Eight Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences

provided by National Research Council


cientists have long sought to unravel the mysteries of the life, land, water, and air that surround us, but population growth and increased economic activity during the past century have altered the complex systems of our environment. As the consequences of humanity's impact on the planet become increasingly evident, governments are realizing the critical importance of better understanding these environmental systems, and investing billions of dollars in research to do so.

To help the US government identify new environmental science projects that should receive high priority, a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council identifies eight important areas of environmental research for the next generation. The report, which was requested by the National Science Foundation (NSF), further narrows this list to four areas of research that merit immediate investment.

The committee that wrote the report solicited nominations for "grand" challenges in the environmental sciences in a letter circulated to thousands of scientists in the United States and abroad. After receiving more than 200 responses, the committee selected eight major areas of focus that offer the potential for a timely, major scientific breakthrough of practical importance to humankind based on recent developments in science and technology, and that are feasible if given major new funding. It also considered whether the research would take advantage of expertise in many scientific disciplines. The committee did not prioritize the challenges, described below, saying that they were of equal importance.


Biogeochemical cycles

  Six nutrient elements - carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus make up 95 percent of the biosphere and form the biochemical foundation for life. A major challenge for many scientific disciplines is to understand how changes in the balance of these nutrients in soil, water, and air affect the functioning of ecosystems, atmospheric chemistry, and human health. More information is needed to assess how human activities affect the circulation of these elements throughout the Earth's environment, to understand the impacts of these changes, and to provide a scientific basis for decisions that may alter major biogeochemical cycles.


Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning

  An improved understanding is needed of the factors - including human activities that affect biodiversity, and of how biodiversity relates to the overall functioning of an ecosystem. Tools are needed for rapidly assessing biodiversity and understanding the effects of losses of species. In addition, how to design habitats that sustain biodiversity despite human intrusion should be studied further.


Climate variability

  Scientists need a better understanding of how the Earth's climate varies over a wide range of time scales, from extreme storms that develop quickly to changes in whether patterns that occur over several decades. Some of the most vital areas of research include improving observational capabilities and extending the record of weather measurements farther back into Earth's history. More information also is needed on how climate change affects society.


Hydrologic forecasting

  Human demand for water continues to grow. More research is needed to help predict changes in freshwater resources and the environment caused by floods, droughts, sedimentation, and contamination. How precipitation affects water levels, how surface water is generated and transported, how ground water moves, and how changes in the landscape affect water supplies and the flow of sediment are among the most important areas for study.


Infectious disease and the environment

  To prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases in plants, animals, and humans, scientists need to understand how pathogens, parasites, and disease-carrying species, as well as the humans and other species they infect, are affected by changes in their environments. For example, changes in human use of antibiotics, agricultural practices and water use can alter the spread of pathogens and susceptibility to infection. Researchers can take advantage of new technologies in genetics and computing to better monitor and predict the effects of environmental changes on disease outbreaks.


Institutions and resource use

  More information is needed about how the condition of natural resources is shaped by markets, governments, international treaties, laws, and informal rules that govern environmentally significant human activities.


Land-use dynamics

  Human alteration of the Earth's surface, especially through tropical deforestation, has been so dramatic that it approaches the levels of transformation that occurred during the glacial periods, and has been a key factor in global climate change and reduced biodiversity. Recent advances in data collection and analysis should be used to document and understand the causes and consequences of changes in land cover and use.


Reinventing the use of materials

Additional data are needed on the forces driving human use of reusable metals such as copper and zinc, hazardous metals such as mercury and lead, reusable plastics and alloys, and ecologically dangerous compounds such as CFCs and pesticides. The challenge to researchers is to map the life cycles of these elements and chemical compounds throughout the environment, and to develop ways to recycle them more completely.

The committee recommended that NSF, preferably in cooperation with other federal agencies, immediately focus on four areas of research: biodiversity and ecosystem functioning; hydrologic forecasting; infectious disease and the environment; and land-use dynamics. As with the eight grand challenges, these four were not ranked.

NSF should hold workshops to plan specific research agendas for each of the grand challenges, beginning with the four areas recommended for action now, the committee said. Without this information, it is not possible to accurately estimate the research funding needed. However, the committee roughly estimated that each of the four areas recommended for immediate investment would require several hundred million dollars - at a minimum over a 10-year period, for a total of perhaps $1 billion to $2 billion. Investing several hundred million dollars annually is well within the $1 billion per year budget increase that NSF's National Science Board recommended for environmental sciences over the next five years, the committee noted.

The report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides scientific and technical advice under a congressional charter.

Copies of Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences will be available later this fall from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, www.nas.edu/nrc/