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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:

  • What are the natural phenomena and human activities that cause environmental change?
  • When, where, by how much, and at what rates will the environment change as a result of human activities? Who will be most affected?
  • How will natural and human systems be affected by environmental change, including extreme events?
  • What are present and prospective technical options and policy responses for mitigation and restoration of, and adaptation to, environmental changes?
  • What are institutional, economic, and attitudinal barriers to implementing available options, and what are the costs and benefits of implementation?

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

  • Toxic Substances Control Act
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response
  • Federal Water Pollution Control Act
  • Compensation, and Liability Act
  • Oil Pollution Act
  • Resources Conservation and Recovery Act
  • Safe Drinking Water Act
  • Pollution Prevention Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Public Health Service Act

Major Natural Resource Related Laws

  • National Environmental Policy Act
  • Coastal Zone Management Act
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act
  • Resource Conservation Planning Act
  • Forest Land Management Planning Act
  • Ocean Dumping Ban Act
  • Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act
  • Shore Protection Act
  • Marine Plastics Pollution Research and Control Act
  • Energy Policy Act
  • Global Climate Change Protection Act
  • Global Change Research Act
  • Renewable Natural Resources Planning Act
  • Atomic Energy Act

Natural Disaster Related U.S. Laws

  • Disaster Relief Act
  • National Flood Insurance Act
  • National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act
  • Flood Disaster Protection Act
  • National Flood Insurance Reform Act
  • Weather Service Modernization Act

Regional and Global Initiatives, Agreements, or Conventions

  • Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution
  • Vienna Convention to Protect the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Convention on Biological Diversity (signed, not ratified)
  • International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction
  • London Dumping Convention
  • International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships
  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (signed, not ratified)
  • Global Forestry Agreement
  • Agenda 21 and Follow-On Activities (e.g., United Nations Council on Sustainable Development)
  • North American Free Trade Agreement
  • General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade

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

  • Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990
  • Characterization of the relative risks and sources of air pollution that are not covered by comprehensive legislation or regulation, such as degraded indoor air

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:

  • Long-term observations and analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of recent regulatory initiatives aimed at improving urban air pollution, acid rain, and visibility in our national parks.

  • Identification of emerging health or environmental problems associated with susceptible human populations; long-term exposures in the home or workplace; and crop, forest, and material damage, which are required to set appropriate standards and actions.

  • Characterization of the processes involved in air quality changes to improve inventories of emissions, chemical and meteorological processes that link source and receptor areas, and the testing and improvement of predictive air quality models, all of which focus on providing scientifically defensible options for decisions.

  • Assessing the state of knowledge on understanding air quality issues, which includes the knowns and unknowns of the science and the costs and benefits of potential actions or inaction.

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

  • Understanding the formation of ground-level ozone in urban and rural areas. Elevated ozone causes considerable cost to the nation in health care and lost agricultural and forest productivity. Expanded research on the causes of ground-level ozone is needed to determine how well current regulations are meeting their objectives and to provide critical input to the midcourse state implementation plans of the CAAA. This information will help determine whether current and future regulatory actions reduce ground-level ozone in the most cost-effective way.

    Specific activities will include: (1) field observations and networks to improve the characterization of human-made and natural sources of ozone precursors, formation and loss processes, exposure levels and impacts, and overall predictive capabilities and (2) an integrated state-of-understanding assessment of ground-level ozone, its consequences, and mitigation options. These activities will be coordinated under the new North American Research Strategy for Tropospheric Ozone (NARSTO) Program, which involves federal, state, and local agencies; Canada and Mexico; utilities and other companies; academic institutions; and private and national laboratories.

  • Characterization of the health impacts of airborne fine particles. Epidemiological studies indicate significant associations between fine airborne particles (PM) and adverse human health effects at PM levels below current standards. The biological mechanisms of health effects are not well understood. New methods will be developed to effectively and inexpensively measure PM concentrations to facilitate better characterization of population exposures. Additional scientific data will be collected to ensure that current and future actions are effective.

    Research is conducted to understand the risks and causal mechanisms by which particles adversely affect human health, with particular foci on exposure levels, size and chemical content, role of exposure to multiple stresses, and identification of particularly susceptible human populations.

Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998

  • Provide scientific input to air quality management planning for the highly stressed Great Smoky Mountains National Park by completing an extensive field study with diagnostic modeling to understand the extent, causes, and processes involved in local visibility problems.

  • Characterize the roles of production and movement of ground-level ozone precursors and the role of meteorology on ozone formation in a region of high natural hydrocarbon emissions and a region of high complexity (Nashville Field Campaign-Southern Oxidants Study) to help formulate more effective emission-abatement applications for specific regions of the country.

  • Quantitatively compare the effects of anthropogenic fine particles to those of coarse, windblown dust particles on human health. This information will better identify the sources that could be most effectively addressed to lower health risks.

  • Conduct a National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) assessment of (1) the reduction in deposition rates necessary to prevent adverse ecological effects and (2) the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of the current acid deposition control strategies mandated under Title IV of the CAAA of 1990.

  • Create Great Waters and Urban Toxics Inventories to characterize the major risks faced by Native Americans from their basic fish stocks and by inner-city individuals from airborne toxics in the urban environment. These inventories will help to design impact evaluation methods and appropriate amelioration strategies.

  • Conduct a comprehensive state-of-science assessment of surface-ozone that is summarized in policy-useful terms and that is prepared by the broad scientific community as well as other communities, sponsored by the relevant agencies, reviewed by peers and stakeholder communities, and timed to aid decisions associated with midcourse corrections in the state implementation plans required by the CAAA.

  • Standardize indoor air tests, develop instrumentation, and evaluate standard procedures that will lead to commercialization of monitoring equipment to improve the health of the nation's residential and commercial buildings.

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
  • Endangered Species Act
  • National Environmental Policy Act
  • National Forest Management Act
  • Renewable Natural Resources Act
  • Renewable National Resources Research Act
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act
  • National Park Service Organic Act
  • Wilderness Act

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:

  • Biophysical requirements needed to sustain numerous species of plants and animals.

  • The effects of existing and new resource management methods on biological diversity, ecosystem composition, and key ecological processes, such as nutrient cycling, within both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

  • Interactions among populations of species, especially the effect of exotic species on native populations.

  • The role of species as indicators of ecosystem status and the relationship of species to ecosystems at various spatial scales.

  • The effects of landscape fragmentation on ecosystems, species, and processes.

Areas of Enhanced Emphasis

  • Prepare a comprehensive map of U.S. ecosystems. We need to know the spatial location, ecological status, and trends of major ecosystems over time. Research will couple remote sensing with ground-based data to prepare a set of ecosystem maps of the United States. The maps will include information on primary vegetation type and quality, associated plant and animal species, and current usage. This information would allow resource managers, land- and water-use planners, and policymakers to make better informed decisions at local and regional scales.

  • Enhance access to information on the nation's plants and animals. Existing collections of data for millions of specimens will be computerized and made more accessible to the nation's scientists and the public. Efforts to describe additional biota and their ecological situations will be augmented. Increased information on poorly known taxonomic groups, such as aquatic invertebrates and subterranean fauna, that includes data on their geographical occurrence and associated environment conditions would greatly increase the ability to sustain terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and to conserve biodiversity in harmony with land use.

  • Improve understanding of the socioeconomic values of ecosystems. Society's well-being, including such diverse things as clean water, medicines, food, fiber, and recreation, depends on biological resources and ecological processes. The many demands placed on ecosystems requires an improved understanding of the social and economic values of these ecosystems. Efforts are being expanded to understand how social and economic forces interact with biodiversity and ecosystems. This information will facilitate the conservation and sustainable use of essential ecosystem components and processes.

  • Improve understanding of the role of species in ecosystems. The integrity of a given ecosystem may depend in large part on the functional roles played by key plant and animal species. However, the veracity of this statement remains largely unknown. Nor is it known if there is functional redundancy among species within an ecosystem or if a key species has a significant impact on an ecosystem. Efforts are being expanded to understand the relationship between a species and ecosystem function. This knowledge is needed to adequately monitor and manage ecosystems, while avoiding intractable resource-use conflicts.

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

  • Publish common standards and protocols needed to classify and map ecological units and their biological and physical attributes. This information will help both public and private land owners to understand how to sustainably use terrestrial and aquatic resources.

  • Publish an ecosystem map for the United States at a scale that allows land-use planners, resource managers, industry, the public, and policymakers to incorporate spatially explicit social, economic, and environmental factors into urban planning and resource management decisions.

  • Complete establishment of a network of representative long-term sites to determine ecological baselines and to demonstrate how various ecosystem management approaches can be achieved. The management demonstrations will be coupled to a comparative ecosystem research program and to the development of statistically valid monitoring protocols. These links will provide a continuous flow of information to adjust resource management strategies over time to meet evolving social goals.

  • Calculate the social and economic impacts (local, regional, and national) of alternative management scenarios: track cumulative social and economic effects of various ecosystem management regimes, such as impacts on fishery management and agricultural programs. Such analyses will provide policymakers with a better understanding of the social and economic costs associated with various natural resource management or protection options.

  • Determine the functional characteristics to be used to group species so that data essential to successfully maintaining or restoring the population of a species can be extrapolated from studies of a few representative species to entire groups of species. These characteristics will enable extensive existing basic research on targeted key species to be used to generalize habitat requirements necessary to maintain viable populations of most species. This approach is a cost-effective way for society to avoid the need for detailed individual studies on large numbers of species.

Research Successes - Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

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Environment and Natural Resources - Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Executive Summary

Research Successes - Ecosystem Research

Research Successes - Observation & Data Management

Research Successes - Biodiversity

Research Successes - Environmental Technology

Research Successes - Global Change


Research Successes - Natural Disaster Reduction

Research Successes - Environmental Change

Research Successes - Forest Research

Research Successes - Air Quality

Research Successes - Lead Levels

Research Successes - Science Policy Tools

Research Successes - Water Resources