ANY legislative proposal that has the support of both conservative Republican Newt Gingrich and liberal Democrat Ron Dellums, and the backing of Greenpeace as well as Dow Chemical, is either a bowl of Capitol Hill mush or a good idea transcending party politics and ideology.
In the latter category is the National Institute for the Environment, a plan to integrate and rationalize scientific research and assessment with the big picture in mind so that political, social, and economic battles over environmental problems can be solved if not avoided.
First proposed in 1989, the institute would oversee competitively awarded grants for environmental research by federal labs, universities, nonprofit organizations, and private companies. Its governing board, set up to establish priorities and goals for environmental research and assessment, would include scientists, business executives, environmentalists, and representatives of state and local governments.
These days, federal government research on the environment is spread over more than 20 agencies, each with its own budget, regulatory agenda, and political constituency to worry about - all of which adds up to the potential for political influence. With no regulatory or administrative responsibilities and an independent board, the NIE would avoid much of this undue influence.
Political struggles over preserving natural resources and cleaning up pollution often boil down to arguments over the need for ``good science'' in determining the nature of the problem and how to proceed.
Some examples: The listing of threatened plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act, particularly degradation of habitat caused by development. The protection - even the definition - of wetlands. How to reverse the steep declines of migrating fish populations now that most rivers have been dammed. How far Superfund toxic-waste sites should be cleaned up. (Also known as ``how clean is clean?'')
The NIE now has 75 bipartisan cosponsors in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. George Brown (D) of California, who chairs the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In the Senate, Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, along with nine colleagues, recently introduced companion legislation.
The proposed institute has been endorsed by the US Conference of Mayors and has the backing of more than 150 universities, scientific and professional organizations, environmental groups, and business leaders. The association of state attorneys general is in favor. So is the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, concerned with ``environmental justice'' and the disproportionate impact of pollution on minority communities.
In a recent letter to President Clinton, three former Environmental Protection Agency heads - William Reilly, William Ruckelshaus, and Russell Train - urged White House support. The Clinton administration recently put together a ``White House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources'' to coordinate environmental research among federal agencies. But as the former EPA administrators pointed out, ``merely adapting existing research programs will not solve the problems of the current, fragmented system.'' The NIE, however, ``would provide, more than any restructuring of the current federal system, greater long-term assurance of credible research conducted by the nation's best scientists, as well as a degree of insulation from changing political winds that constantly buffet environmental research.''
At the moment, funding for federal sponsored environmental research is just a fraction of the amount spent on military research. But that balance is likely to change with the thaw of the cold war, the growing public interest in solving environmental problems, and the push for new environmental technologies to stay competitive with other countries now ahead of the US.
It's a good time to focus and rejuvenate environmental research with this proposed institute.