Bonus Billion Urged for Environmental Research

WASHINGTON, D.C.--After years of complaints from scientists and activists that it pays environmental research short shrift, the National Science Foundation (NSF) heard a similar message last week from its own governors. The National Science Board (NSB) issued a report recommending that NSF ramp up spending on environmental science from $600 million in 1999 to $1.6 billion in 5 years.

Such a boost would jibe with the direction in which NSF director Rita Colwell, an ecologist, is steering the agency. Last year, she proposed a network of "biodiversity observatories" to study interactions among organisms (Science, 25 September 1998, p. 1935), a project that could get under way in 2000. But although NSF takes advice from the science board seriously, the prescribed boost is far from a fait accompli: Congress must approve any increase, and early indications are that NSF's overall budget request could face a tough time this year.

The NSB panel, chaired by marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis, reviewed scores of reports on environmental policy as well as hundreds of comments from organizations and individuals. The report says NSF devotes 20% of its budget to environmental research projects ranging from microbes that thrive in hot springs to field sites that collect data on long-term trends, such as acid rain's effects on forest growth. But $600 million is not nearly enough, concludes the report, which argues that environmental research "should be one of the highest priorities of the [NSF]," with additional funding for everything from more interdisciplinary research to objective reviews of data for policy-makers.

According to the panel, one area ripe for more funding is ecosystem services, a field that blends social sciences and environmental science to get a handle on the economic benefits of, say, preserving watersheds, which filter contaminants from drinking water. Also high on the agenda is research on environmental technologies, such as remote sensing of landscapes and DNA chips that can identify which genes a microbe needs to thrive in a particular environment. "There are really exciting opportunities for progress," Lubchenco says.

The overarching concern, however, is whether Congress will go along with a $1 billion boost earmarked for environmental science. Howard Silver, who heads a lobby group called the Coalition for National Science Funding, says he is skeptical that such funding will materialize anytime soon. But he applauds the agency for "thinking big." As he says, "One can plant a seed."