In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The phrase most commonly refers to courses of action that simultaneously improve human conditions and economic growth without sacrificing the health of the environment.
In 1993, President Clinton established the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to reinvent how R&D is conducted in the United States. The NSTC Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) is making significant changes in how the federal government plans and supports research on the environment and natural resources. We have started coordinating the previously fragmented environmental research programs across federal agencies. This approach replaces the traditional single issue, single agency, and single discipline approach to solving environmental issues with an integrated, interagency research program. This process brings together researchers and policymakers from a range of disciplines and agencies. The CENR is identifying opportunities to reduce redundancy in federal programs, fill critical gaps in research to understand important environmental issues, and anticipate environmental problems of the future and prevent them, rather than respond to them after the fact. This strategy holds the promise of unprecedented benefits from integrated planning and budgeting to reduce overlap in federal programs while solving issues in a policy-relevant and cost-effective manner.
These issues are interrelated and are no longer the sole concern of the scientific community and environmentalists; their importance is now well recognized by the private sector and governments around the world. Sound national and international environmental policies must be based on a solid foundation of scientific, technical, social, and economic knowledge. The knowledge, developed as a result of this strategy, will enable us to meet the national goal of improved environmental quality, by providing the scientific and technical information needed to refine and couple environmental and economic policies effectively and efficiently.
In addition, the research agenda developed here will support other important national goals:
One of the highest priorities of the Administration is to protect public health and well-being. Degradation of environmental conditions can threaten health and safety. Research on the links between natural hazards, environmental change, and human health helps improve our societal response to threats such as:
Environmental research has contributed significantly to public health in recent years and is expected to yield additional health benefits. A better understanding of the natural world and how human activities influence it are essential to safeguard life from natural hazards and human-induced environmental changes. Research can lead to cost-effective environmental improvements and an enhanced ability to prevent or mitigate adverse health effects. New technologies can aid in cleaning up the problems of the past and preventing future problems (see Chaps. 3 and 4).
Investment in research is a prudent, cost-effective way of dealing with the nation's environmental challenges; it enables us to set management and regulatory priorities, select cost-effective strategies for action, and identify problems before they become intractable as a means to avoid costly remediation. The following are some reasons why a sustained commitment to research is good business for the nation.
Historically, the distribution of natural resources has been a basis for conflict between nations. Environmental degradation, ecological damage, and the depletion of natural resources can easily give rise to confrontation between nations that could lead to armed conflict. In the future, global-scale issues, such as human-induced climate change, are projected to have their greatest adverse effects in developing countries. Predicting, preventing, and/or remediating these potentially destabilizing environmental issues coupled with the development of long-term sources of food, water, and energy are essential to global security. A world in which destabilizing factors are minimized enhances our own national security.
The transfer and application of science and technology developed through federal research programs can have far-reaching effects throughout the world. Foreseeing and preventing environmental disasters will reduce our requirements for relief efforts that are expensive in terms of material, personnel, and national will. Other applications of environmental science and technology will ensure that our forces are able to deploy and operate safely and effectively on land, at sea, and in the air.
Americans enjoy some of the cleanest air, land, and water in the world. For centuries we have reaped the benefits of seemingly unlimited natural resources. In recent decades, however, our understandings of natural processes, the fate of some contaminants, and the consequences of some resource use activities have evolved. For example, we now know that certain chemicals, such as heavy metals and pesticides, can build up in the environment and may cause harm to human health or ecological systems at levels far lower than ever imagined previously. We also now know that releases of seemingly harmless levels of sulfur and nitrogen air pollutants may travel great distances, affecting areas hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Some commercial fisheries, for example, experience economic loss due to over fishing, or to periodic outbreaks of disease or loss of habitat, which can be related to various forms of estuarine or ocean pollution. Some of these effects are just now being recognized after decades of progress in environmental protection. As a result, even in the United States, we have rivers that are not suitable for fishing or swimming, groundwater that we cannot drink, and urban areas where air pollution poses health risks to children, the elderly, and other more susceptible individuals.
The environment often can be restored from overuse and degradation from pollution. The challenge before us is to obtain the knowledge base to more cost effectively remediate the problems facing us today from past actions, while building the understanding of our natural resources necessary to sustainably meet the needs of society in future generations, and anticipating our vulnerability to future environmental change.
Increases in population and industrial activities during the last century are anticipated to continue into the next, and they are affecting the environment in profound and often irreversible ways. A diverse range of environmental issues faces us at all scales local, regional, and global. Scientific and technical information is needed to make sound future policy and management decisions on issues such as maintaining world agricultural productivity, stemming the loss of biodiversity, minimizing the costs of natural disasters, and mitigating climate change.
--Honorable Carol M. Browner, Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Today, environmental issues largely focus on cleaning up pollution that is already in existence: building scrubbers that remove sulfur dioxide before it leaves a smokestack, for example, or cleaning up waste sites that are already contaminated. Increasingly, environmental technologies will instead aim at the avoidance of environmental harm altogether. Energy systems will shift toward cleaner fuels, and manufacturing firms will increasingly adopt products and processes designed from the outset to minimize the use of raw materials and the output of pollutants.
The United States has a large industry dedicated to the avoidance and solution of environmental problems the largest in the world with $134 billion in total estimated domestic and international revenues. Revenues for the rest of the global environmental industry are $161 billion, most of which is concentrated in Japan and Germany. It is estimated that the global market could grow to roughly $425 billion by 1997. Investment in science and technology today can enable our nation's industries to successfully compete in this emerging world market.
--Paul Allaire (Chairman and CEO, Xerox Corporation)
The challenge of protecting our environment and natural resource base while enhancing economic growth requires knowledge of a myriad of complex, scientific phenomena and their interrelationships. Effective and efficient natural resource management requires policy decisions informed by accurate information. Scientific research is needed to make informed judgments on the best use of this country's resources in the context of a global economy. Although the United States still possesses vast natural resources, as world consumption rapidly increases, we must ensure the sustained resource availability necessary for continued economic growth.
Faced with inadequate information, we often either fail to capture opportunities to avoid significant problems or overcompensate with controls and limits, possibly wasting resources on the wrong problems or responses. In contrast, balanced and informed public policy must be based upon a sound understanding of problems and potential solutions; this is an important role of federal scientific research. Research should provide unbiased knowledge relevant to critical policy questions. Research must enable us to anticipate potential problems so that we can prevent, rather than just respond to, environmental threats. Effective decisions regarding the environment and natural resources must be informed by knowledge from many fields, integrated across the natural, social, and economic sciences.
The NSTC, through the CENR, is coordinating decentralized agency programs to address environmental issues in an integrated manner. The CENR has seven issue subcommittees: Air Quality; Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics; Global Change; Natural Disaster Reduction; Resource Use and Management; Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Solid Waste; and Water Resources and Coastal and Marine Environments. These subcommittees coordinate the federal agency programs within their particular environmental area. In addition, there are three crosscutting methodological issue subcommittees: Environmental Technology, Social and Economic Sciences, and Risk Assessment and two working groups: Observations and Data Management and Ecosystem Research. Coordination within these subcommittees will eliminate wasteful duplication and identify gaps in research.
Critical steps in building successful R&D programs are improving education and training in all areas related to understanding our planet and providing educators at all levels, beginning with kindergarten through high school, the results of federal environmental programs in useful forms. By stimulating an early interest in science and the environment, a future generation of expertise will be assured. A special effort will be made by all agencies to obtain advice from educators on their needs and to provide useful data and information products.
The public is the ultimate policymaker. The CENR will enhance the effort to clarify environmental issues; improve dialogue on risks, costs, and benefits; and account for the effectiveness of public decisions regarding the well-being of our citizens.
Sound policies are crafted from a sound scientific base, and a sound scientific base is a product of scientific debate and consensus building. We are developing the infrastructure to involve experts from all stakeholder groups in conducting broad and credible national scientific and technical assessments of the state of knowledge. These national assessments will complement international assessments, (e.g., those conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization) that are currently in place for global environmental issues such as stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change, and loss of biological diversity. It is imperative that a consensus be developed that explicitly acknowledges what is known, what is unknown, and what is uncertain. The consensus understanding can then be used to project the implications of alternative policy options and to involve stakeholders and policymakers in understanding the basis and uncertainties of those projections.
The CENR R&D strategy builds on the Administration's commitment to world leadership in basic science, mathematics, and engineering and uses advances in information technology to coordinate the large numbers of relevant information management systems currently available. In particular, the National Information Infrastructure (NII) initiative will enhance the availability of information to society as a whole. The strength of the U.S. scientific community in academia, industry, and the federal laboratories must be harnessed to obtain the scientific and technical understanding needed to realize the vision of sustainable development. The NII is an essential tool to empower citizens, businesses, and research institutions with information (the NII will also help us achieve greater research efficiencies through the efficient distribution of information).
The R&D priorities in this strategy address the critical gaps in scientific knowledge about the most important environmental issues of our day and provide the information necessary to anticipate issues of the future. R&D activities outlined in this strategy are designed to provide the information required for more responsible natural resource stewardship; more accurate environmental risk assessment; more cost-effective risk management; and innovative technological solutions that can make the nation's industries more competitive, while contributing to environmental quality. Filling these needs can result in policies that will lead to a better quality of life and save billions of dollars in environmental management costs. A 10% savings in national environmental management costs is twice the current annual level of federal R&D expenditures for environmental research. When viewed in this context, the nation cannot afford not to invest in the insurance afforded by a sound environmental research strategy and its implementation.