Chief, Scientific Planning and Coordination, National Biological Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
First let me commend the NRC for convening this forum on linkages between science and technology and societal goals for the environment. It's important because it acknowledges the legitimate role that societal goals must play in shaping environmental research priorities, as well as the role that research results play in shaping society's goals for the environment. Dialogue such as this one can help ensure that environmental science and technology activities are relevant to society's needs and aspirations. In fact, at the National Biological Service, we've initiated a similar series of dialogues with our sister bureaus at the Department of the Interior, with representatives of state agencies, private corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and the academic community.
The emphasis of my talk will be on the second of the two questions we were asked to address. How can science and technology contribute to meeting future societal goals for the environment? I want to begin by stating a few personal beliefs. First is my belief that environmental challenges confronting the United States are some of the most critical issues we face today. Others have argued that ecological issues are one of the key defining forces in the still emerging New World Order. I think current and emerging environmental problems are different in scale and kind from those that led to the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In the 1970s, our focus was primarily on human health issues. Today, environmental concerns result from less tangible causes, may be less amenable to treatment, and may have potentially more cumulative irreversible effects than previously thought. In addition, many of the new and emerging environmental problems are fundamentally ecological in nature. These include the disposal of
solid and toxic wastes, deforestation, watershed destruction, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. As a result, environmental research has increasingly focused on the health of the environment, the value of ecosystems services, and the ability of the biosphere to provide—on a sustainable basis—the goods and services demanded by the needs and aspirations of an increasing human population. In many ways, the situation we face at the National Biological Service with respect to natural resource issues is analogous to the one faced in the pollution and human health arena. Initially, we rallied public support in support of saving bald eagles, gray whales, and the like. We focused on individual species and on case-by-case responses. Now, we recognize that fungi and mussels and issues such as habitat fragmentation are at least as important, if not more critical.
The nation's biological resources are the basis for much of our current prosperity and social well-being, essential parts of the wealth that we will pass on to future generations. Our very existence is dependent on the plant and animal products that provide us food, fuel, fiber, shelter, and pharmaceuticals. In addition to these biological products that enter our market economy, we depend on healthy ecological systems for critical services such as clean air, clean water, and fertile soil. Recently, Tim Worth, Undersecretary of State for the Environment, has asserted "that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment." Since biological resources and ecological systems are an essential part of our nation's wealth, like other forms of wealth, they should be managed wisely. Human population growth and the pursuit of an improved quality of life have produced unintended threats to the health of biological resources and the integrity of the ecological systems.
Increasingly, the private sector will determine the boundaries in which the individuals and households make environmental decisions. Ecosystem health and integrity are concepts that are widely used when talking about biological resources and environmental quality. Yet they are still without precise scientific definition. Healthy ecological systems provide goods in the form of food, raw materials, sources of energy, medicinal plants, and genetic resources among others. They also provide services, such as maintaining hydrological cycles, cleansing water and air, pollinating crops and other important plants, storing and cycling essential nutrients, providing sites for tourism and recreation, regulating climate, maintaining the composition of the atmosphere, generating and maintaining soils and reefs, naturally controlling disease vectors, and absorbing detoxifying pollutants. And I could go on. This growing awareness of the inescapable interdependence of human health and welfare and the integrity of ecological systems has led to a recognition of the need for strengthening the research on and monitoring of the nation's biological resources and the ecological systems for which they are imbedded. The extent to which biological resources and ecological systems are sustained will, in fact, determine the variety of socially and economically viable management options that can be retained for the future.
Let me turn to the National Biological Service. Why was NBS created? The
mission of the National Biological Service is to work with others, to provide the information and technologies needed to manage and conserve the nation's biological resources. To achieve a goal this large, NBS must first work in partnership with others and second take a more integrated ecological systems approach to problem solving. NBS was created out of the recognition by Secretary Babbit, that ecological train wrecks, as he called them, come from taking a single resource or a single species approach when there are many competing interests, and from focusing on current needs and not looking ahead. Based on this analysis, he concluded that the most important step to take in avoiding these crises involves integrating research efforts to create a unified attempt to understand whole systems. It is his view that such an enhanced scientific understanding will help us anticipate and plan for the future, rather that simply react to it. If NBS is to help prevent train wrecks, it must address multiple resource and multiple species issues at ecosystem to regional scales. To do this, NBS must be more strategic and more proactive in what research it undertakes. NBS research must expand our understanding of how ecological systems work and use that understanding to both project trends into the future and address real problems facing resource managers. This approach has required NBS to rethink ongoing projects and to ask how funds can be redirected to link together projects that once were viewed as unrelated.
Where did NBS come from? NBS is the newest bureau of the Department of the Interior. It was created in 1993 by merging the biological research, inventory, monitoring, and information technology related capabilities of seven Department of the Interior bureaus. NBS has no regulatory or resource management responsibility—thus lessening the chance that our findings would be unduly influenced by policy or enforcement issues or that they would be tainted by the suspicion that science was made subservient to the needs of policy-makers. NBS's job is simply to provide better science relevant to the needs of resource managers. Let me say a bit about what NBS is not—both because it's worth examining the kind of misinformation that has been spread about NBS and because it raises a key aspect of how NBS will do its business. NBS has been accused of being a single giant survey that will sweep the nation, "An army of intrusive agenda-toting environmentalists in science disguise." This is not what NBS is. Most of NBS's time is devoted to research on the causes of environmental change and how management decisions affect biological resources.
It is certainly true that we need to know more, but a critical element of that is making sense of the myriad efforts that are already going on. Federal agencies, state agencies, museums and universities, private corporations, and nongovernmental organizations all spend money to collect data and conduct research on biological resources and ecological systems. These efforts do not add up to coherent views of the biota of even places we've studied intensively, like South Florida, yet alone the entire United States. Thus, Secretary Babbit requested advice from the National Research Council in the establishment of NBS. In its 1993 report,
the NRC encouraged the development of a new national multisector cooperative program of federal, state, and local agencies; museums; academic institutions; and private organizations to collect, house, access, and provide access to the scientific information needed to understand the current state of the nation's biological resources. NBS is embarking on creating such a national partnership.
Now let me turn to my first recommendation for the forum, and that is: Don't ignore how we do environmental science and technology. We need to focus not only on what we study, but how we study it. In trying to bring about this national partnership, NBS can play an important role in ensuring that there is more and better information on the status and trends of the nation's biological resources. First, NBS can work with DOI land management agencies to ensure that there is adequate inventory and monitoring. Secondly, NBS can work with federal agencies, states, and the private sector to ensure that more rigorous standards and protocols are developed. Here the major NBS role is not to conduct new surveys, but rather to help provide a common architecture that ensures the reliability of the information collected by others. Third, NBS can play a critical role in making certain that both existing and new information are fully available to all decision-makers. Providing the science to guide the resource management requires that we understand and are able to predict the major causes of biological resource degradation and the effects of various drivers of change in ecological systems. Key driving forces generating change in ecosystem structure and function include natural and environmental perturbations and anthropogenic stresses, such as extractive and nonextractive uses, habitat destruction, and impacts from contaminants and pollutants.
The NBS both conducts tactical research on issues already identified as serious problems and undertakes strategic research aimed at addressing emerging and future problems. In moving toward a more integrated research approach, NBS has established the following general principles to guide the development of more integrated research. First, to co-locate seemingly unrelated projects on upland, bird, stream, fishes, and wetland plants on the same site and, then, share information on land use, change, weather patterns, contaminant exposure, etc. We believe this can avoid duplicated efforts and eventually lead to an integrated understanding of multispecies responses to management practices. To coordinate research protocols and methods so that studies in different area or by different agencies, but on the same species or on the same contaminants, when possible use the same methods. This would prevent us from duplicating efforts and will allow more sharing of data and more across-sight comparisons. To emphasize studies that link biological trends with physical forces that drive those trends. For example, studies of habitat suitability must be linked to an understanding of the physical and anthropogenic factors that create and destroy habitat or change habitat suitability. To increase our effort on establishing cause-and-effect relationships between environmental factors and trends in biota. For example, we need to establish cause and links between contaminant exposure and population declines.
To begin to link our biological and ecological studies to the social and economic driving forces of environmental change and to project simultaneous ecological and economic trends. To place greater emphases on predictive studies that will allow us to forecast the impact of alternative management and policy decisions on populations and ecosystems. And to develop more taxonomic breadth and devote more funds to studies of species other than birds, mammals, and fish. It is our belief that these steps can lead to a more proactive ecosystem approach that places individual studies in a broader context and enhances our ability to predict the consequences of management decisions for a wide range of biological resources and ecological systems. So my final recommendations to the forum are: Recognize the increasingly ecological nature of environmental problems, foster integrated ecological research where appropriate, and don't ignore the role of the private sector in establishing the boundaries within which individuals and households will make environmental decisions.