuing research needs must be developed and maintained. The complex, multidisciplinary, long-term research needed to deal effectively with current and future environmental problems and challenges requires sophisticated support structures. Many environmental research programs depend on multiple investigators who use sophisticated measuring equipment and complex mathematical models to generate massive amounts of information. If appropriate support infrastructure is not available, much of that effort will fall short of its objectives, and data collected will be poorly used.

Vital components of the support infrastructure for modern environmental science are research facilities and hardware, including laboratories, instrumentation, satellites, ships, pilot facilities, field stations, collections, computers, and computer networks; computer models; databases, information systems, and readily accessible expert systems; and training and education facilities.

How Well Are We Doing?

The nation's infrastructure and support services for environmental research are provided through many agencies and programs. For example, NSF has several programs that provide support for research equipment in response to specific proposals. DOE, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NOAA, and EPA all provide support in various ways, usually in connection with specific research projects. USDA, both through its experiment stations and through its experimental forests, provides infrastructure support. Thus, each agency has developed support services consistent with its mission and resources.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Until recently, support for environmental research has been adequate to meet demands. However, the system described above, which has served agencies reasonably well, is not keeping pace with the dramatic growth in the need for research infrastructure and support services. The current response is both quantitatively and structurally inadequate–quantitatively because the current system is not able to provide the direct support that is needed and structurally because current efforts are too fragmented. The key problem is the high rate

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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at which environmental research has grown in response to pressing local, regional, national, and international needs. As a result, the building of infrastructure has lagged behind needs. Unlike other elements of environmental research programs we have analyzed, the importance of supporting adequate research infrastructure is widely recognized. But resources have not been committed to support development of the necessary infrastructure.

SETTING AND COORDINATING A NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH PLAN

There must be a mechanism for establishing, monitoring, and, when appropriate, modifying a national environmental research plan. Such a mechanism is necessary to establish long-term feasible goals to avoid fragmentation of effort. Today, researchers often investigate isolated components of key problems and waste scarce financial and intellectual resources by needless duplication of efforts.

Although it is easy to identify the major benefits of setting a national environmental research plan, some potentially serious pitfalls must be avoided in establishing such an agenda and the mechanisms for implementing it. First, the plan might be seen as unchanging when, in fact, it should be an evolving document subject to change as needed and open to new ideas. Second, because many environmental problems are international in scope and must be solved by cooperative efforts among nations, a U.S. national environmental research agenda must be coordinated with the environmental agendas of other nations lest fragmentation and duplication of efforts be transformed from the national to the international arena. Third, setting a national agenda must be accomplished by methods that obtain and objectively evaluate input from broad segments of the natural-science, social-science, regulatory, managerial, and environmental communities. Fourth, carrying out a national plan requires stable funding for the long-term, large-scale research that is certain to form its backbone. Such support must be provided through a deep commitment from political leaders at high levels of government.

How Well Are We Doing?

The United States lacks both a national environmental research plan and a mechanism for generating one. Each federal agency involved with environmental research has its own programs. There is some information transfer

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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among agencies, but it is irregular, unsystematic, and not based on stable arrangements. Coordination between federal agencies and other institutions in the United States is sporadic and often adversarial. Few efforts are under way to coordinate environmental plans with those in other countries.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Lack of attention to a national environmental research plan appears to be the result of an absence of clear incentives for individual agencies to engage in such activities and a lack of authority to implement or enforce any plans that might be developed. In addition, the disparate mandates of the various agencies generate different priorities for environmental research goals and the means to support them. Therefore, even if stronger incentives were created, it would probably be difficult for the federal agencies to develop a plan about which they could generally agree, unless additional institutional arrangements were created.

BRINGING KNOWLEDGE AND PERSPECTIVE TO BEAR ON POLICY ISSUES

Decisions that depend on scientific judgment–and some decisions are so heavily laden with economic and political considerations that science plays only a small part–will be questioned if they are made without scientific consensus or qualified scientific judgment. When scientific consensus is missing, policy-making is difficult. Strong voices with articulate and well-structured arguments can come to opposite conclusions. Balanced views from groups of experts, including those qualified to assess policy impacts on humans, are essential.

Legislators and managers, who are constantly called on to make major decisions quickly, must be able to make the fullest possible use of existing information; that is difficult because the information necessary to predict the consequences of their decisions might not be available or complete. There must be mechanisms for conveying the best scientific information to the decision-makers.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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How Well Are We Doing?

Many branches of the government have scientific advisory committees whose members represent the best scientific thought the country can provide. These bodies include the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the EPA Science Advisory Board, DOE advisory committees in particular fields, the Department of Defense's Defense Science Board, and the National Science Board, whose primary mission is to help NSF to formulate its policy. Many federal agencies have policy offices that do or contract for analyses of environmental topics to substantiate agency positions; these analyses tend to be mission-specific and not comprehensive.

Congress also has competent, nonpartisan bodies to help it to shape its legislative policies. These include OTA, the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accounting Office.

NRC is a long-standing, independent body that serves government and other organizations. Its studies, usually requested by government agencies, are far-reaching investigations and evaluations of problems important for policy-making purposes.

The existing institutions and processes have contributed scientific input to policy formulation successfully. For example, the Montreal protocols regarding chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a 1987 international treaty on limitation of CFC release, was a successful blending of scientific research and policy formulation in the environmental field. There was an international network of informed scientists among whom scientific consensus existed, there were monitoring mechanisms for continuing assessment of the problem, scientists worked with policy-makers in formulating policy options, and scientists participated in the negotiations that led to the treaty. In another example, the ban on the use of DDT grew out of careful measurements made with historical bird's-egg collections and comparisons with thin-shelled eggs exposed to DDT. The development of policy based on this research led to the solution of a serious environmental problem.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Despite such positive examples, means to bring scientific knowledge to bear on environmental policy issues have lagged behind needs. That is due in large part to the fragmentation of environmental research, the absence of institutionalized processes to determine a consensus on extremely difficult and

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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complex environmental problems, and failure to provide gateways and processes for scientists to help decision-makers to determine a course of action. Also, important policy decisions must be made in environmental fields when the science is incomplete and will be incomplete for decades to come. Inaction can exact a high price, but action is expensive and uncertain. It appears that this nation is not using its best science to determine the course of action that is economical and effective.

Science is sometimes poorly communicated. Scientists often speak a language and use professional vocabularies that are unintelligible to policy-makers. Unless scientists and policy-makers can talk together so that both understand the policy-makers' problems and to ensure that the policy-makers understand what the scientists are saying, the policy might be flawed. In the last analysis, even when there is a strong scientific consensus and good communication, other factors–such as politics, economics, and special interests–often play a greater role than science in determining policy.

ESTABLISHING APPROPRIATE EDUCATION AND TRAINING PROGRAMS

Students must be taught to deal effectively with today's environmental problems and to grapple with future problems whose nature we cannot perceive today.

How Well Are We Doing?

Disciplinary training at the nation's major universities is generally of high quality and sets an example for the rest of the world. However, few graduate or undergraduate programs of science education are educating and training students to deal with and understand today's complex environmental problems. Although a federal Environmental Education Act was passed in 1970, the funds appropriated were never adequate to achieve even a fraction of its ambitious aims. As a result, the growing popularity of environmental topics in elementary- and secondary-school curricula has been confined largely to raising awareness of environmental quality as an important question of social values and public policy. That awareness reflects the wide public support for environmental policy in recent years, even in the face of wariness toward government and higher taxes. Yet the level of understanding of citizens about the scientific concepts behind pollution, global climate change, and other

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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environmental issues remains low. The situation is only slightly better in higher education and the professional schools. Over the last two decades, professional education, particularly in engineering and legal training, has gradually expanded its coverage of environmental topics. With notable exceptions, however, that training has not sought to characterize environmental questions in the complex, interactive fashion that we now understand as indispensable. Instead, the strong disciplinary traditions for organizing the natural and social sciences in universities actively inhibit the kinds of interdisciplinary training and experience that are required. The core of the needed interdisciplinary education includes thorough grounding in one discipline; extensive exposure to environmental physics and chemistry, evolutionary biology, and ecology; training in modes of integrative inquiry from mathematical modeling to historical analysis; and active experience with interdisciplinary projects.

The necessary key additions to traditional programs are experience in methods to integrate knowledge, experience in interdisciplinary research, and exposure to ways of dealing with interrelationships across scales in time and space. This requires training in and use of computer-based techniques of modeling and visualization and exposure to nonlinear mathematics within a program that includes field ecology, evolutionary theory, systematics, environmental restoration, and environmental policy.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Until recently, graduate science programs in universities were geared to producing young professors to staff rapidly expanding university departments nationwide. In fields in which graduate students were trained for employment outside academe, such as geology, clearly defined career tracks required and made effective use of disciplinary skills. There was little need for the type of training just described, and professional recognition was accorded to single-discipline scientists. Stability in the presence of rapid and often fickle social change has been one of the most important characteristics of universities; it has enabled them to analyze and interpret society in a somewhat detached manner. Not surprisingly, universities resist pressures to be too ''relevant," believing, instead, that solid training in the traditional disciplines is the best preparation for an uncertain future. Providing the type of interdisciplinary training that we advocate without weakening the strong disciplinary bases that must contribute importantly to such programs is not easy. Because the federal government continues to play a major role in the financing of research in

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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universities, the strengthening of interdisciplinary studies can be affected substantially by federal policy. The fragmentation of environmental research among mission agencies tends to dissipate the efforts made by individual agencies to improve interdisciplinary research.

Many people interested in the face of environmental research question the adequacy of human resources to do the job. We examined available data on degrees granted and employment in the environmental sciences and discovered that the available information did not permit the needed comparisons. Employment categories were not parallel with degree fields. Environmental biologists were dispersed among such fields as "biological science," "agricultural science," and so forth, whereas in some data sets all of geology is considered "environmental science."

ESTABLISHING AND NURTURING STRONG LINKS WITH BUSINESS

New partnerships between government and industry must be established and promoted for setting R7D priorities for the development of new environmentally benign technologies, new methods for controlling process byproducts, new environmental control technologies, and training and education for corporate offices on environmental processes and problems. These should be developed not only to improve our country's environment, but, through their export, to enhance the developing world's environment and to create jobs in our country as a result of the export.

How Well Are We Doing?

A historical adversarial relationship between the private sector and the federal state and local governments, particularly regulatory agencies, has occurred at a time when other countries, notably Japan and Germany, have developed relatively stringent environmental regulations, which not only improve the environment, but drive the development of new technologies for pollution control and energy efficiency and are more environmentally benign.

Government and industry increasingly recognize that environmental problems are important and need to be addressed cooperatively by the two sectors and that so addressing them is to the advantage of the nation's economic position in the world and the health of the environment. Steps in that direction are the identification by the Office of Science and Technology Policy of pollution minimization, remediation, and waste management as

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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critical; EPA's Green Lights Program with industry in a search for energy-efficient lighting that could save up to $20 billion a year in electricity bills and reduce air pollution from electricity-generating sources by 5%; EPA's cooperation with the automobile industry in supporting the Health Effects Institute and its studies on pollution reduction and the health effects of automobile emissions; and industry's emphasis on and dedication of larger amounts of R&D funding to "industrial ecology" aimed at manufacturing practices that are environmentally sound and products that are safe and economically recyclable.

Mechanisms for controlling pollution through innovative taxation policies are few; the permit process associated with atmospheric emissions under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments is an example of such a mechanism. Taxation policy needs to be examined for the feasibility of taxing not products and services, but the pollutants that need to be controlled or prevented. By changing tax policies in ways similar to those of Europe and Japan and by forging new R&D links and common agendas between government and industry, the United States can develop new technologies that are beneficial to our environment and to our economy (WRI, 1992).

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Government is related to industry mainly as a regulator and enforcer of a multitude of environmental laws. The United States lacks the tradition, common in other developed countries, of extensive cooperation between the two sectors. There is no strong record of cooperation and coordination of effort for the environment like the linkage of government support to industry (R&D funding, procurement, and formation of research consortia) that produced great strides in aerospace technology, computers, defense, and medicine after World War II.

It is clearly desirable that we find the means to form the necessary partnerships that will establish trust and cooperation between government and the private sector.

ESTABLISHING AND NURTURING COMMUNICATION LINKS WITH THE GENERAL PUBLIC

The general population must become environmentally literate. Citizens should be informed of key findings of environmental science and be involved

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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in decision-making and policy-setting. Informed citizens are better able to understand and accept policy decisions, some of which might demand sacrifices of them, and to assume responsibility for putting environmental values into practice. Abundant experience has shown that if people feel that they are not involved in a decision or do not trust the decision-makers, they are unlikely to accept the decision. However, modern government is based on the premise that people do not have time to be involved in all public-policy decisions and therefore identify (elect, appoint, or otherwise choose) representatives or delegates to make and execute most decisions for them.

How Well Are We Doing?

Until fairly recently, people were more trusting of their representatives than they now seem to be. Hance et al. (1988) quote the assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Doland Deleso: "Since the 1970s, I've watched a change. In the early days … when we came into a public meeting, we were believed. People walked away relieved or alarmed, depending on the message, but they believed us and felt that we were competent and had the best intentions. Now the presumption is that we're incompetent, that we have a hidden agenda, that they've got to ferret out the truth for themselves, and that the agency is an obstacle to getting the truth."

We have seen spirals of decreasing trust in public institutions and of increasing bureaucracy, legislation, and regulations to prevent abuses-all accompanied by a further decrease in trust. Now, various organizations and individuals are spending much time trying to figure out how to involve the public in decision-making so that trust in government can be restored. The whole system, which fundamentally depends on trust, is in such a poor state that voters in 1992 elected an unusually large number of newcomers to federal office.

Why Are We Not Doing Better?

Agencies have often failed to recognize that their perceptions of events, risks, and benefits are a function of their culture and psychology as much as are the perceptions of the people who might be distrusting or opposing them (NRC, 1992c). As a result, government officers have often treated citizens as though they were uninformed or misinformed and have aimed communication

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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at correcting misguided perceptions. In addition, genuine involvement of citizens with decision-making is time-consuming and expensive. To an agency under pressure to act, such involvement often appears to be an unfortunate diversion of resources that would be better directed to accomplishing the agency's mission. Whether or not the distrust now directed at government is justified, one must recognize that the crisis in confidence demands substantial investment of resources in an effort to restore trust and to earn it.

Restoration of trust is hampered by a lack of information on how to generate and maintain it. Little effort has been devoted to research on how to develop an informed and involved citizenry in a modern, complex, industrial society. The report of the Committee on Risk Perception and Communication (NRC, 1989b) outlines a number of subjects that warrant research, such as

  • How are risks compared and evaluated? Across which dimensions should risks not be compared? How do people assess magnitudes of risk?

  • What is the role of message intermediaries?

  • What determines pertinence and sufficiency of risk information?

  • Which risks produce strong psychological stress and why?

Because of a lack of attention to those issues, we cannot provide reasonable answers to such basic questions.

SYNTHESIS OF HOW WELL WE ARE DOING AND WHY WE ARE NOT DOING BETTER

The preceding analysis demonstrates the existence of substantial strengths and weaknesses in the current structure and functioning of environmental research in the United States. Among the strengths, the United States is blessed with an impressive array of scientific, managerial, and political talent. It also has citizens who are as informed and concerned as those of any nation, even though their knowledge and involvement are much less than would be desirable. Federal agencies spend large sums of money on environmental research, and much useful information has been gathered in support of their missions. These strengths need to be maintained and improved on, with other, more fundamental changes that need to be instituted.

The committee also finds the following weaknesses that need to be addressed:

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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  • The research establishment is poorly structured to deal with complex, interdisciplinary research on large spatial scales and long-term temporal scales. These traits characterize the primary needs of an effective environmental research program.

  • There is no comprehensive national environmental research plan to coordinate the efforts of the more than 20 agencies involved in environmental programs. Moreover, no agency has the mission to develop such a plan, nor is any existing agency able to coordinate and oversee a national environmental research plan if one were developed.

  • The lack of an integrated national research plan weakens the ability of the United States to work creatively with governments of other nations to solve regional and global problems.

  • The nation's environmental efforts have no clear leadership. As suggested by the lack of a cabinet-level environmental agency, the United States has lacked strong commitment to environmental research at the highest levels of government. Environmental matters have been regarded as less important than defense, health, transportation, and other government functions.

  • Although individual agencies and associations of agencies analyze data to provide a base for decisions on strategies and actions to address specific environmental problems, no comprehensive "think-tank" exists for assessing data to support understanding of the environment as a whole and the modeling of trends whose understanding might help to set priorities for research and action.

  • Bridges between policy, management, and science are weak. There is no organized system whereby assessments of environmental problems can be communicated to decision-makers and policy-setters.

  • Long-term monitoring and assessment of environmental trends and of the consequences of environmental rules and regulations are seriously inadequate. The United States has a poor understanding of its biological resources and how they are being affected by human activities. Although biological surveys have a long history at the state and federal level in the United States, it is only very recently that we appear to be approaching a consensus on the need for a comprehensive, national biological survey.

  • There is insufficient attention to the collection and management of the vast amount of data being developed by the 20 agencies involved in environmental research. Collection and management of environmental life-science data are less well organized than those of environmental physical-science data.

  • Education and training in the nation's universities are still strongly disciplinary, whereas solution of environmental problems requires broadly trained people and multidisciplinary approaches. Opportunities for broadly based interdisciplinary

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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graduate degrees are few, and faculty are not rewarded as strongly for interdisciplinary activities as they are for disciplinary activities. Thus, there is a risk that environmental scientists appropriately trained to address pressing needs will be lacking.

  • Biological-science and social-science components of environmental research are poorly supported, compared with the (still inadequate) support given to the physical sciences.

  • Research on engineering solutions to environmental problems is seriously underfunded. That reduces our ability to protect ecosystems and restore damaged ones to productivity and jeopardizes the nation's ability to achieve major economic benefits that are certain to derive from increasing worldwide use of technologies for these purposes.

  • With respect to environmental affairs, government operates in a strongly adversarial relationship with both industry and the general public, to the detriment of integrated planning and maintenance of an atmosphere of mutual trust that is essential for effective government functioning.

  • With important exceptions in the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey, most environmental R&D is narrow, supporting either a regulatory or a management function. That appears to be particularly true in the environmental life sciences.

Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Page47
Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
×
Page62
Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Page63
Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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Suggested Citation:"3 Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Federal Environmental Research Programs." National Research Council. 1993. Research to Protect, Restore, and Manage the Environment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2216.
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This book assesses the strengths and weaknesses of current environmental research programs, describes the desirable characteristics of an effective program, and recommends cultural and organizational changes to improve the performance of environmental research. Research areas in need of greater emphasis are identified, and overall directions for environmental research are recommended. The book also comments on the proposal to establish a National Institute for the Environment and on the elevation of the Environmental Protection Agency to cabinet status.

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