4

Implementation Issues

Progress on the next generation of environmental research will depend on dealing successfully with several important implementation issues. These issues should be addressed in a topic-specific manner in the planning workshops recommended in Chapter 3 and should be considered in overall planning of environmental research within NSF. The committee considers all of these issues to be important to environmental research, but does not recommend that they be addressed in a uniform way across all research fields. Indeed, in one case (the need for regional research centers), there was considerable diversity of opinion among committee members.

COMPLEXITY OF ENVIRONMENTAL PHENOMENA: AN OVERALL RESEARCH VISION

The grand challenges set forth in this report cannot be pursued effectively in isolation from each other because they are closely interrelated. For example, changes in ecosystems, biological diversity, hydrologic systems, and pathogenhost relations are all affected by climate change. Changes in ecosystems and hydrologic systems can also affect climate and are affected by changing patterns of land use and increasing use of materials by human populations. Biogeochemical cycles, hydrologic systems, and ecosystems are all affected by and can affect climate, use of materials, and the institutions that shape human use of natural resources. In short, most of the phenomena central to each grand challenge act as driving variables for phenomena at the center of other grand challenges. In addition, actions intended to affect one environmental system may simultaneous



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences 4 Implementation Issues Progress on the next generation of environmental research will depend on dealing successfully with several important implementation issues. These issues should be addressed in a topic-specific manner in the planning workshops recommended in Chapter 3 and should be considered in overall planning of environmental research within NSF. The committee considers all of these issues to be important to environmental research, but does not recommend that they be addressed in a uniform way across all research fields. Indeed, in one case (the need for regional research centers), there was considerable diversity of opinion among committee members. COMPLEXITY OF ENVIRONMENTAL PHENOMENA: AN OVERALL RESEARCH VISION The grand challenges set forth in this report cannot be pursued effectively in isolation from each other because they are closely interrelated. For example, changes in ecosystems, biological diversity, hydrologic systems, and pathogenhost relations are all affected by climate change. Changes in ecosystems and hydrologic systems can also affect climate and are affected by changing patterns of land use and increasing use of materials by human populations. Biogeochemical cycles, hydrologic systems, and ecosystems are all affected by and can affect climate, use of materials, and the institutions that shape human use of natural resources. In short, most of the phenomena central to each grand challenge act as driving variables for phenomena at the center of other grand challenges. In addition, actions intended to affect one environmental system may simultaneous

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences ly affect a variety of other systems. This phenomenon is familiar to environmental regulators as the problem of cross-media relationships (for example, regulations on water pollutants may lead to increases in toxic releases into the air or land). The phenomenon is generic to changes in environmental systems and presents major analytical difficulties. Perhaps even more challenging for science is that the outcomes of interest within each grand challenge depend simultaneously on change in more than one driving variable. The grand challenges require problem-oriented science that can integrate physical, biological, chemical, and human systems well enough to predict the response of critical regions or phenomena to multiple causal variables, sometimes referred to as multiple stresses. Understanding the interactions of these systems is imperative, because the many environmental factors now undergoing change make it difficult to assess the impact of any single change in the Earth system (particularly changes in human activities), and thus it is difficult to assess the outcomes of specific mitigation and adaptation strategies. Understanding how environmental and human outcomes are affected by multiple driving variables lies beyond the capacity of any single environmental science discipline. Studies focused on single causal variables are typically inadequate and potentially misleading. As emphasized throughout this report, the needed understanding will require true integration of the social sciences and engineering, as well as various disciplines within the natural sciences, around common research problems. Expertise can be drawn from many institutions across the country to focus on research within a specific region, but to work effectively, the research recommended here will have to involve new kinds of scientific teams and communities capable of communicating and collaborating across the natural science-social science gulf. These groups will require a large number of scientists with broad, interdisciplinary perspectives, as well as an increased capability for cross-disciplinary collaboration among environmental scientists, who may develop more interdisciplinary orientations as a result. Science is becoming increasingly capable of developing the observational basis, focused process studies, and coupled models needed to provide a firm foundation for considering multiple causal factors (multiple stresses) in environmental analysis and assessment. A useful strategy for developing this capability in the context of meeting the grand challenges is to analyze environmental phenomena in “natural laboratories. ” These would typically be regions in which key environmental perturbations are occurring, and on which there exists a base of information that can be organized to provide the foundation for a model of the ecological, biophysical, and human systems to be studied. Natural laboratories can bring together researchers from different scientific fields around common research problems. They can also make possible concerted research on several of the grand challenges, taking advantage of the fact that some of the same observations and models will be useful for several lines of research. A systems model can organize research and ensure communication and

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences collaboration among participating scientists. Research in natural laboratories would aim to develop regional models capable of projecting the future of the system under study, including effects of change on ecological and social outcome variables and of human activities on environmental systems. Such models should allow for exploration of the likely outcomes under continuation of existing conditions or under change in forcing factors, and of the anticipated results of various adaptation strategies and attempts to mitigate change in one or more variables. Examples of possible regional natural laboratories include the following: Major estuarine systems, such as the Chesapeake Bay, which are subject to a wide variety of stresses. These stresses include severe weather; climate variability; climate change; land-use changes that modify stream run-off patterns and sediment loading; human modification of river systems (e.g., dams); pollutants from agricultural, industrial, and urban regions; nutrient loading; resource use; sea-level change; invasive species; human modification of the adjacent shore; and disease. The combination of stresses renders problematic predictions of key environmental indices, such as oxygen levels or productivity, disease outbreaks (e.g., Pfiesteria), or changes in species composition. The developing megacities, especially along coastlines, which create a complex interplay between extensive human modification of the environment and human quality of life. The human impacts are numerous, including extensive land-cover change (often at the expense of soils and other ecosystem resources), extensive water needs in the surrounding regions, large-scale waste production, urban heat island effects, and modification of air quality. Severe storms, climate variability, and sea-level change add significant physical stresses to the system as well. The quality of life within major urban areas is also an issue, given the effects of climate change on mortality and morbidity from exposure to extreme heat and cold; links between respiratory illness and air quality; and a host of stresses related to poverty, crime, population pressures, aging infrastructure, and a variety of public health issues. Scientists currently lack the capability to examine megacities and their growth as integrated systems. The key to future environmental research will be to develop a capability to examine such regions comprehensively, instead of examining one variable or issue at a time. The concept of integrated laboratories is one example of a mechanism for moving beyond individual disciplinary challenges to develop a strongly multidisciplinary research capability. The keys are (a) to develop a comprehensive set of physical, biological, chemical, and human system observations or “sensor webs” designed to gain understanding, aid model development, and validate predictions of coupled models; (b) to focus combined field and model process studies on areas or topics of critical uncertainty; and (c) to construct increasingly comprehensive regional system models in which the discipline of forecasting, evaluation, and improvement is rigorously applied. The

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences development of comprehensive observations and models should be a major catalyst for multidisciplinary research, while common scientific objectives are likely to engender new modes and avenues of research. The emphasis on a regionspecific predictive capability will drive the development of enhanced understanding and suites of high-resolution models that are likely to provide new capabilities to address a broad range of regional, national, and global environmental issues. The new urban Long-Term Ecological Research sites may be among the appropriate venues for integrated research on a regional basis involving the full range of environmental sciences. IMPLEMENTATION OF REGIONAL APPROACHES AND THE ROLE OF RESEARCH CENTERS The committee agreed that some of its research recommendations require or would benefit from a regional focus. For example, as noted in Chapter 3, the initiative on hydrologic forecasting needs to address five distinctive regional climatological and hydrologic regimes within the United States: semi-arid (western region), desert (southwestern region), midlatitude (central region), humid subtropical (southeastern region), and humid continental (northeastern region). Each of those regions has a unique combination of precipitation, evapotranspiration, topography, and hydrologic response. Similarly, the initiative on land-use and land-cover change will depend on developing regional databases, observatories, and archives, and the natural laboratories described above have a strong regional flavor. The committee members did not agree, however, on how best to implement a regional focus, and particularly on whether to recommend the establishment of regional research centers. Some members argued that learning in regional natural laboratories cannot be adequately achieved without the interdisciplinary social and professional environment provided by a shared physical location. Those members argued that regional centers would act as nodes for intellectual organization and innovation and would be ideal sites for providing interdisciplinary training and for increasing the capability of environmental scientists to collaborate effectively on cross-disciplinary problems. They also argued that the visibility of centers as concrete entities would help attract funds for new research initiatives. Other committee members did not favor recommending the establishment of centers. They argued that the National Research Council should not tell funding agencies in such detail how to accomplish the recommended research tasks. They also argued that large investments in centers could reduce the overall quality of research by allocating to facilities funds that might better be used for research, and by making it difficult for new ideas from researchers outside the centers to receive support. In-house competition for a center's funds could result in less rigorous proposal review and therefore in lower-quality research as com

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences pared with national research competitions. These committee members concluded that coordination can be achieved by specifying the needed cross-disciplinary collaborations in program announcements and by providing relatively low-cost support for meetings and conferences. The committee concluded that the decision on whether to support bricks-and-mortar regional research centers should be made by the funding agencies on the basis of the scientific, capacity-building, and infrastructure needs associated with studying specific environmental systems. In making decisions about the institutional form for regional research in individual research areas, funding agencies should make use of the workshops described at the end of Chapter 3 . We recommend that each of these workshops consider the usefulness and importance of regional approaches and integrated laboratories for advancing the specific area of research, and if such approaches are considered important, that the appropriate institutional form for such laboratories be considered as well. The interrelationships among the grand challenges make it necessary for NSF to consider ways of supporting integrated research efforts that can help develop the observations, process studies, and models needed to investigate problems of multiple causal variables, cross-media relationships, and linkages across the grand challenge areas. Research centers or virtual laboratories focused on single problems such as hydrologic forecasting or biological diversity may not range broadly enough to build an adequate capability for such multiple-system investigations. NSF should therefore consider supplementary support mechanisms. One possibility would be to hold a competition for research centers or teams focused on particular multiple-variable problems outside or cutting across areas in which a major research investment is being made. Another would be to define coterminous regions for centers or virtual laboratories working in different grand challenge areas, and to support shared data and model development among them. A third would be to define sets of environmental, social, and economic indicators needed for studying multiple-variable issues in the environmental sciences, and to invest in the observational systems needed to close the distance between existing and needed data collection. BUILDING OF CAPACITY FOR INTERDISCIPLINARY, PROBLEM-ORIENTED RESEARCH Because of the nature of the phenomena at the center of the grand challenges, efforts to meet each challenge will benefit from interdisciplinary analysis. Whereas multidisciplinary research is a collaboration among investigators from different scientific fields, interdisciplinary research entails the integration of multidisciplinary knowledge. Nonadditive relationships and mutual causation among the variables studied in different disciplines make integration across disciplines highly desirable (e.g., Wijkman 1999, Clark 1999). However, interdisciplinary research and training have their costs as well as their potential benefits

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences for environmental problem solving (e.g., Hansson 1999, Lasswell 1970). Balancing of the costs and benefits of interdisciplinary research and training was beyond the scope of the committee's work. But because the topic is relevant and important, we describe some current obstacles to producing true interdisciplinary research and some possible methods for overcoming them. Integrated, interdisciplinary environmental research will require scientists with broad, interdisciplinary perspectives, as well as an increased capability among environmental scientists in a given discipline to understand enough about other disciplines to work fruitfully with scientists in those fields. Such research may also require strengthening of interdisciplinary research communities (e.g., through interdisciplinary professional meetings, associations, journals, summer training institutes), particularly in the environmental social sciences. There are relatively few broadly interdisciplinary environmental scientists available to tackle the grand challenges outlined in this report. To utilize the talents of those interdisciplinary natural and social scientists, to increase their numbers, to encourage environmental scientists to collaborate across disciplines on cross-disciplinary problems, and to build interdisciplinary research communities, it will be necessary for funding structures to free individuals from the constraints imposed by disciplinary departments within universities and by the disciplinary panels that judge research proposals within funding agencies. It might be necessary to go beyond removing constraints. Mechanisms to be considered include forming interdisciplinary review panels; establishing mechanisms that will foster ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration (e.g., centers, laboratories, coordinators, virtual associations); funding networks for communication across research groups; supporting interdisciplinary communities; and even mandating integrated research across a range of relevant disciplines in calls for proposals, as has been done, for example, in the research program on water and watersheds of NSF, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture. It may be advisable to adopt multiple mechanisms because of the variety of barriers to interdisciplinary research. Training is particularly important, especially for producing a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists, but also for improving the capabilities of scientists to work effectively in multidisciplinary teams. Universities are generally organized according to traditional disciplines, posing barriers to interdisciplinary research and training. While innovative departments and institutes have been established at some universities, they are few in the United States. It is still unusual to find a program that trains students in several of the relevant natural science and social science fields. One mechanism that can provide a cross-disciplinary learning environment for undergraduate and graduate students is support for interdisciplinary research training groups. A training grant centered on a grand challenge could bring interested students to a university for periods of a few months to several years, and could sponsor such activities as visiting speakers, symposia, and workshops

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences that would bring together faculty and students from several different departments. In addition, a training grant could provide funds for equipment and facilities related to a research challenge. Training grants might also support summer programs that would attract graduate students and faculty to a single location for courses on new research techniques or data sets. In general, training grants are inexpensive compared with centers or institutes, and they have a built-in sunset clause since their existence depends on funding, rather than on a structural change in the university. The committee recommends that each of the planning workshops described in Chapter 3 address the issue of how best to build the needed capacity for research integration across disciplines in its particular area of research. NEED FOR INTERAGENCY SUPPORT OF GRAND CHALLENGE RESEARCH Funding for multidisciplinary and problem-oriented research presents two important implementation issues within federal agencies. One is the tendency in some agencies to fund and review research by discipline, essentially replicating the traditional structure of universities. Thus, a proposal for such a research effort would not fare well if judged only by disciplinary review panels. An example may be the grand challenge involving an ecological and evolutionary understanding of infectious diseases, because the topic crosses the boundaries between disciplines and between the traditional purviews of NSF and the National Institutes of Health. If considered by only one of those agencies, the research might fail to achieve some of its promise to bring ecology and biomedical science together. A second issue that might arise is due to the split between the perceived functions of so-called “research” and “mission” agencies. A sharp division between these designations is unfortunate because basic research in the environmental sciences is often inspired by practical needs. Agencies with resource management responsibilities need support from the environmental sciences to do their jobs well. On the other hand, research agencies that use public funds to support environmental research understand that the research should have some ultimate relevance for addressing environmental problems. Collaborations among both kinds of agencies on the grand challenges, such as apparently successful collaborations between NSF and mission agencies in funding environmental research on watersheds, industrial transformations, and other issues, could add depth and insight to the research and its results. The collaborating agencies will need to find ways to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and design research programs that adequately meet both curiosity-driven and decision-driven research needs.

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences NEED TO IMPROVE THE USEFULNESS OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE RESEARCH Investments in the grand challenges will yield both scientific and practical payoffs as outlined in Chapter 2 . However, major environmental science efforts of the past have not always had the strong practical value promised by proponents. For example, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program was prominently criticized as a good science project that yielded little information of use for policy (Rubin et al. 1992). Risk assessments for nuclear power plant operations, radioactive waste disposal, dioxin exposure, and other hazards have cost billions of dollars over many years, but have not resolved the scientific issues of greatest concern to participants in policy decisions (National Research Council 1994, 1996). The U.S. Global Change Research Program may have learned from such experiences. It invited regional participants in the 1998-1999 national assessment of climate change to discuss the relevance of scientific information resulting from the program to the needs of local decision makers, and the program has taken new directions as a result. It is important for research on the grand challenges to do well at responding to the informational needs of practical decision makers. However, doing so will itself require coordinated research focused on identifying and addressing the needs of decision makers and helping scientists make their contributions more understandable and relevant to the decisions being made. Research on human response to environmental science information reveals some of the reasons for past failures and offers lessons for future research programs (National Research Council 1989, 1996, 1999c). One reason for failure is that new scientific information may not fit well into people's usual modes of understanding and may therefore be ignored or systematically misinterpreted (Fischhoff 1994, 1998; Fischhoff and Downs 1997; Kahneman et al. 1982; Slovic 1987). Overcoming this problem requires systematic efforts to understand how people think about the relevant environmental processes and to develop information accordingly. The problem of achieving understanding is likely to be especially serious when the scientific information comes from complex system models yielding counterintuitive results. A second reason for failure results from the reliance of most users of scientific information on intermediaries, not scientists, for interpretations of research results. These intermediaries include mass media organizations, political commentators and interest groups, trade associations, social movement organizations, insurers, law firms, consultants, and government bureaucracies at all levels. When environmental scientists write reports and make public statements, they typically do not consider whether effective intermediaries are in place to reach the intended audiences, or whether existing intermediaries may ignore, shade, misinterpret, or deliberately distort the scientific conclusions. Although the design of effective information-delivery systems usually lies outside the ex

OCR for page 70
Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences pertise and interest of environmental scientists, it is important for making environmental science information useful. In particular, the design must be sensitive to the needs and capabilities of its intended audience (Jones et al. 1998, 1999). A third reason that environmental science may not live up to its practical potential is that the research questions addressed by scientists may not be those for which decision makers most want answers. For example, climate modelers may do excellent research to predict average precipitation, while planners want information on the likelihood of extreme precipitation events (e.g., Policansky 1977); risk assessors may predict the incidence of cancer in an entire population, while public health officials may be most concerned with risks to children. Sometimes the science does not match informational needs because theory and knowledge are insufficient to yield the desired information. Sometimes, however, having a clear picture of the needs of decision makers, including public officials, private and nonprofit organizations, and interested and affected members of the informed and attentive public can allow the scientific community to develop more relevant information than would otherwise be the case. Dialogue between environmental scientists and those whose lives the science is intended to improve can help uncover such possibilities for mutual benefit and clarify the limitations of science for those who want information that lies beyond present scientific capabilities. In so doing, dialogue may also help ensure the trusting relationship needed if public support for environmental science is to grow and if the information science produces is to be deemed credible. Such dialogue is typically required from the beginning of a research program, when the scientific questions are being framed (Fischhoff 2000, Institute of Medicine 1999, National Research Council 1996). It is for this reason that the users of environmental research should be included in the planning workshops recommended in Chapter 3 . Some federal agencies have been experimenting with such dialogues and report that the usefulness of the science improves without its quality being compromised. Increasing the usefulness of research may also require research to identify the kinds of information that could benefit various types of decision makers, the information they want, and the modes of presentation and systems of information delivery that would facilitate their effective use of the information. It may also require research, sometimes called “translational,” that establishes the implications of knowledge about basic processes for practical applications.