AS the flood waters from the Mississippi River recede, the inevitable questions surface. Why did it happen? Who is to blame? What could have been done differently? What are the impacts on the people, ecosystems, and biota? Who is able to take this big-picture approach and assemble a research team?
The Mississippi, like many other river systems, crosses dozens of state and local political boundaries. No federal agency has jurisdiction over the Mississippi River, let alone over its watershed. The Corps of Engineers controls the levees that couldn't and shouldn't hold the river.
Much of the upper Mississippi is a national wildlife refuge under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department. Agriculture, under the Department of Agriculture, has a tremendous impact on the watershed. The Department of Commerce, with the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Weather Service, has jurisdiction over climatology and meteorology, but certainly not over the weather. The federal bowl of alphabet soup continues with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Geological Survey - all having some role in the region.
This patchwork of federal agencies and programs that has grown over the past decades has a major blind spot: the inability to look at big issues and to support a comprehensive analysis of its workings, problems, and opportunities.
Although the Mississippi may be the extreme case, this lack of ability to take an overview is characteristic of our approach on most major environmental systems. Yet this approach is the scale that is necessary to really understand the environment.
To deal with its environmental problems, the nation needs a way to launch scientific investigations that are not limited by the geographical boundaries of its jurisdiction; it needs a way to look beyond the narrow time horizons under which most agencies operate; and it needs a way to provide credible scientific information untainted by an agency's political agenda.
A group of more than 6,000 scientists, educators, managers, and other citizens has proposed the creation of a National Institute for the Environment (NIE) to take this big-picture look and to provide this credible science. The concept of an NIE has been endorsed by scores of scientific societies, environmental groups, businesses and nongovernmental organizations.
The mission of the NIE would be to improve the scientific basis for making decisions on environmental issues. It would have the following goals: increase the scientific understanding of environmental issues by supporting credible, problem-focused research; assist decisionmaking by providing comprehensive assessments of current knowledge and its implications; facilitate access to environmental information; and sponsor higher education and training.
The NIE will integrate the different elements of science and environmental decisionmaking. Since the NIE's four key functions - research, assessment, information, and education and training - will be brought together in a single agency, the functions will interact and reinforce one another.
The goal of the NIE is to complement and strengthen, not replace, existing agencies by sponsoring the kind of research that they cannot do, assembling the broad range of expertise under a competitive peer review system, and making the knowledge accessible to individuals without a technical background. It can encourage forestry researchers to work with fisheries, biologists, and economists to work with ecologists.
Only the NIE can provide an integrated approach to environmental knowledge. Modifying or restructuring existing agencies by increasing their research budgets or adding a program here or there would not lead to the required coherent approach. As a new organization, the NIE will not be constrained by agency history. With a science-only mission, its budget and its voice will not be constrained by the more immediate needs for management and regulation.
By incorporating managers and other users of information in setting its priorities and in its governance, the NIE can ensure that the research it sponsors is relevant to real needs. By involving representatives from environmental groups and industry in its governing body, the NIE can move the debate about environmental issues beyond arguments about data, which is often not the real issue. The NIE can help to get the science right so that society can move on resolving problems.
Legislation (H.R. 2918) to establish a National Institute for the Environment along these lines has been introduced by Congressman George Brown (D) of California, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Jim Saxton (R) of New Jersey, ranking Republican on the Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, and 38 other original cosponsors.
Congress is not known for its vision, but with the support of scientists and managers, the National Institute for the Environment could provide a way to look across the broad, swollen waters of the Mississippi and understand what is happening to the environment and why.