Teaming with Life:
Investing in Science to Understand and Use
America's Living Capital
PCAST Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems
March 1998


Cover  Introduction   Section I   Section II (85K)   Section III   Section IV   Section V

About the President's Committee of Advisors for Science and Technology

President Clinton established the President's Committee of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) by Executive Order 12882 at the same time that he established the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The PCAST serves as the highest level private sector science and technology advisory group for the President and the NSTC. The Committee members are distinguished individuals appointed by the President, and are drawn from industry, education and research institutions, and other non-governmental organizations. The Assistant to the President for Science and Technology co-chairs the Committee with a private sector member selected by the President.


The formal link between the PCAST and the NSTC ensures that national needs remain an overarching guide for the NSTC. The PCAST provides feedback about Federal programs and actively advises the NSTC about science and technology issues of national importance.


President's remarks on PCAST Part 1

President's remarks on  PCAST Part 2





John H. Gibbons
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Director, Office of Science and Technology



Norman R. Augustine
Vice Chairman of the Board and CEO
Lockheed Martin Corporation

Francisco J. Ayala
Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences
Professor of Philosophy
University of California, Irvine

John Deutch
Institute Professor of Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Murray Gell-Mann
Professor, Santa Fe Institute
R.A. Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics
California Institute of Technology

David A. Hamburg
President Emeritus
Carnegie Foundation of New York

John P. Holdren
Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

Diana MacArthur
Chair and CEO
Dynamac Corporation

Shirley M. Malcolm
Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Mario J. Molina
Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Peter H. Raven
Director, Missouri Botanical Garden
Engelmann Professor of Botany
Washington University in St. Louis

Sally K. Ride
Director, California Space Institute
Professor of Physics
University of California, San Diego

Judith Rodin
University of Pennsylvania

Charles A. Sanders
Former Chairman
Glaxo-Wellcome Inc.

David E. Shaw
D.E. Shaw and Co. and Juno Online Services

Charles M. Vest
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Virginia V. Weldon
Senior Vice President for Public Policy
Monsanto Company

Lilian Shiao-Yen Wu
Member, Research Staff
Thomas J. Watson Research Center

Yolanda L. Comedy
Senior Policy Analyst


PCAST Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel




Peter Raven
Missouri Botanical Garden


Francisco J. Ayala
Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences
Professor of Philosophy
University of California, Irvine

Geoffrey C. Bowker
Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences
University of Illinois

Rita R. Colwell
Biotechnology Institute
University of Maryland

Joel L. Cracraft
American Museum of Natural History

Gretchen C. Daily
Biological Sciences
Stanford University

Murray Gell-Mann
Professor, Santa Fe Institute
R.A. Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics
California Institute of Technology

Geoffrey Heal
Paul Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility
Graduate School of Business and Program on Information and Resources
Columbia University

Thomas E. Lovejoy
Counselor to the Secretary for Biology and Environmental Affairs
Smithsonian Institution

Jane Lubchenco
Valley Professor of Marine Biology
Oregon State University

Jerry Melillo
Marine Biological Laboratory
Woods Hole

Mario J. Molina
Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor
of Environmental Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Charles A. Sanders
Former Chairman
Glaxo-Wellcome Inc.

John L. Schnase
Center for Botanical Informatics
Missouri Botanical Garden

Abraham Silberschatz
Information Sciences Research Center
Lucent Technologies

Christopher R. Somerville
Plant Biology
Carnegie Institution of Washington
Stanford University

Susan Leigh Star
Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences
University of Illinois

G. David Tilman
Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Ecology
Ecology and Behavioral Biology
University of Minnesota

Robert T. Watson
Senior Scientific Advisor
Environment Division
The World Bank

Lilian Shiao-Yen Wu
Thomas J. Watson Research Center


Study Executive Director:

Meredith A. Lane
National Science and Technology Council



section i:
section ii:
section iii:
section iv:
section v:


Over the last few decades, a new paradigm has emerged: Improving and protecting our environment is compatible with growing the Nation's economy. As part of this paradigm, we have come to recognize the essential linkage between the economy and the environment. We now understand that the sustained bounty of our Nation's lands and waters and of its native plant and animal communities is the natural capital on which our economy is founded. We also realize that a sound forward-looking economic strategy requires that we protect this natural capital, rather than damage it and then spend millions or billions of dollars attempting to recreate what Nature has already given us. To protect our natural capital, our Nation's biodiversity and the ecosystems within which it thrives, we need to have an extensive and frequently updated environmental knowledge base. This knowledge base is required to evaluate alternative plans for managing biodiversity and ecosystems as we work to optimize the union between the environment and the economy.


Our Nation's environmental knowledge base and our skills at using what we have are not now sufficiently well-developed to permit us to formulate the coupled environmental and economic strategies that will be needed in the 21st Century.


Yet, we can harness advanced information theory and large capacity computational systems to draw our knowledge together into a clear vision of the biological world. We can revolutionize this field. At this moment, our society is blessed with a dazzling array of new tools, from gene sequencers to global satellites. These tools can enable us to explore environmental questions at several different scales simultaneously, from sub-cellular to global.


The message of this report is that new technology can provide us with the tools of discovery and techniques of analysis that will catapult us into position to meet the challenges of 21st century environmental and economic policy planning. In the age of biology, policies that enhance human health and wealth will be the same policies that protect the biological resources of our Nation and the world.


The PCAST Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems recommends, in this Report, certain targeted investments in research and education that will bring new tools to bear on old and new challenges alike. These investments are modest in comparison to the overall worth of the resources they are designed to enhance and protect, the yearly dividends Americans derive from natural capital, and current Federal expenditures in these areas. Thus, they represent a very cost-effective use of public funds.


The Panel recommends that the Administration:


· Integrate up-to-date knowledge into management, use, and conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems;

· Search out America's biological species, their genetic properties, and their interrelationships;

· Explore fundamental ecological principles in order to improve monitoring of ecosystem status, better predict change, and optimize sustainable productivity;

· Design new mechanisms for valuation of natural capital and create economic incentives to conserve it in order to encourage a sustainable relationship between economy and environment;

· Apply leading-edge information science and technologies to electronically organize, interlink, and deliver biological information for use by all sectors of society, and

· Educate Americans about the ecological and economic importance of biodiversity and ecosystems and the economic impact of choices in management of our natural capital.


Taken together, the recommendations will enable us to develop sustainable strategies for conservation, management, and use of biodiversity and ecosystems. Justification for these efforts, and details on the expenditures, agencies, and partnerships that might best achieve the desired results are provided. This Report outlines a unique interdisciplinary research program, and lays out steps to rapidly develop 21st-century information synthesis capabilities.


Humanity depends upon biodiversity (all the species of organisms, including their genetic diversity) and ecosystems (co-existing species, their habitat, and the multiple interactions among these components) for the very sustenance of life. Biodiversity and well-functioning ecosystems are themselves interdependent. Ecosystems and the diversity of species they support underpin our economy in very real, though often under-appreciated, ways. The living things with which we share the planet provide us with clean air, clean water, food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and aesthetic enjoyment. Yet, increasing human populations and their activities are disturbing species and their habitats, disrupting natural ecological processes, and even changing climate patterns on a global scale. These are greater stresses on the natural world than humanity has ever generated in the past, and we must take responsibility for alleviating the impacts of our own activities. It is becoming more and more important that we actively conserve biodiversity and protect natural ecosystems in order to preserve the quality of human life. We propose that this can be done by enhancing understanding of the interdependence of the economy and the environment. This understanding will make it possible to use America's precious natural capital to generate prosperity, and at the same time conserve it for future generations.


To achieve this understanding, the United States needs to fully utilize current scientific knowledge in its conservation strategies, and incorporate new knowledge into them as it is generated. In addition, because the strength of our economy is linked inextricably to that of the world economy, the United States should fully participate in management and conservation of global biodiversity resources by sharing information and expertise and assisting in building scientific infrastructure in developing nations, as well as by ratifying the Convention on Biological Diversity. In both the national and international spheres, we need greater knowledge than we now possess. We need to know more about the biodiversity that exists within the United States and the world, and about how biological systems function under both natural and managed conditions. In addition, we need means to incorporate explicitly the value of our natural capital within calculations of agricultural, industrial, and service-sector outputs, and to provide incentives for conservation by all the sectors of society that benefit from living resources.


We need to elevate the national biological information infrastructure (NBII) to a new level of capability—a "next generation"—that can make maximal use of, and fully and openly share on a global basis, the information generated by research on biodiversity and ecosystems. We need to focus information science research on biodiversity and ecosystems information to assure that scientific results can be incorporated effectively into management and policy decisions. And, we need to bring the results of a great deal of earlier research that are now only found in static media into electronic format, because the NBII is the mechanism whereby biological data and information about the environment can truly be made available for use by all sectors of society. Finally, to enable Americans to understand the scientific and economic issues associated with biodiversity and ecosystems, we need to bolster the scientific content of informal and formal education.


This Panel has made a number of specific recommendations for refocusing certain ongoing management and research efforts, and for the allocation or reallocation of resources toward specific areas of research and development. These recommendations are made in the spirit of improving the scientific knowledge and infrastructure that are needed to improve our stewardship of America's living capital. The biological, economic, and information science research, and the support for education, recommended in this Report will require the addition of up to $200 million annually to current Federal expenditures in these areas. However, this Panel believes the investment is essential, and that it is a justifiable and cost-effective use of Federal research funds.


The research that is needed is associated with many agencies in several departments of the executive branch of the Federal government, and will require participation by academia, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector including industry. Therefore, the National Science and Technology Council, particularly the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, must actively and consistently coordinate the research program outlined in this Report.


The Panel strongly recommends:


Scientific Knowledge in Service to Society. At present, governmental agencies and other entities that are responsible for managing the Nation's natural capital often do so in an uncoordinated—indeed frequently conflicting—manner, largely because they are operating from differing (and sometimes outmoded) knowledge bases. Also, many confrontations between advocates for the environment and defenders of commercial activities could be avoided or resolved by readily accessible, objective, scientific information. Conservation policy and management decisions ought to employ the best, most up-to-date scientific information available, and as new information is generated, evolve to incorporate it. Conservation and management should also be coordinated across all Federal, state, and local agencies and among governments and other managing entities. In fact, the United States should develop a comprehensive national conservation strategy, building from the elements which currently exist. To formulate such a strategy, we need to develop, through public-private partnerships (e.g., among government, industry, and academia), an objective, accessible knowledge base that includes what we know about species, their characteristics and interactions, their habitats and ecosystems, how human activities impact them, and what kinds of actions comprise best practices for managing them. This knowledge base can then be used to foster local, regional, and national conservation strategies that are biologically and ecologically appropriate and economically sustainable. The goal of these strategies should be net enhancement of natural capital, so that future generations may enjoy the bounties of nature as well as economic prosperity. These strategies should include mechanisms for managing and protecting ecosystems sustainably in the face of global change and guarding our natural capital in all its forms. There are already some excellent examples of such strategies that have been developed around the country under the leadership of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), elements of the private sector, or representatives from local, state, and Federal agencies. The expansion of the capability of the NBII to deliver, rapidly and accessibly, comprehensive and comprehensible information for devising strategies, making responsible management decisions, and resolving conflicts is an essential part of bringing scientific knowledge into the service of society.


Discovery of Species. Modern biological tools are making possible a new age of biological discovery during which we can seek out and catalog previously unknown species more rapidly than ever before. Scientists estimate that fewer than 30% of species that occur in the United States have been discovered and described (worldwide, the total is estimated to be fewer than 15%). Many described species have useful properties; it is reasonable to predict that some of those which have yet to be discovered also have beneficial attributes (genetic resistance to disease, food value, compounds that could become pharmaceuticals, etc.) that can be employed in sustainable agricultural and industrial development. The workers needed to perform this research can be Federal, state, university, or NGO employees, but all will require the facilities of natural history museums, botanical gardens, herbaria, culture collections, and other research collections as well as new tools for gene sequencing, phylogenetic analysis, and information synthesis and presentation. The Report recommends that total yearly expenditures for discovery of species and their genetic attributes be raised to a minimum of $130 million (compared to current annual expenditures of $74 million), phased in over three years. These funds will 1) enable taxonomists—scientists who identify and describe species—to inventory the Nation's biodiversity wealth, 2) train new taxonomists, and 3) support institutions that house research collections and provide vital biodiversity information for a multitude of purposes. An effective and efficient NBII that is interconnected with similar systems in other countries will be an indispensable tool in this process of discovery.


Ecosystem Research and Monitoring. Interagency participation in and support for the Environmental Monitoring and Research Initiative of the CENR should be continued, especially promotion of the public-private partnerships involved in that activity. In addition, the capabilities of current ecological monitoring sites to provide useful data should be evaluated and any shortcomings corrected. At the same time, experimental research on biodiversity and ecosystems must be strengthened in order to increase our ability to use the results of monitoring to predict how ecosystems will respond to multiple stresses and to maximize the sustainable productivity of agricultural and forest ecosystems. This research can be conducted at universities, within governmental agencies, in public-private partnerships between Federal or state agencies and NGOs, or by other entities. However, the research should be anchored at a system of study sites that, in parallel to astronomical observatories, might be called "environmental observatories." The United States has a number of such sites—National Forest Research Laboratories, Long-Term Ecological Research Sites, some of the National Parks, etc.—but this system needs to be expanded to cover the full diversity of ecosystem types found in the country. Ecosystem research and monitoring also needs to be more fully interconnected by efficient and effective information management systems, namely the NBII envisioned above, and to make full use of the most effective current technology, such as laser technologies to measure gas fluxes, high resolution remote sensing, and non-invasive near-infrared techniques for environmental chemistry. Investments in these sites and their research-support facilities should be increased by approximately $55 million over the current $300 million per year. A certain proportion of this increase in research spending should be specifically targeted to theoretical research designed to discover fundamental ecological principles. There is new sophistication in analytic techniques, which can be used to further increase scientific understanding of ecosystems, their vital functions, and the impacts on them caused by human activities.


Economy and Environment. Steps should be taken to focus interdisciplinary economic, sociological, and ecological research on the relationship between the market economy and natural capital, between society and the biosphere. In recent years, and certainly in this Report, natural capital has been shown to be the source of a very large percentage of human economic wealth. Yet, this recognition is new enough that mechanisms for valuating natural capital and the means to incorporate that value into assessments of economic output, or long-term costs to society caused by use of natural capital, have yet to be articulated. These mechanisms, once defined, can be used to devise incentives for conservation that will encourage industry, government, and communities to conserve while still receiving benefits from sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems. The new approaches to the integration of information from widely differing fields that are now available will facilitate this research at the interface of biological and social science with economics. The Panel believes this to be a vital area of research that can help to reduce the perception of conflict between the needs of the environment and the strength of the economy. However, there is currently no mechanism for supporting research directed at valuation and at development of incentives. The Panel recommends that the National Science Foundation take the lead in an interagency granting program to make approximately $24 million per year available for these highly interdisciplinary, extremely important, but currently unfunded areas.


National Biological Information Infrastructure. The research initiatives described above, and resource management decision-making, require a dramatic increase in the analytical and synthetic capacities, as well as the information content, of the National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII). The Federal government should push forward to the "next generation NBII" because in its current form, the NBII is inadequate. At present, the NBII can be used to access information in databases held by various Federal agencies and other institutions around the country. However, the system can be used to access only one database at a time, and for the most part, collation and correlation of data from multiple databases requires hours of human involvement. The demands of policy, management, and scientific investigation are such that collation, correlation, analysis and synthesis of information must be automated so that people may concentrate on decision-level and creative tasks. Furthermore, 1) databases that are online are by no means as numerous as they ought to be, 2) those that exist are uneven in the types of information that they hold, and 3) standards for data exchange in the biodiversity and ecosystem information domain have yet to be widely adopted. Direct support to the NBII should be increased at least fivefold to promote the development of standards and to increase the information content of the NBII in its current incarnation while the "next generation NBII" is being constructed. The Federal government should enable development of the "next generation NBII" by investing a minimum of $40 million per year for five years (and reasonable maintenance thereafter) in a system of regional nodes at which computer scientists, information scientists, biodiversity and ecosystem scientists, and sociologists, using leading-edge tools and technologies, will work together to develop true interoperability among multiple database types, new software tools for gathering, analyzing and synthesizing data, new means of scientific collaboration, new means of presenting computational results so that biodiversity and ecosystems research findings can be more readily applied in management and policy, and so on. Among other useful attributes, such a system will enhance the ability of industry to develop new products, provide much better outputs for use in education and in management of biodiversity and ecosystems than is possible now, and further facilitate scientific advances. Importantly, the enhanced NBII will add value (at relatively minor cost) to the vast datasets of physical environmental parameters that the US obtains from its earth-orbiting satellites by making it possible to readily correlate them with biological datasets in various combinations. The Panel emphasizes that this "next generation NBII" is fundamentally important to the accomplishment of all of the research, management, and education recommendations that form the remainder of the Report. The NBII envisioned by the Panel will eventually become at least in part self-sustaining—as did the Internet itself—but the initial impetus for its creation must come from the Federal government.


Education. Environmental education should be centered on science. An electorate that does not understand the natural world or the nature of the tradeoffs that must be made in managing it wisely and sustainably cannot make informed decisions. Communities that do not have an understanding of the workings of the ecosystems within which they live will be unable to function as responsible stewards, and will thereby too often cause and suffer from losses of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The Panel recommends that professional development opportunities be multiplied so that 10,000 teachers per year can increase their skills for teaching about the interdependence of society and the biosphere in an unbiased way. The recommended increase (of about $15 million to the current $72 million per year) in informal educational opportunities will strengthen the environmental literacy of the American public, and initiate a mechanism for development of scientifically sound curricula and teaching materials that would improve the environmental component of science education in the Nation's schools.


The Panel is convinced that continuation of traditional resource use patterns and their unanticipated results (for example, global climate change) will lead to diminishing economic benefits and degradation of the other services that we derive from our living resources. To reverse the trend, we must make sustainable use of the products of biodiversity and ecosystems, and conserve natural capital for our children and the generations to follow. To do that, we need to know more than we do about the living world. This Report provides a framework for research and information infrastructure about the economy and the environment that will enable the Nation to reconcile the needs of both, a goal the Panel believes is necessary to meet the challenges of conservation and sustainable use. The Panel's recommendations call for specific investment increases that total less than $200 million per year (phased in over three years) for research, education, management, and the information infrastructure to support them all. Current Federal expenditures for biodiversity and ecosystems research and monitoring (which total approximately $460 million per year) are too low when compared to the threats that global change and growing populations present to our natural capital. The Panel believes the investments recommended in this Report are just that—modest but vitally important investments in a knowledge base that will yield an incalculable return by enabling us to preserve our living capital resources as a sustainable foundation for America's future prosperity.

Cover  Introduction   Section I   Section II (85K)   Section III   Section IV   Section V

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