National Institute for the Environment

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National Institute for the Environment

The National Institute for the Environment (NIE) was a proposed federal agency conceived in 1989 by a group of scientists, environmentalists, and policy analysts who were concerned that the nation's decision makers did not have adequate scientific information to make suitable environmental policies. They were also concerned that the existing federal environmental research and development activities were spread over many uncoordinated agencies, each with different missions and interests therefore preventing an integrated effort to resolve environmental problems. Led by Dr. Stephen Hubbell of Princeton University and Dr. Henry Howe of the University of Illinois, Chicago, the group developed a proposal to establish the NIE. This initiative to create the NIE was promoted by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE), formerly called the Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE).

Formed in the late 1980s, the NCSE is a national nonprofit organization comprising 15 board members and over 9,000 scientists, educators, business leaders, state and local government officials, environmental advocates, and other interested individuals from around the country whose goal it was to work with the United States Congress to establish the National Institute for the Environment (NIE).

The goal of the NIE was to have an independent, nonregulatory, federal institute similar to the National Institutes of Health that focuses on environmental problems. The NIE was to promote better communication between scientists and policy makers to help balance social, economic, and environmental goals. The NIE would also have concentrate activities in four integrated areas: identification and assessment of current knowledge of environmental problems of national interest through a Center for Environmental Assessment; the funding of peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary research to increase scientific understanding of these environmental problems through three research divisions; development of an electronic, on-line library (the National Library for the Environment) to disseminate environmental information; and support of education and training of scientists and other professionals interested in working on environmental issues. The NIE was to have been led by a President-appointed Board of Governors representing federal and non-federal scientists, state and local government, environmental organizations, citizen groups, academia, and industry.

Within the NIE, a Center for Environmental Assessment was to be established to perform evaluations on the current state of knowledge of particular environmental issues. Assessments would include a review of existing scientific information on an identified environmental problem, an assessment of policy decisions made based on existing information, and the identification of additional research needed to fill information gaps to improve the scientific basis for policy development.

The centerpiece of the NIE was the research it would sponsor. Experts in the natural sciences, engineering, economics, and the social sciences were to work cooperatively on complex environmental topics that could potentially require long-term investigations. Research funded by NIE was to be administered by three directors: a Director of Environmental Resources , a Director of Environmental Systems, and a Director of Environmental Sustainability. The Director of Environmental Resources would develop research programs to inventory natural resources , monitor and predict change to environmental systems, and develop tools for improved environmental assessment. The Director of Environmental Systems would focus on creating a research program to improve understanding of the functioning of environmental systems and human impact on these systems. For example, possible research programs could include an evaluation of the ecological and social effects of global climate change and research to distinguish between natural ecosystem variation and environmental change due to human activities. The director of Environmental Sustainability would concentrate on issues related to maintaining environmental health while utilizing resources in such a way to ensure their availability and viability in the future.

A key component of the NIE would be to provide information to decision makers, researchers, environmental managers, educators and other professionals, and the public at large. An electronic, on-line National Library for the Environment would be developed. The Committee for the National Institute for the Environment is in the process of establishing a prototype that can be accessed electronically. The prototype library will include research reports from the Congressional Research Service, an environmental encyclopedia, and peer-reviewed and nonpeer-reviewed research articles.

The NIE would support higher education training (i.e., education above the high school level) through research grants, fellowships, teacher training, and grants to develop environmental programs at colleges and universities. The NIE would also maintain a small in-house Center for Integrative Studies on the Environment that would invite visiting scholars to work with a core of scientific staff to evaluate emerging environmental issues on which NIE and other federal agencies need to focus.

The NIE proposal was endorsed by over 150 colleges and universities, scientific, professional, environmental, and business organizations, and state and local governments. Legislation to create the NIE was first introduced in 1989. The legislation was reintroduced in the 103rd Congress and again in 1995 during the 104th Congress by Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ). The bill was co-sponsored by numerous Democratic and Republican members of Congress. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Science where in 1997 it awaited consideration by the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment .

According to an NCSE update issued in January 2000, in 1999 they supsended the creation of the NIE and the "National Science Board approved an interim report recommending that the National Science Foundation implement most of the activities initially proposed for a National Institute for the Environment. In October 1999, [NCSE] announced its support for the full and effective implementation of this report and suspended its call for the creation of a National Institute for the Environment to work in support of the National Science Foundation initiative."

[Marci L. Bortman Ph.D. ]



Benedick, R. "NIE: Its Time Has Come," Chemistry and Industry (1996): 64.

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National Institute for the Environment