Cover  Introduction   Section I   Section II   Section III   Section IV   Section V

Assess, Monitor, and Study the Biota and Ecosystems of the United States

"To learn more about where we stand in protecting all our biological resources ... and ... to help the agricultural and biotechnical industries of our country identify new sources of food, fiber, and medication."

William J. Clinton, 21 April 1993
"Biological information is the most important information we can discover. ...DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created."
Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (1996), p. 228

Ecosystems, whose properties depend on those of the organisms that occur within them, provide the basis for all human activities everywhere on Earth. Since the invention of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago, humans have expanded from hunter-gatherer societies comprising no more than several million individuals scattered throughout the world into the overwhelmingly dominant force on the planet. During the second half of the 20th Century, human numbers have increased from approximately 2.5 billion to nearly 6 billion people, most of whom share high aspirations for material well-being. As a direct result of this growth, however, the characteristics of the atmosphere have changed substantially, agricultural lands have decreased by 15 to 20 percent, and a major proportion of the world's forests has been cut without replacement. No wonder that noted conservationist George Schaller has stated, "We cannot afford another century like this one."

To survive and flourish, humans must learn to make sustainable use of the Earth's living resources. To do so, we must deepen our knowledge of living systems and the organisms that comprise them. And we must make that knowledge available and employ it in constructing a world that will continue to support our societies and the needs of our children and grandchildren. Societies that master this knowledge and use it effectively will have a major competitive advantage. Understanding and managing ecosystem services, including individual organisms and their genes, will provide the key to sustainability.

In the following pages and sections, we lay out plans for a multifaceted, interdependent program of research and education that we are convinced, if implemented properly, will provide the United States with the knowledge it needs to sustain the Nation's prosperity for succeeding generations. Economics research, informatics research and infrastructure, and education are treated in sections three through five. The biological portion of this research program is addressed here, and has three major, intertwined components:

· Expansion of our knowledge of the biological resources of the Nation,

· Expansion of our system of environmental observatories so that we may know how we are impacting the life support systems of the Earth, and

· Expansion of our knowledge of the functioning of ecosystems so that we may better manage them.

Any of these three components could contribute to the knowledge needed for solving the environmental problems that our Nation faces. However, a real solution, and a truly sustainable future, can be gained only if the interdependence of the three branches is recognized and a multifaceted program of research carried out.

Assess the Biotic Resources of the United States

Discover and document the biotic resources of the United States, including species, their genetic diversity, and their distribution into habitats and ecosystems.  

America is a nation of explorers and catalogers of diversity. Beginning with the request of President Thomas Jefferson to the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the West and search for "minerals, soils, climate, peoples, and animals in their diverse kinds, as well as ...the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flowers or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects, " the Federal government has supported biodiversity research and exploration that has contributed to the development of our Nation's economy. As need for sustainability increases, so should support for exploration and research that will meet the need. We are in a new age of discovery, equipped with newly developed tools unimaginable to explorers of the 19th Century, the last great age of biodiversity discovery in this country. We are also facing unprecedented needs for that discovery. There are willing partners in the private and academic sectors, but the Federal government must focus and provide consistent impetus for the intense discovery effort that is needed as we enter the 21st Century. This should be accomplished by strengthening systematic biology research programs, particularly for biodiversity inventory, as described below.

The United States, on the basis of its proportional representation of relatively well-known groups of organisms, harbors perhaps 500,000 or more species, or at least 5 percent of the world total. Of these, we have named fewer than 150,000, and even for most of those we know very little beyond the names. No wonder the management of our natural systems seems at present so difficult—without knowledge of the players, their roles and interactions in ecosystems can hardly be predicted. A recent study coordinated by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis found that the factor that most hampers the success of Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) in preserving and restoring species and their habitats is lack of scientific information about the species involved. When there is scientific information about the species, it is well employed within the HCPs. The research discussed here will contribute to the body of knowledge needed for this and other purposes.

Research to document America's species more completely is needed if we are to achieve full benefit from the economic and other opportunities that will inevitably follow from knowing the properties and interactions of species. In this discovery process, emphasis should be placed on those groups of organisms that are important for managing our habitats and ecosystems, enhancing the sustainable use and economic importance of these ecosystems, improving human health, and maintaining the productivity, sustainability, and stability of our agricultural lands, forests, streams and lakes, and coastal marine waters. Many organisms of substantial ecological and economic importance are among the least well known species in the US—fungi, nematodes (roundworms), mites, insects, and bacteria.

As our knowledge of genomes and genetics of individual organisms increases, it will be increasingly possible to locate and utilize the genes of individual organisms to improve the characteristics of other species used in agriculture, forestry, the chemical industry, and other economic enterprises. Knowledge of the nature and occurrence of individual species will provide the basis for such exploration. This program of research will significantly increase the supply of new genetic material for pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, improve our ability to control harmful invasive species and prevent the demise of endangered native ones, and provide a scientifically sound baseline of knowledge for monitoring, assessing, and predicting the consequences of global change.

We suggest embarking on a ten-year mission to understand what biodiversity we have, where it is, how it came to be there and how it interacts with its habitats. This discovery project should include all kinds of organisms and all types of habitats (terrestrial, freshwater, marine).

There are several ways to survey biological diversity, and each has merit. One is to collect all the members of a particular major category of organisms, such as plants, in a particular geographic area (such as is being done by the Flora of North America project for the US and Canada). Another is to seek out all the species that belong to a particular group of organisms, such as a family of beetles, wherever in the world they might occur (as is done by monographic taxonomists). Yet another is to conduct an All Taxa Biological Inventory (ATBI) of a circumscribed region. A project of this sort allows researchers to determine not only the identity and morphological characteristics of the organisms but also to accumulate information about their ecological interrelationships. Detailed inventories of small areas, perhaps as little as a hundred hectares, would reveal much about the interrelationships of organisms that are fundamental to the functioning of ecosystems. ATBI projects dealing with larger areas should also be conducted with an eye to establishing baselines for monitoring ecological changes and gathering information for educational programs and bioprospecting. An ATBI project in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the planning stages, and should be supported as one arm of the effort to document the biodiversity of the United States.

An inventory of the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms of the US is such a large task that choices need to be made to maximize the efficiency of the activity and the utility of the results. We have deliberated about appropriate choices, and recommend some groups for intensive initial attention:

• Plants (vascular plants and "bryophytes") are fundamental to the structure and functioning of ecosystems, and are responsible for much of their productivity. Along with approximately 50,000 species of algae worldwide and up to a few hundred species of photosynthetic bacteria, plants are the only organisms on Earth capable of transforming light energy to chemical bonds in the process of photosynthesis, which ultimately is the basis of all life. Plants are relatively well known, with perhaps 90 percent of the estimated 260,000 species (worldwide) having been discovered. Because they are key elements in agriculture, forestry, and other productive systems, and because it is critical to make wiser use of them in the course of achieving sustainable development, plants should be explored in depth throughout the world and conserved to the extent possible. The Flora of North America project is providing the first complete synthesis of the estimated 20,000 species of plants in the United States and Canada, which will provide an indispensable basis for improved management, conservation, and use of our plant resources. It should be supported on an ongoing basis.

• Fungi, along with bacteria, are the decomposers of the biosphere and play a role indispensable to the continued existence of life on Earth by breaking down the organic materials accumulated by photosynthetic organisms. Fungi growing in symbiotic relationships with the roots of most kinds of plants (mycorrhizae), including all of the tree species native to the US, are indispensable to the healthy growth of those plants. Other fungi, such as lichens, harboring cyanobacteria or green algae, are major contributors to the biological productivity of many natural communities and to the input of nitrogen in these areas. Fungi are also major disease-causing organisms of plants and animals, including domesticated crops and livestock, and cause serious economic impacts by destroying organic materials such as wood, paper, stored food, and the like. Fungi also play a central role in many industrial processes, including baking and brewing. And, more than 3,000 antibiotics have been patented from fungi and bacteria. Despite their overwhelming economic and ecological importance, little attention is being paid to fungi on a broad scale, and only about 20,000 species of an estimated total of perhaps 115,000 in the US (70,000 of an estimated 1.5 million worldwide) have been discovered. Because of their significance and the fact that perhaps only a small fraction of the species in the US have been discovered, we recommend strongly that fungi be targeted for intensive inventory effort.

• Bacteria — The fundamental importance of bacteria in every living system on Earth is beyond question. They are also important as disease-causing organisms. Nonetheless, our efforts to date to learn about bacteria have been inadequate. Only about 3,000 species of bacteria have been characterized and named by being grown in culture and studied in detail, as required by current laws of naming them. However, the use of DNA sequencing methods to detect individual species regularly reveals the presence of 5,000 or more species, almost all unknown, in a single gram of soil. Bacteria exhibit metabolic diversity far greater than that of any other group of organisms, and occur in extreme habitats such as deep in the soil, under vast ice caps, in near-boiling hot springs, and in highly saline environments where no other known life forms can survive. The genes and enzymes that make these modes of existence possible have an obvious and direct commercial importance (see Box 7). Perhaps fewer than one in a hundred species of bacteria can be cultured using currently available techniques, but an improved inventory would lead to the discovery of many species of bacteria with properties that are economically useful (including novel genes) or ecologically significant.

• Insects and Other Arthropods—

Hymenoptera—Bees, wasps, and ants are among the most beneficial insects. Bees are the foremost insect pollinators of flowering plants. Wasps are important parasites in natural systems and are essential biocontrol agents for pests such as the gypsy moth, worms, flies, and scales that attack food crops and forest ecosystems. Ants play a major role in terrestrial ecosystems by influencing soil fertility and acting as predators and decomposers. About 17,500 species have been characterized in the United States, with thousands more awaiting discovery. Increased knowledge of the estimated 36,000 US species will significantly improve our ability to manage agricultural ecosystems.

Hemiptera—As many as a third of the true bugs found in the United States have yet to be discovered and described. This is an important gap in our knowledge of the insect fauna because true bugs are major plant pests of forest ecosystems, corn, rice, soybeans, fruit trees, and numerous horticultural crops and ornamentals. They are also the source of dyes and lacquers, and are of potential importance for new biotechnology products. Further, some have been used in weed and insect biocontrol.

Coleoptera—Beetles are the most diverse of all groups of insects (a conservative estimate is 25,000 species known from the US, with another 7,000 undescribed), and thus are critical components of all terrestrial ecosystems. Beetles are also economically important. In the United States, bark beetles are the most economically devastating forest insect pests, causing the annual loss of well over 8 billion board feet of standing timber worth about $2 billion. Another group of beetles, the weevils, is highly diverse (over 2,600 are known, but hundreds of additional species remain to be discovered and described for North America north of Mexico). They are pests of fruit, ornamentals, and field crops, and effective control programs will require much more taxonomic knowledge of the group. Some other beetles, in contrast, are beneficial, yet we have insufficient understanding of their diversity. Among the estimated 3,200 or so US species of rove beetles, for example, are numerous species with potential biocontrol importance.

Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) are among the most widely appreciated insects, yet most species are small and nondescript, and the majority of these have not been discovered or described. Many moths are agricultural pests. As noted above, butterflies are useful index organisms for understanding the fate and function of natural communities. Yet even in these economically and ecologically important groups, our understanding of their diversity remains incomplete: there are about 14,000 US species, with up to an estimated 3,000 remaining to be described.

Aphids are well known to the public as pests of plants and cause millions if not billions of dollars of damage each year. They also serve as important vectors of a wide diversity of plant diseases. They are diverse, but about 66% of the fauna is undescribed.

Gall midges are cryptic little flies that form galls on various parts of crop plants; an example is the Hessian fly, which is a major pest of wheat. Gall midges are very diverse but about 80% of the species are undescribed. It is highly probable that many species could be used as indicators of the status of various natural ecosystems.

Spiders have a high profile because they are encountered by the public on a daily basis, a few are medically important, and they are one of the most abundant and influential components of agricultural ecosystems, thanks to the fact that they prey on many different kinds of insects. They are diverse, but about 20% of the fauna remains undescribed.

• Soil and Sediment Microorganisms—

Soils and sediments are a critically dynamic center of global ecosystem processes. Microorganisms control many soil and sediment functions including, among others, nutrient cycling, formation and decomposition of organic matter, transport and degradation of pollutants, and provision of clean water. Knowledge of soil organisms and their contributions to ecological processes is essential if we are to maintain and manage ecosystems properly and secure the Nation's food supply. Yet, soil and sediment microorganisms (bacteria, protozoa, annelids, nematodes, oligochaetes, polychaetes, termites, ants, mites, fungi, and others) are severely understudied. One group that is particularly poorly known is the nematode worms. There are approximately 20,000 named species, but conservative estimates place the actual number closer to one million. Likewise, mites (including chiggers and ticks) have a high profile because they are important plant pests and are vectors of diseases. Yet, with fewer than 40,000 mite species discovered and described, it is estimated that the global total may approach 1 million species.

• Marine Invertebrates—

The marine biota is very poorly known compared to the terrestrial biota. An increase in our understanding of the components of marine ecosystems will be essential if these systems are to be saved. There is a need to explore and improve the taxonomy of virtually all groups of marine invertebrates. This is fundamentally important because of the vital contribution invertebrate animals make to all marine communities. In addition, the widespread introduction of many species of marine invertebrates throughout the world is having an important negative impact on fisheries and other industries. An improved understanding of these introduced organisms is fundamental to managing them properly. Such a program, however, presupposes that the basic taxonomy of these groups exists. It does not.


Biological Surveys

These surveys will require coordination of concerned governmental agencies at Federal, state, and local levels; museums, universities, and other institutions that contain systematics collections; and other stakeholders. This partnership would appropriately be led by the Department of Interior's US Geological Survey Biological Resources Division (USGS/BRD) and the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The survey should be funded through the USGS/BRD; NMFS; the Divisions of Environmental Biology, and Molecular and Cellular Biology, of the National Science Foundation (NSF); and the Department of Agriculture, particularly its Agricultural Research Service. The Smithsonian Institutions' National Museum of Natural History would logically play a major role in an invigorated national biological survey, as would many other public and private organizations. In this mix, universities have a unique importance because of their educational role. Collectively, the taxonomic and systematic activities of these agencies and organizations are funded at approximately $55 million per year. Over a period of three years, this level of support should be raised to at least $88 million per year, and maintained against inflation thereafter. Other organizational and programmatic aspects of this program of discovery-oriented research and the partnership that would support and guide it are described in greater depth in the National Research Council's report, "A Biological Survey for the Nation."

As this ten-year effort continues, it must be evaluated and fine-tuned, based on the ecological and systematic insights obtained. The knowledge will contribute to the formulation of plans for sustainable development. The research will also produce new understanding of the roles of species within ecosystems, and new products, including genetic material for the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. In short, the U.S. must organize an effort to understand its own biodiversity and ecosystems, a substantial source of national wealth, that equals the scale and intensity of similar efforts that have been underway for some years in countries such as Costa Rica (INBio) and Mexico (CONABIO). Just as these efforts have produced benefits for their countries, so a similar project in the United States will yield direct, measurable benefits for Americans.

Benefits derived from this program of research would include:  

• Sustainable agriculture. Throughout the world, advanced agricultural systems are in the process of reducing the amount of pesticide, fertilizer, and herbicide usage by emphasizing practices such as biological control, integrated pest management, and sustainable agriculture. These technologies rely heavily on our knowledge of pest groups, their plant hosts, and the natural enemies that keep them in check. Taxonomic information is the language and predictive basis for this enlightened agricultural management and improvement. We can expect, for example, that thousands of potentially useful biological control agents exist that are currently unknown to science. Before they can be economically useful, however, these organisms must be discovered, described, and integrated into classification and information systems. If organisms that can enhance productive and environmentally sound agroecosystems remain unknown or confused with other organisms, progress in agriculture will be hindered. In addition, the search for new crops, and the improvement of existing crops through biotechnology, depend on the exploration and understanding of biodiversity in the United States and beyond.

• Human health. Protection of human health depends in part upon documentation of disease-causing organisms and disease vectors. Even the most innocuous bacterium or virus can be life-threatening to persons who become immunocompromised by diseases such as AIDS or by drug therapies for cancer, burns or transplants. Many diseases are undergoing a resurgence (example: tuberculosis) because they are evolving drug resistance. Other, previously unknown diseases are emerging. The process of discovering, describing, and understanding disease-causing agents is essential for developing new antibiotics and vaccines, as well as protocols for better sanitation and diet aimed at maintaining and improving human health.

• New pharmaceuticals. Drugs derived from the world's species save countless lives and generate many billions of dollars in sales worldwide. Most of the species within those groups of organisms that have the greatest potential to provide new sources of medicines have yet to be discovered or described. For example, bacteria are diverse and constitute a major source of new pharmaceuticals and other biotechnology products. The better their diversity, and that of many other groups of organisms, is understood, the more likely it is that we will discover useful genes and gene products, and their functioning and interactions.

• Resource management. Products derived from the fisheries industry provide a primary source of high-quality protein for many people. Differentiating among species of fish and other commercial seafood is of obvious importance for managing these natural resources and selecting species for aquaculture. Invasive species are a major problem within marine ecosystems and threaten to disrupt some of the Nation's most productive fishing grounds such as the Gulf of Mexico; these species also need to be identified and understood.

• Biotechnology. Our rapidly growing knowledge of the relationship between genes and an organism's chemical and physical characteristics is the key to many vital advances in the future. In particular, our newfound ability to transfer genes between distantly related species of organisms will play an increasingly important role in the improved biological productivity of the future. Transgenic organisms will become increasingly important as components of agricultural, health, pharmaceutical, and resource management activities. For example, it is possible in principle to alter the nutritional value of crop plants according to the specific health needs of particular individuals or groups of individuals, or to intensify integrated pest management with the introduction of readily-produced transgenic organisms. Taxonomic knowledge of organisms will serve as the route map in our search for appropriate genes to produce desired characteristics.

Economic losses suffered by the United States every year because of lack of species knowledge include but are not limited to:
  • Loss of Agricultural Productivity. • The Office of Technology Assessment estimated in 1993 that the Nation spends $3.6 to 5.4 billion annually to mitigate the effects of invasive species. Without knowledge of those species, a predictive long-term control program is more difficult and costly.

• Fungal and insect damage to agricultural crops in the US costs more than $7 billion annually. The lack of accurate descriptions and identification of these pests greatly hinders the discovery of natural biological control agents.

• The US annually imports billions of dollars worth of agricultural commodities; with these may come exotic pests and pathogens that damage domestic production. Taxonomic studies of these organisms are essential for controlling them.

Soil Function and Depletion. Soils act as living systems whose properties are determined by interactions among the fungi, bacteria, and other small organisms that occur within them. These organisms also form symbiotic relationships with the roots of plants, enhancing plant productivity. Although soil organisms provide many obvious benefits to agriculture, water quality, and ecosystem resilience, the identity and function of those organisms is very poorly understood. This understanding is needed to improve management of agricultural and other ecosystems.

Loss of Timber to Forest Pests. Insect and fungal pathogens, of which bark beetles and their mutualistic fungi are the most economically important, cause domestic economic losses of timber more than 8 billion board feet, estimated at $2 billion annually. Many of these organisms remain uncharacterized.

Increase the workforce capable of carrying out these tasks by creating jobs in both the public and private sectors, and by supporting training and education of taxonomists.

Numerous national and international organizations, including the United States National Science Board, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technological and Technical Advice to the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, have recognized the urgent need for taxonomists with expertise in organismal groups other than large vertebrates. Evidence for this need includes:

the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems to human life,

current understanding of how little we know about biodiversity,

a species extinction rate estimated to be some 10,000 times greater than the normal rate across geological time,

mismatch between the numbers of species in a group and the number of taxonomists trained to work on that group, and

the diminished employment opportunities for taxonomists and systematists compared to previous decades, particularly in universities.

The numbers of trained taxonomists and systematists who have jobs devoted to the great task of mapping the diversity of life locally or globally is woefully inadequate to the task. This is true particularly for specialists who focus on organisms such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes, mites, and many groups of insects. Nevertheless, knowledge of these organisms, because of their ecological and economic roles, is of critical importance to the US and world economies. A sustained dedication to the establishment and maintenance of adequately paid jobs available to experts on such groups of organisms will facilitate commercially-important progress in agriculture, health, and biotechnology.

New employment lines (FTEs) for taxonomists and systematists of United States biota should be added to the systematics laboratories of the Agricultural Research Service, and in other agencies that are stewards of the country's natural capital (particularly the Department of Agriculture's Forest and Natural Resource Conservation Services, the Department of Interior ‘s Bureau of Land Management and National Park and Fish and Wildlife Services, and the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service). The taxonomists that are already on staff and those that should be hired could all be more productive if each were provided with a technician. These positions, at GS-5 level, would represent a very modest investment in the greater productivity of highly trained Ph.D. scientists (usually GS-13 or higher). In recent years, positions for support staff have eroded so much that GS-15s are now forced to spend time on GS-5 level work rather than their own. This is a clear misuse of training, talent, and salaries, and should be rectified as rapidly as possible.

In addition, support for natural history institutions (museums, herbaria, arboreta, botanical gardens) of the Nation should be bolstered so that they also can add staff positions (see next section). The existence of these jobs will entice many more bright young people into systematics than are currently entering the field. Many students are interested in the discipline, and do well in courses in taxonomy in college, but ultimately turn to other majors because they do not perceive an employment future in systematics.

Moreover, we need to foster partnerships between taxonomists, ecosystem ecologists, and applied biologists because of the contribution that taxonomists can make to the discovery of organisms that may help to solve agricultural, medicinal, and environmental problems. This could be done, for instance, by awarding career credit (promotion, pay increases, etc.) to the participants in such collaborations.

The Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) program of the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology has gained worldwide recognition as a visionary effort to redress the "taxonomic impediment" that has been perceived by the governments of almost every other nation on Earth. To provide training that results in scientific expertise in taxonomy, systematic biology and collections management, the United States should increase and sustain its investment in this program.

The total investment in PEET to date (3/98) has been $10 million, for the funding of 31 research projects that are each training at least two new taxonomists (in some cases three or four). As impressive as these numbers are, much more needs to be done. We recommend that the PEET competition for funding be conducted every year rather than every other year, and that the awards total $10 million per year, beginning with the next NSF funding cycle and continuing for at least ten years. At present, only the NSF is funding the PEET program. We recommend participation and contribution to the funding by all of the Federal agencies that have biodiversity management responsibilities. The NSF should retain the lead in proposal review. The measure of success will be a workforce of taxonomists engaged in discovering biodiversity and the economic benefits that can be derived from it.

By hiring professionals to do systematics and surveys, and by consistently supporting the PEET initiative, the United States will begin to build the body of trained personnel needed to help provide the scientific basis for managing our biodiversity resources. We cannot understand ecosystems, or their productivity and functioning, if we do not even know the identities of the organisms that live in them.

Lack of taxonomic expertise also leads, for example, to missed opportunities to capitalize on understanding the characteristics of close relatives of newly discovered organisms, and to learn more about the mechanisms by which organisms defend themselves, adapt to changing conditions, and maintain their integrity in the face of environmental challenges. Such knowledge of other organisms could easily and immediately become critical to our own survival and well-being.

Expand the capacity of the nation's biodiversity research collections of all types (extracted genetic, living, and preserved), and support the electronic capture and distribution of the information associated with their specimens.

The natural history collections of the United States (found in natural history museums, herbaria, university facilities, and in governmental agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior) contain at least three-quarters of a billion specimens of plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms. These collections document the existence of species now extinct, allow us to track expansion of the ranges of invasive species, and make it possible to answer all manner of other questions about species and organisms. The specialized libraries and databases associated with these collections comprise a record of the history of the Nation's natural capital. Systematic collections of living organisms are maintained in aviaries, aquaria, arboreta, botanical gardens, seed banks, and zoos or in specialized repositories of germplasm, frozen tissues, and cultures of microorganisms (see Box 7).

Collections are essential resources for many areas of applied biology, including the health sciences (parasitology, epidemiology, diagnostics), agriculture, resource management, and biotechnology. Studies of specimens preserved in collections, for example, were central to documenting the presence of DDT in the environment and the historical pattern of mercury contamination in the Nation's rivers. Collections also provide extensive support for informal and formal education programs, as well as professional development for K-12 teachers. Through exhibits, collections provide entertainment and promote public awareness of nature and biodiversity.

The research program to inventory the biota of the US will generate many specimens that must be placed in collections as a record of our discoveries. These specimens will be a baseline against which to measure and monitor environmental change, and serve many other functions in scientific research. However, US systematic collections are underfunded, and are highly challenged to properly care for the specimens they already have, much less to absorb those that will result from the biotic survey that must be done.

Moreover, the vast majority of the information about our natural resources that is already contained in natural history collections and their libraries is not readily accessible online in databases and Web pages. To meet societal needs, this information must be made available as part of the National Biological Information Infrastructure.

Biodiversity research collections have immediate and pressing needs for:

expansion and upgrade of the infrastructure for collections (new space and equipment), and

trained people to bring collections data online and care for the specimens that voucher those data.

These needs must be addressed as a part of the research program to search out new species.

Current funding for federally supported collections (those of the Agricultural Research Service, the National Park Service, and the National Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution) totals approximately $5 million per year, and Federal grant funds for collections managed by other institutions total approximately $14 million per year (from the National Science Foundation's Research Collections and Living Stocks programs in the Division of Biological Infrastructure, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services). Over the next three years, these amounts should be raised by at least 70%, and maintained against inflation thereafter.

The benefits of supporting and strengthening the nation's biodiversity research collections will be measured by the benefits gained from a more thorough knowledge and record of the actual biotic resources (genes, gene products, and species) that form America's living capital, and by a significant increase in the biodiversity information content of the NBII. In addition, having the data from the Nation's collections in electronic format will facilitate a rapid tally of what is known and is not known and what localities have and have not been explored for their biodiversity. This will help prevent duplication of research effort and facilitate focusing attention on sites that are either completely unknown or likely to host significant diversity.

These increases in funding for biodiversity research collections infrastructure will ensure that the collections will be available to contribute to our understanding of the nation's natural resources and therefore to our continued economic prosperity. Improvement in collections care is a continuous process, because collections must be maintained indefinitely. Enhancing the infrastructure, with substantial investments over the next several years, will be a necessary ingredient for achieving the economic objectives outlined in this report.

Measure the Status of the United States' Biotic Communities and Ecosystems

Continue interagency participation in and support for the Environmental Monitoring and Research Initiative, especially in promoting public - private partnerships.

A certain level of interagency coordination in management of biodiversity and ecosystems by the Federal government has been achieved through the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). This coordinated effort has focused on the Environmental Monitoring and Research Initiative and the call for an "Environmental Report Card" on the status of the Nation's ecosystems. The Report Card promises to make possible better application of both new and currently available knowledge to a wide variety of management decisions at Federal, state, and local levels. By involving academia, the private sector, and agencies of state and local governments, this effort will help us devise the most suitable solutions to environmental problems. The Report Card process represents an important model for national decision-making, and we recommend strongly that public-private partnerships such as those formed during the Report Card process be pursued actively and consistently.

The data that will be used in the Report Card on the status of ecosystems, and the research that will elucidate ecosystem trends, will come from three tiers of data collection. The first of these tiers is remote sensing (such as by Landsat); the second is systematic, national on-the-ground sampling; and the third is a system of index sites at which cause-effect relationships can be examined through experimentation and monitoring. The Federal government has the strongest need to develop and synthesize a national picture, but there are many excellent opportunities for public-private partnerships in the process. To maximize the usefulness of the results of these activities, they must be coordinated while remaining distributed across the country.

The CENR can and should function as the coordinating body that keeps agencies working together and cooperating with other entities. Without this coordination, there will be a tendency for agencies to move in separate directions, for the level of communication between agencies and academia or between agency researchers and managers to decline, and for the critical mass of scientists needed to advance ecosystem management research to disperse. As a result, management actions might become less coherent than they are today.

The Administration will need to ensure that all of the agencies under the aegis of the CENR invest the time and expertise of appropriate personnel in the Environmental Research and Monitoring Initiative so that an environmental baseline (the initial Report Card), against which changes and trends can be compared, can be established as rapidly as possible. The lifetime of the "initiative" should only be long enough to establish the processes by which environmental research and monitoring should be conducted on a constant and continuing basis, and at that time it should become the Environmental Research and Monitoring Process (or Project) and have no "sunset" on the horizon. The need for the process will be unending, as will the need for the cooperation of many agencies and entities in the conduct of the process. There should be a self-evaluation component to the process that will constantly improve the output.

Evaluate existing ecological observing systems, and identify and implement any needed improvements.

A prototype Report Card will be developed by the spring of 1999, and will cover three major ecosystem types (forest, crop lands, and coastal/marine). The first complete Report Card, in 2001, will be expanded to include rangeland, fresh water, and urban ecosystems. For each ecosystem type, the status of goods, services and other valued attributes (e.g., extent, productivity, ecosystem condition, recreation and aesthetics) will be compiled. The Report Card will provide a summary of the status and trends of our Nation's ecosystems that is easily accessible to the general public and firmly based on the sorts of scientific information used by researchers and resource managers.

To be able to proceed from the current status report and investigate trends and directions of ecosystem change, researchers will need data that are appropriate to the kinds of questions they will be asking, taken on a scale appropriate to the size of the ecological region and/or the dimensions of the ecological process being considered. For instance, the sorts of data needed to investigate the relationship between ecosystem structure and biogeochemical cycling differ in scale and type from those needed to study the relationship between biological community functions and species-level biodiversity. To enlighten management practice, data amenable to research at all scales will be required.

The data on which the first Report Card will be based have been collected by a number of agencies, for a number of purposes, using several different methods. It may be that the same kinds of data are being collected by more than one agency (unnecessary duplication of effort), or that the data being collected are inadequate to the tasks for which they are needed, or that data on one environmental parameter cannot be combined with or compared to data on another environmental parameter for any one of a variety of reasons (different data structures, scales of measurement, region of coverage, times at which the data were collected, etc.), or that there are flaws in the systems that accumulate data from a variety of sources.

Once the Report Card process has identified what kinds of data we do have, it can be used to elucidate the information that we need but are not at present collecting. Or, it may demonstrate that data collected for another purpose may in fact be taken "off the shelf" and put to new uses. The utility of the data we are currently collecting should be evaluated, and means of improving and streamlining data capture should be devised and tested. This evaluation of the quality of the data and the outputs of data-collection activities should be conducted on a regional basis. A pilot evaluation project of this type is currently underway in the Federal Mid-Atlantic region.

Certain outcomes of these regional evaluations can be predicted with reasonable certainty. For instance, the current land-cover map of the US generated using remote sensing is at a scale (1 km) that is acceptable for low-resolution landscape analyses but is not meaningful for many biological studies. The 30-meter land-cover data set, generated from Landsat data and processed for Federal regions using a consistent protocol by the Multi-Resolution Land Characterization (MRLC) consortium of Federal agencies, will be much more useful in biodiversity and ecosystem studies. The MRLC consortium plans to produce from this dataset a 30-m resolution land-cover map of the conterminous US. The planned completion date is the year 2000. This Panel recommends that efforts be concentrated on completing this map on time or ahead of schedule.

Another outcome of the evaluations will very likely be the recognition that the degree of integration among the three tiers of data collection (remote sensing, systematic sampling, and indexing) is insufficient. Effort must be invested in making it possible, for instance, to address a question such as "what is the relationship between the ecosystem size needed to maintain biogeochemical integrity and the size needed to maintain the naturally occurring species diversity of that ecosystem?" Such a question requires that data from all three tiers be compiled and validated, the correlations among them identified, and analyses performed. Grappling with this type of question will be easier as coordination of data collection and information management methods are improved. This coordination will be challenging to achieve, but the effort must be made in order to enable the kinds of analyses of multiple factors that are required to develop sustainable management strategies.

An ongoing evaluation process that points out means of improving the effectiveness of data will raise the quality of the research that depends on those data, and this in turn will improve the ecosystem management strategies that are based on that research. In its role as coordinator of the nation's environmental research and monitoring effort, the Federal government should be vigilant that its agencies are consistently evaluating, validating, upgrading their data-gathering and environmental observation activities on the basis of those evaluations, and ensuring that they are relevant and useful to research, policy, and management decisions by government and by citizens.

Expand the nation's system of "environmental observatories" and bolster the research and modeling that are conducted at these sites.

In order to answer the sorts of societally and economically important questions exemplified in the Introduction to this report, we will need a great deal of experimental and synthetic ecological and ecosystem research. This research should address:

fundamental questions about the effects of land use and management practices, patterns, and intensities on biodiversity and on the sustainability and stability of both ecosystem processes and biodiversity;

the amounts and kinds of biodiversity needed to sustain the services provided to humanity by both natural and managed ecosystems;

the amounts, sizes, and geographic distributions of reserves required to preserve the critical levels and compositions of biodiversity needed to sustain functioning of ecosystems;

the factors that influence the assembly of ecological communities and ecosystems, including those that control invasions by exotic species and the impacts of such invasions on ecosystem processes and biodiversity.

There are several components of ecosystems that must be accounted for in this research, including: Chemical cycles: Organisms are a dominant factor in chemical element cycling and storage and therefore regulate many aspects of global processes; yet, these cycles remain insufficiently understood. For instance, different forms of nitrogen, and apparently the chemical transitions between these forms, affect both organisms and water quality differently. Very little is known about the underlying processes that make this so.

Community characteristics: Basic information on the number and distribution of species is limited, as is our understanding of the connection between species and the factors that enable species to become established, thrive or decline.

Spatial structure and temporal change: Relationships between biological communities and the physical structural elements of the environment, their evolution over time, and their relationship to diversity are insufficiently understood.

Scaling: Process research has generally been limited to small areas. Management-scale experiments have been limited and extrapolation may not be simple; conversely, present modeling efforts often cannot be brought down to the scale of decisions about specific locations.

In addition, increasingly sophisticated modeling paradigms and algorithms will be important tools, not only for the conduct of the theoretical research to understand our living resources, but also for translating the research results into useful and usable tools for ecosystem management. In current practice, geographic information systems (GIS) are often used to integrate data and aid in decision making based on what is currently known. What is needed in addition to GIS are predictive models based on understanding of process that are capable of incorporating various land use and management strategies. Such models should reflect fundamental ecological principles, including natural variability and the non-steady-state nature of disturbed as well as non-disturbed ecosystems. The software for these modeling exercises should be accessible through the "next generation" National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII-2) that is described in the next Section of this Report.

To make these advances possible, it will be necessary to expand support for ecological and ecosystem research in academic and other institutions. It will also be necessary to increase the size of the nation's system of permanent research sites at which the environment is observed; experimental, comparative and synthetic research is conducted; and predictive models are generated and tested. The Long Term Ecological Research network of sites, currently incorporating 20 research areas, should be increased to more thoroughly cover the range of America's ecosystems (especially important to add are the full range of marine ecosystems from coral reefs and major fisheries to the open oceans). Additional areas, for example national parks or Man and the Biosphere reserves, should be established as centers for the types of research described here. The nature of this research will also require an increase in the number of monitoring and research sites maintained by agencies such as the EPA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, the US Forest Service, and the USGS/BRD. Also, assurance of access for researchers to Mission to Planet Earth and Landsat data and data processing are important to this effort. A number of agencies already have a stake in the support facilities needed for this research, including NOAA, the Forest Service, the USGS, the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the NSF. Current investments (approximately $300 million per year, spread across the several listed agencies) should be enhanced by approximately $55 million per year in order to increase the return on this investment, with the greatest additions made to programs that use rigorous peer review. Infrastructure capacity and performance by Federal agencies that already have research and monitoring sites in place should be increased immediately; the remainder of the increases should be accomplished within three to five years.

Clearly, the manner in which America's living capital is currently being managed and used is not sustainable. The research strengths of all Federal agencies, academia, and the private sector should be mobilized as rapidly as possible to protect the ecosystems that generate goods and services while providing the benefits of those goods and services to the American public. The urgency of the need to bring the economy and the environment into a sustainable relationship (see Introduction and Section 3) compels urgency in this research agenda as well. Many researchers must be engaged as rapidly as possible in order to meet the challenge, and therefore a significant investment is required. However, the investment will be well justified if we gain an ability to shift toward sustainable management of America's living capital.

Augment the Scientific Basis for Ecosystem Management

Conduct a concerted program of research, designed to discover fundamental principles, on the functioning, structure, and sustainability of natural and managed ecosystems.

The ongoing discovery and monitoring of pattern, and the correlation of pattern and process, have already provided us with a certain level of understanding of the structure of ecological systems. However, our current understanding is inadequate for predicting the long-term costs and benefits to society that may be associated with alternative ecosystem management practices or environmental policies. The stated goals of the annual performance plan (required by the Government Performance and Results Act) of the Bureau of Land Management include "restore and maintain the health of the land"; those of the National Park Service include "natural resources...are protected, restored and maintained..."; and those of the Forest Service include "restore and protect ecosystems." Restoration implies an understanding of appropriate manipulations—and yet if we do not have the results of the research described in this section, the non-linear surprises of ecosystems will confound any manipulations that we institute. These agencies and others will not achieve their performance goals, and the Nation will not benefit from the improvement in ecosystem goods and services that is implied in their goal statements.

At the present time, it is difficult to clearly identify an optimal management practice. This is because the relationships between structure and function and those between cause and effect are not yet fully understood in either the temporal or geospatial dimensions of ecosystems. These relationships are non-linear, and therefore full of surprises. Or, to put it in the words of the author G. Harry Stine, "You can't fool mother nature (but she can fool you)."

If we are to gain fundamental insights that will enable clearer decisions among alternatives, new research must be conducted to show us the ecosystem parameters needed to maintain biogeochemical integrity, those required for the maintenance of species diversity, and the relationship between these two sets of parameters. We also need to know what processes control the functioning of natural and managed ecosystems and influence the assembly of ecological communities and ecosystems, which factors promote or repel invasions by exotic species, and what impacts species invasions and extinctions (separately or in combination) have on ecosystem processes.

Case studies of how ecosystems are being managed, or of the suite of ecological research projects that are being conducted in various regions of the country, show that both management and research tend to differ among ecosystems. Ecologists working in one ecosystem have tended to focus on one set of questions while those working in another ecosystem have focused on another. Ecosystem management efforts are hampered by lack of knowledge of the broad framework of the fundamental organizing principles of ecosystem function and ecological process. There is a critical need for research directed at discovering a framework of fundamental ecological principles and at testing the utility of that framework.

The Federal government is itself the steward of fully one-quarter of the nation's natural capital (as measured in land area). Often, the decisions made about the management of one ecosystem differ from those made about another (even within a single agency), in part because of the absence of an an objective, accessible knowledge base and a common understanding of fundamental principles. Therefore, this Panel calls for a concerted effort to enable both intramural and extramural experimental and theoretical research. Research results from studies of the kind described here would 1) facilitate more consistent decision-making and the attendant efficiencies of scale, and 2) lead to better means of improving the status of perturbed ecosystems.

Theoretical research is essential in order to make proper use of all the data that are collected by empirical research and monitoring efforts. Theoretical science involves the formulation and testing, against real data, of hypotheses, some of which may turn out to be general principles. It also involves construction and study of models and simulations. Sometimes these models and simulations are relatively simple, abstract ones exemplified by a few mathematical equations. These may share only a few critically important features with real systems. Or, models may be complicated ones that contain a great many characteristics of real systems. The former often have the virtue of transparency, making it fairly easy to see why certain fundamental principles apply both within the model and within the real world. The latter, while usually less transparent, may be more suitable for direct comparison with actual data.

The principles to be elucidated in the course of theoretical research on ecosystems will relate, for example, to:

interactions among different kinds of organisms,

the collective properties that emerge from those interactions,

relations among different spatial and temporal scales, and/or

the reaction of the system to various external influences—including human activities.

Also, there is need for theoretical research that speaks to the whole "pure to applied" spectrum of science.

In addition, interdisciplinary comparisons—for instance with the structure and function of human organizations and institutions (such as the market economy, or the interdependencies of individual, family, community, and society)—are very likely to be highly valuable in the development of understandable and usable ecological and ecosystems theory.

The vast stores of data accumulated by all the ecological and ecosystems research that has been conducted to date is available now for use in the sorts of analyses required by this research. The country has scientists highly qualified to do the research, both within the government and in the private sector, including academia. Synthetic research must become a priority. What is needed is focus on and funding for research to achieve the level of understanding described here. The need to begin improving the status of perturbed ecosystems is immediate. We recommend that appropriate reallocations both of budget and effort within agencies be implemented within the next budgetary cycle, and that calls for and funding of extramural research be included in the earliest possible proposal cycle of all the agencies. It should be recognized that this sort of research is long-term in nature and must be ongoing. The funding allocations and reallocations made to it should minimally be for five years and preferably be indefinite. Milestones for evaluating the results of this investment include improvement in predictions of the effects of ecosystem manipulations, productivity of ecosystems, and the status of the habitats that are managed according to the principles that are discovered by the research.

Develop and provide the computational tools needed to synthesize and use all available ecological data to advance scientific understanding and guide policies and decisions.  

All of the data manipulation, hypothesis testing, contingency modeling, and interdisciplinary comparisons that are so necessary to the elucidation of principles and theoretical frameworks discussed here require intensive computation, massive data delivery across networks, and advanced analytical algorithms—in short, a thoroughly mature, high-caliber information management environment. The "next generation" NBII, mentioned above and described in the next section, will provide this environment.

In parallel with the development of a unifying framework of underlying ecological theory and ecosystem principles, the adaptation of theory for use in management and policy must also occur. Mechanisms for interpreting new data in the light of a body of theory and applying those interpretations in the solutions to everyday problems must be devised and delivered to on-the-ground managers; rationales for high-level policy actions must be generated from accumulations of ecological data integrated with other societal concerns. Again, the delivery of easily understood results of theoretical and applied research requires an informatics environment that can provide tools to readily interpret research results for use in the real world. The NBII-2 is needed to provide this environment as well.

One institution that will be very much a part of the NBII-2 network of institutions and computers is the newly-established National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The NCEAS is perfectly situated to carry out the development of the special software and to conduct the complex analyses required by the theoretical research described above. A failure to fully exploit the capabilities of this facility would represent the loss of an opportunity to capitalize on investments that have already been made. As pointed out above, government agencies very much need the results of theoretical ecological and ecosystems research, which in turn needs a unique sort of informatics infrastructure both for the conduct of the research and for the delivery of the results.

The need for theoretical ecosystem research is immediate and ongoing, and the research cannot be conducted without the informatics developments. Therefore, the establishment in 1996 of the NCEAS, with an initial lifespan of five years, was particularly fortuitous. The NCEAS should be supported for an additional five years (and probably more) at higher level than it is at present, so that full advantage may be taken of the huge body of data that is being assembled. Approximately one-third of its funds should be competitively dispersed to researchers at institutions other than the NCEAS itself, for use in developing the software applications that are central to the conduct of theoretical ecosystem research. This increase in funding should be provided by entities (management agencies and industries, in partnership) that would benefit from the results of the research and the delivery system for those results that will be provided by the NBII-2.

Cover  Introduction   Section I   Section II   Section III   Section IV   Section V

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