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Page 5 2 At the Agency Level INTRODUCTION The problems and opportunities briefly described in Part I require actions at all levels of government. With a high-level focal point in the new administration and the needed resources to support critical linkages, new research areas, and the sustained observations, modeling, and information systems, agencies should be able to carry out their missions while contributing to a larger societal imperative. Whether addressing weather, climate, water quality, environmental protection, natural resources, or health and human services, certain steps need to be taken to understand and effectively respond to the complex needs, not only globally but also of particular populations in particular locations (i.e., “place-based” research and decision making). What is done in the next 10 years will strongly influence what is possible in the next 50. We emphasize that critical environmental issues are emerging rapidly. Some of these issues (e.g., fisheries declines) require immediate attention, and others, relating to the long-term viability of the earth's life support system (e.g., climate change effects), may become critical in this century. For these, the long-term risk is sufficiently high that we should prepare now through improved understanding and information for the decisions that might be needed later. The recent progress of science and technology gives real reason for hope that the nation's environmental challenges can be successfully addressed. The challenge of sustainable development—the reconciliation of society's developmental goals with its environmental limits—can only be met by advances in basic knowledge, flow of information, and technological capabilities, together with the political will and social capacity to make use of them. The report Our Common Journey concluded that there is no scientific or technical reason why the challenge cannot be met. The accelerating pace of discovery in science and technology is driving explosive growth in the production of new knowledge, often with the power to induce profound changes in society. For example, combining environmental observations and new information technologies (viz, Internet and geographic information systems) will readily make available information that has the potential to improve decision making and protect life and property. If organized properly, connecting scientific discovery
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Page 6 and decision making can help bring about a much more productive relationship between society and the environment. SCIENTIFIC AND ORGANIZATIONAL ISSUES A great deal of knowledge, know-how, and capacity for learning about sustainable development is already assembled in various observational systems, laboratories, and management regimes around the world—but these resources are not widely known or used. Changes in the environmental research enterprise must ensure that this gap is closed and that knowledge is put into action. Key enabling steps will be a framework of standards and organizational incentives, including the necessary resources that encourage integration. Given such a framework, webs of observing and information systems can grow by capturing initiatives that have many different origins, funding sources, and motivations. To do so, the organizational approach must be designed from the start to be able to evolve with time. The Fundamental Research Agenda The first steps must be to implement the research agenda that is clearly defined in this report's primary references (see section A of the Bibliography) and discussed thoroughly in the many more detailed reports on which the primary references are based (see section B and section C of the Bibliography). Here we restrict ourselves to several very general observations. For global change research there is a need to create more focused programs of research and multidisciplinary process studies related to the six critical areas identified in the Pathways report: changes in the biology and biogeochemistry of ecosystems, changes in the climate system on seasonal-to-interannual timescales, changes in the climate system on decadal-to-century timescales, changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, long-term historical changes in the earth system, and the human dimensions of global environmental change. Fundamental to these research endeavors are high-quality, long-term environmental observations and the information systems to provide access to and to interrelate these data. For sustainability research, strategies should be developed and employed that improve understanding of human reliance and human effects on environmental systems, by combining research with real-life experiments that are carefully planned to provide opportunities to improve the process as we go along. These strategies must incorporate fundamental research on such understudied issues as consumption, social transitions, and carrying capacity. They must bring together both global and local perspectives from the natural and social sciences so that the multiple cumulative environmental stresses of a particular location can be understood, resulting risks identified, and coping strategies formulated. And these strategies will have to include new resources for emerging areas of research such as ecosystems and human dimensions of global and regional environmental change. For environmental and ecosystem research, the overall challenge is to sustain and strengthen a diversity of research efforts in the many supporting fields of science and engineering, to promote the aggregation of these efforts into multidisciplinary studies of critical systems, and to recognize the essential complexity of these systems. The role of ecosystems in providing essential products and services must be better understood—in particular how broader environmental changes and human interactions might affect these products and services. It will be important to exploit advances in such areas as ecosystem
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Page 7 sciences, biotechnology, and information science to advance the research effort and to plan to use new technologies to solve environmental issues before they reach criticality. The unifying themes are to better understand the interactions of the earth system and social system, how those interactions contribute to changes in the environment, and how to develop new strategies for mitigating and adapting to the changes. Effectively addressing these challenges will require stronger connections between the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering. Implementing an Effective Research Agenda In addition to the fundamental research areas outlined above, the committee recommends eight actions that apply to all areas of the environmental enterprise and that need to be carried out by agencies collectively and individually. Each of these action elements is discussed below. 1. Ensure an “intimate connection” between research, operational activities, and the support of decision making. A change in the research enterprise dealing with environmental change and environment–society interactions is urgently needed. Organization of this research should no longer be exclusively defined by academic discipline but should encourage an intimate connection between research, operational activities, and the support of decision making. There are two principal reasons for this. First, the interplay of natural and human factors is not understood well enough to fully inform many of the policy decisions that will be made. Second, and more fundamentally, in many cases the physical (e.g., meteorological and biogeochemical), ecological, economic, and societal data simply do not exist to adequately address these problems. When they do exist, they are often collected and configured in a manner that makes them difficult, if not impossible, to relate to one another. The NRC has described each of these issues in an extensive series of reports over the past several years, including the lack of long-term, sustained climate and ecological observing systems and the lack of societal and economic data necessary to assess environmental challenges in an integrated fashion. Dealing with numerous simultaneous environmental and societal stressors will demand a new level of integration of agency programs. This integration must encompass not only different disciplines but also the identification and transfer of useful products created in the research arena to an operational (i.e., routine and adequately funded) status. Moreover, effective lines of communication need to be established to convey the needs of information users (e.g., decision makers, the public, scientists) to those producing the data to ensure that the data products that are intended for a certain purpose are indeed of maximal utility. 2. Participate in and support interdisciplinary research relating physical, biological, and human systems. Interdisciplinary programs are called for when there is a long-term commitment to understanding issues that require a multiplicity of perspectives. Research systems must be developed that can integrate global and local perspectives to shape a geographically specific (“place-based”) understanding of the interactions between environment and society. Such systems will need to be built on the disciplinary intellectual foundations of the geophysical, chemical, biological, social, and technological sciences, as well as on their interdisciplinary research programs in areas such as earth systems science and industrial ecology—the relationship between industrial activities, their products, and the environment. Among the
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Page 8 central challenges to such research systems will be to better understand how multiple cumulative stresses come together in particular settings to shape the vulnerability of social and ecological systems to change. Establishing such a focus is also necessary to provide a conceptual and operational approach for monitoring progress in integrated understanding and management. Across all of these domains, research programs must be designed to support and learn from assessment processes that delineate the complex interplay of socioeconomic and environmental systems. New integrative strategies are needed. Since improvements in one sector do not necessarily imply improvements in others, and since interactions among sectors must be taken into account, strategies that study and manage the world as a dynamic and interacting system are needed. Process studies, which are investigations of limited duration designed to probe uncertainties in knowledge about complex environmental systems, should be an important part of the integration strategy. They are called for when understanding is insufficient for the purposes of modeling or, for instance, when an ensemble of model predictions does not encompass the actual observations. Concepts and theories that account for feedbacks and interactions among natural and social systems must be created and tested, and institutions and partnerships must be developed to create more tightly integrated and dynamic systems of research, assessment, and decision making. 3. Plan and implement sustained and integrated observing networks and information systems that transcend traditional agency boundaries. Critical to the entire endeavor is the construction of webs of observing and information systems. The United States needs an observing system to establish key trends in critical variables to answer such fundamental questions as: To what extent has the surface temperature changed from state to state and globally? Are weather events becoming more severe? To what extent have ecosystems changed? These observations are critical for initializing and testing models used for environmental prediction and for developing and testing key hypotheses such as: To what extent are climate and ecosystem changes due to natural variation, to what extent to human activities such as land use change for forestry and agriculture, and to what extent to human activities that affect atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, soot, and sulfate aerosols? And how do the effects of these changes factor into the myriad societal changes that influence human and environmental health differently from region to region? Observations pertaining to different disciplines must be integrated and sustained, thereby producing an observing system of immense utility to science and society. Observing and information systems need to be constructed through a collaborative process involving the scientific community, operational agencies, and those who will use the systems to support decision making and management in the public and private sectors. These systems must preserve the continuity of essential long-term measurements while accommodating technological change and addressing scientific and practical objectives simultaneously. From the outset the research design must include organizational planning for the continuity of useful environmental information. The current observational approach often relies on capturing opportunistic observations made through limited-duration research programs and/or single-purpose observations made for operational reasons. In the current approach, gaps are created because there is no long-term framework or funding for building an integrated, sustained, end-to-end capability. The criteria used today by agencies to make short-term funding decisions often impede the establishment of integrated long-term observing systems that will be needed for regionally focused decision support services.
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Page 9 Moreover, observations used to understand global and regional change are made by dozens of individual governmental entities, often in a manner that is driven solely by an agency's focused mandate, without consideration of low- or no-cost steps that could be taken to make the data more useful to a much broader range of users. The nation must establish an observational approach to address these problems. 4. Plan to incorporate scientific and technological advances into ongoing research and operational programs. The continuing information revolution will make it easier and easier to connect new research results with decision making. From the search for understanding microbial processes in Antarctic ice to tracing contaminant effects in the Arctic ocean, from the investigation of nanoscale interactions on mineral surfaces to the influence of solar flares, from the properties of DNA to animal migration patterns, from the physics of the oceans and atmosphere to the behavior of the climate—all are part of the search to understand earth's life forms and their complex relationship to the physical habitat. That search can be propelled by new tools for discovery, including new genomic methods, increased observational and computational capacities, and more sensitive and versatile analytical instrumentation. Concepts and tools such as these should then be assembled and applied to studies of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems and their interactions with human populations around the world. What is needed are increases in the speed and efficiency with which useful scientific and technological advances are incorporated into subsequent research and transferred to an operational mode for utilization by business and science. 5. Develop improved models and new predictive capabilities. Prediction and scenario projection are central to translating knowledge into economic value, improved human welfare, and sustenance of the environment on which life depends. Every citizen appreciates knowing when it will rain, and the emergency management agencies want to know when a big storm is coming and how much damage it may cause. Demands for new forecasting products of air quality, energy demand, water quality and quantity, ultraviolet radiation, and human health indexes are growing. The demands are driven by the beneficial planning and adaptation to potential environmental changes that are enabled through the provision of predictions and projections. At the global level, many key questions relate to what will happen if the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases doubles or triples in this century. The only way to approach these questions is through numerical modeling, which requires better scientific understanding and much more supercomputing capacity to improve the capability to project long-term climate and chemical consequences of possible changes in such factors as greenhouse gases and land use. Also required are observations to set the models' initial conditions and to use as a basis for diagnosing model output. Some of the most significant gaps in numerical simulation exist in the analysis and modeling of ecosystem and human response to environmental change, as well as physical (e.g., climate, atmospheric and land surface chemistry) changes at the fine scales of human interest and certain physical phenomena (e.g., clouds). 6. Develop improved assessment capabilities for integrating scientific knowledge into effective decision support systems. Assessment and policy analysis are essential to understand the overall impact of changes in human behavior and natural processes, to link research agendas with decision needs, and to monitor the results of policy actions. Effective assessment aims to integrate the concepts, methods, and results of the physical, biological, and social sciences into a decision support
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Page 10 framework. Unfortunately, our ability to create effective and efficient assessments is limited. Assessments that provide useful, credible scientific information to decision makers in a timely and politically acceptable manner remain the exception rather than the rule. At the same time, assessment activities are consuming an ever-increasing portion of the limited time and money resources of the scientific community. Research on how to do more effective, credible, and helpful scientific assessments is badly needed. Of particular importance will be the development of assessment processes that link knowledge producers and users in a dialogue that builds a mutual understanding of what is needed, what can credibly be said, and how it can be said in a way that maintains both scientific credibility and political legitimacy. The need to design efficient assessment processes that effectively balance scientific credibility and political acceptability is particularly acute in the realm of transnational or global environmental issues. An important result of the observations and analyses conducted over the first 10 years of the U.S. Global Change Research Program is that we now have a far greater appreciation of the linkages among earth systems. These include feedbacks between the terrestrial ecosystems (soils, plants, and animals), the atmosphere, oceans, and human activities (e.g., emissions from industrial processes such as ore smelting and solvent use, energy use, and agriculture). In turn, we have found that environmental change has broad and subtle effects on forests, ocean and freshwater fisheries, and agriculture and that these effects are a potential threat to human well-being. We still do not have sufficient knowledge or analytical capability to fully assess the magnitude of these changes or exactly when or how changes might beneficially or adversely affect particular regions of the country or sectors of the economy. This limits the nation's ability to capitalize on the positive aspects of the changes and adapt to the negative ones. In support of such strategic efforts to build more effective assessment systems, further development of a number of policy analysis tools will be needed, including integrated assessment models. These models seek to link formal models of the environment and society. They probe uncertainties in our understanding of the human–environment interface and the significance of those uncertainties for future implications of current decisions. They are now being extensively applied to the large-scale interactions between economic development and the atmosphere (e.g., ozone depletion, acid rain) and to address the risk of climate change (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The federal government must renew and increase its commitment to supporting integrated modeling and assessment. Also critical to the assessment process are repeated observations of key indicators of natural and social phenomena, obtained at regular intervals, to inform society about progress in achieving sustainable development. A variety of indicators and approaches, including national capital accounts, policy assessments, monitoring basic trends and transitions, and diagnosing risks of surprises, will be needed. Resources must be provided and support given to develop and continue assessment processes. 7. Define and carry out programs of regional and sectoral multiple-stress research and demonstration projects. Most of the individual environmental problems that have occupied the world's attention to date are unlikely in themselves to prevent substantial progress in a transition toward sustaining the environmental systems on which humans and other biota depend. More troubling are the environmental threats arising from multiple, cumulative, and interactive stresses, driven by a variety of human activities. Most research and policy currently focus on single causes and single effects. This approach is proving inadequate for advising on
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Page 11 comprehensive management strategies and has the potential to produce unintended consequences because it does not account for the inherent complexity of interacting human and natural systems. Therefore, it is time to get started on programs of regional and sectoral multiple-stress research and demonstration projects. Support is needed to encourage the new partnerships and integration of observing and information systems required to build decision support capability. New funding can be a critical stimulus to the new partnerships among researchers and users, federal and state agencies, universities, and industry needed to get regionally specific, multiple-stress research started. The NRC's Board on Sustainable Development has proposed regional efforts related to water, atmosphere and climate, and species and ecosystems. Several pilot projects could be started relatively soon. The successful ones would serve as hubs for further coalescence of a more comprehensive effort. 8. Connect research, education, and outreach. Fundamental change will be possible only if education and outreach efforts communicate the progress of understanding to all concerned. A requirement for education and outreach permeates all of the organizational levels mentioned above. We need to sustain the nation's supply of scientists, train the people who will manage our environment, alert decision makers, communicate to the public the reasons for decisions, and support a knowledgeable electorate. The quality, diversity, inclusiveness, and timeliness of education and outreach efforts are probably the most important factors determining success or failure in the long run.
Representative terms from entire chapter: