Strategic Planning Document -
Environment and Natural Resources

Chapter 3. Charting New Directions for Research

The Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) is leading the effort to coordinate all federal environmental and natural resource research and development (R&D) activities and to improve the links between the science and policy components of the executive branch. A unique aspect of the CENR is that subcommittees are organized by key environmental policy areas. This structure was created recognizing that coordinated, interdisciplinary, multiagency R&D efforts are required to respond effectively to complicated environmental problems.

The CENR Challenge

The overarching policy challenge that the CENR addresses is: how to ensure the compatibility of long-term economic growth while protecting the environment and quality of life? For each environmental issue, the policy questions are similar:

The strength of the CENR, and its subcommittees, is active participation from all relevant agencies and offices of the White House, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), during all phases of the budget process. The CENR is not a top-down, decision-making entity of the White House. The CENR is working because there is buy-in at all levels of the agencies, from program managers to agency heads. R&D priorities must, and will, explicitly take into account Administration priorities, environmental statutes, and international conventions. Agency agendas that are consistent with the priorities of the interagency process are likely to have highest priority in the budget process. Our recently completed 1996 budget process demonstrated that agencies responded with their budget planning to the top priorities developed across the federal government and in concert with stakeholder guidance received through the national forum and external reviews.

Obtaining the scientific and technical information required for policy formulation will require understanding (1) the state of the natural system and its susceptibility to changes, (2) the socioeconomic dimensions of environmental changes, (3) the human health consequences of environmental changes; and (4) the vulnerability of socioeconomic and ecological systems to environmental changes.

For the first time ever, priority issues such as biodiversity, ecosystem dynamics, resource use and management, and water resources are being fully coordinated in an interagency program. Other issues, such as global change and elements of air and water quality, have benefitted for a decade or more from interagency coordination. The segments of this chapter that follow reflect those differences in maturity as they describe the goals, current research programs, and key policies and legislation supported by research in each of the issue areas (see box on the following page). Also described are areas of enhanced research emphasis in FY 1996 and beyond, selected milestones expected in the near term (3 to 5 years), and selected examples of recent research accomplishments illustrating the importance of research in each of these important issue areas. The milestones listed are representative but are not a comprehensive listing of activities required to accomplish the goals of the program. A comprehensive listing of milestones is associated with separate strategy and implementation plans for each of the issue areas, which are also to be published.

Relevant Environmental Policies and Legislation

To guide national policy, a number of federal laws aim to preserve environmental quality and natural resources. The United States has also entered into international agreements to address regional and global environmental issues.

Major Environmental Health and Pollution Related U.S. Laws

Major Natural Resource Related Laws

Natural Disaster Related U.S. Laws

Regional and Global Initiatives, Agreements, or Conventions

Air Quality

The goal of the federal air quality research program is to help protect human health and the environment from air pollution by providing the scientific and technical information needed to evaluate options for improving air quality in timely and cost-effective ways.

Research characterizes the sources of air pollution, builds a predictive understanding of the phenomena involved, quantifies the human-related effects and impacts, and assesses the state of knowledge in policy-relevant terms. The five air quality issues are: (1) ground-level ozone, its precursors, and other ambient air pollutants; (2) acidic deposition; (3) hazardous toxic air pollutants; (4) visibility and health-related airborne particles; and (5) indoor air quality.

Relevant Policies, Issues, and Legislation

Current State of Understanding

Many air quality issues face legislative mandated assessments, regulatory actions, or other important policy decisions within coming years. The environmental issues pose potentially large, but often unquantified, risks to human health and well-being. At the same time, however, implementation of planned or potential control measures can have very large socioeconomic impacts. For example, the states are preparing their plans for implementation of the CAA requirements regarding urban ozone attainment, and the magnitude of the challenge is apparent. Hence, a demonstrable and defensible scientific understanding of the phenomena involved is a key input to prudent courses of action or inaction.

High levels of surface ozone are occurring in numerous urban areas and are known to have adverse health effects, particularly on more susceptible citizens. The clear cause of this urban pollution is human-generated emissions, notably from automobiles and electric power plants. Despite requirements to reduce emissions, abatement of urban ozone levels has been less than anticipated, and the full scientific explanation as to why is not in hand. Crop damage by elevated rural ozone levels is moderately well characterized, but recent research points to a need to revisit the strategies for reducing such levels. Ozone damage and growth retardation relations for forests are poorly understood, particularly from the standpoint of exposure to multiple stresses.

Similarly, sources of acidic deposition are also clearly related to human activities. Trends in wet acidic deposition are now fairly well defined and show declines over the past few years associated with emission reductions. However, the amount and changes in dry deposition are poorly characterized. Further, responses of aquatic life, forests, soils, and materials to exposure levels are not well quantified, which limits decisions regarding appropriate future emission reductions.

Several studies clearly show an association between airborne fine particles and human health, but plausible biological mechanisms linking such factors have not been identified, making it difficult to determine which aspects of particular matter (PM) could be the most harmful. Moreover, measurement techniques are expensive and crude. Certain clearly toxic compounds (e.g, lead and asbestos) are well understood and are being addressed by specific regulations. Trends in visibility in public lands show that deterioration is easily noted by the public seeking to enjoy those areas, but the sources of the pollution involved cannot always be determined.

People spend 90% of their time indoors, and the indoor levels of many pollutants, both human made (e.g., organics) and natural (e.g., radon) are often much higher than those outdoors. Qualitative association of poor health and sick buildings is clear to many workers. However, widespread quantitative evaluation of indoor air quality is still in its infancy, and even well-known issues such as radon still have debatable aspects, all of which limit the ability to carry out meaningful cost-benefit analyses.

Research Program

Current air quality research focuses on observing what is changing and understanding why in order to better predict environmental responses to a spectrum of possible choices that face decision makers. Important ongoing research activities that continue to receive strong emphasis include:

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998

Research Successes - Air Quality

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

The goal of federal research on biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics is to ensure the sustainability of the ecological systems and processes that support our social needs in areas such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, recreation, medicine, and the preservation of natural areas. However, there are many gaps in our understanding of the relationship between environmental factors and the expression of biodiversity and/or effects of global and regional change on ecosystem structure and function. Such understanding is essential to efficient and cost-effective sustainable resource use and conservation, as well as restoration of some degraded environments.

Research is conducted to provide policy-relevant information on questions such as: What is the value of biodiversity to society in terms of goods and services (including nonmarket, nonconsumptive uses) and its intrinsic value? What are the major threats to ecosystem processes and functions? How can biodiversity in ecosystems be managed in a sustainable way in a changing global environment? How are social, cultural, economic, legal, institutional, and biological factors taken into account for informed policy making and decision making?

Relevant Policies, Issues, and Legislation

Current State of Understanding

Knowledge of species and ecosystems has been primarily derived from observational data, periodic surveys, single-discipline experiments, and case studies. There is often little ability to link site-specific studies to environmental and climatic conditions or extrapolate across a wide geographic area. As such, most management information tends to be either qualitative or anecdotal. When unexpected changes occur in populations of species, causal factors often are not understood. Only recently, with the advent of remote sensing and geographic information systems, has progress been made on describing how ecosystems and species interact at the landscape and seascape scale.

The extent of species biodiversity has been best characterized for surface-dwelling terrestrial vertebrates and flowering plants, while information on subterranean, freshwater, coastal, and marine habitats remains scarce. Although we have information on the diversity of certain groups of organisms that inhabit many ecosystems of the world and have characterized many of the crucial processes and physical and chemical limits to rate-limiting functions of many ecosystems, the relationship between diversity and ecosystem functioning is poorly understood. A good deal of attention is focused on responding to the urgent needs of species that are listed as threatened and endangered. In these instances, knowledge of the habitat requirements of a specific species may be well researched; however, there remains a larger need to understand how managing an ecosystem to benefit one species will impact the many other species that also rely on that ecosystem.

Research Program

Forests, grasslands, and wetlands and their ecological processes provide many of the goods and services that are essential for society's sustainable development. Increasing pressure on our nation's ecological assets requires that we better understand the relationships between human activity and the conservation of species and ecosystems. Research is essential for constructing effective policies that ensure the integrity of our nation's ecological systems, while avoiding unnecessary regulations. Major issues associated with biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics are addressed in studies of:

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

The National Biological Service

The Clinton/Gore Administration created the National Biological Service (NBS) to provide accurate biological information to support decision making about the use, management, and protection of the nation's natural resources. The NBS consists of biological research programs formerly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Minerals Management Service, and other agencies in the Department of the Interior. The NBS collaborates closely with those agencies at all levels, providing a new, cost-effective, and more integrated science. Integration under the NBS enhances scientific support for policy decisions by providing a critical mass of scientific expertise; strengthening competitive peer review; coordinating resources; and reducing redundancies in multiple agencies.

In both government and the private sector, managers are frustrated by the lack of solid science upon which to base decisions. Disagreements over basic questions such as Are some species declining? and What are the likely effects of some action? frustrate discussion of problems and their solutions. In addition, the perception that facts are manipulated to support a desired outcome reduces the credibility of both government and private scientists. The NBS was created as an independent bureau to ensure that the science used in regulatory and management decisions is sound, unbiased, and available to everyone. NBS has no regulatory or resource management responsibilities, so its scientific results will not be influenced by biases for or against specific policies. NBS's job is simply to provide better science.

Selected Milestones 1995 - 1998

Research Successes - Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Chapter 3 (continued)