SCIENCE FOUNDATION PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
by Whit Gibbons
May 12, 2003
Immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all
commercial aircraft were grounded for three days. This unprecedented
decision, a direct response to the horrific events of 9/11, provided
an unusual research opportunity. David J. Travis of the University of
Wisconsin-Whitewater and colleagues used the reduction in jet travel
to test the hypothesis that the cumulative effect of jet vapor trails
(contrails) influences temperatures on the earth's surface.
Contrails do affect temperatures down here where we live, and the study
further concluded that in high air traffic regions of the country, for
the three days of no air traffic after the attacks, skies were clearer.
In fact, the differences between the high temperatures during the day
and the low temperatures at night were greater than "during any
comparable period in the past 30 years."
The contrail study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF),
was one of many sidebars mentioned in a recent report on "broad-based
guidance and challenges in environmental research and education."
A point is made that these challenges "are aligned with the NSF
mission," which is "to promote the progress of science; to
advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure
the national defense." Most scientists view NSF as the premiere
government funding agency supporting basic research in ecology and many
other scientific areas.
The report, prepared and written by an advisory committee led by Stephanie
Pfirman of Barnard College in New York, is titled "Complex Environmental
Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century.
A 10-year Outlook for the National Science Foundation." Among this
year's government reports, this ranks among the more informative, interesting,
The overall message is one that should be noted not only by today's
professional ecologists but also by students considering a career in
environmental science. NSF's goals and guidance will ultimately influence
the direction of ecological research for years to come. One of the most
telling messages is that the future of environmental studies in the
United States and the world will involve teamwork among many scientists
in many different fields of science. Because of modern technological
advances, it will be necessary to form "collaborative teams of
engineers and natural and social scientists that go beyond current disciplinary
research and education frameworks." According to the report, significant
challenges in science and engineering are ahead of us in this century.
Ecological research and environmental education are the keys to meeting
these challenges in order to assume "global security, health, and
five major challenges are (1) rapid climate and ecological change; (2)
the degradation of freshwater resources: (3) the globalization of disease;
(4) the threat of biological and chemical warfare and terrorism; and
(5) the more complicated question of long-term environmental security.
Each of these categories has touched our society at local, regional,
or global levels. We all have experienced the local weather effect of
El Nino and La Nina years and now have an appreciation for how climates
in one region can have global influences that affect other regions.
Everyone is also aware of the steady decline that is so apparent in
the quality of freshwater for drinking in many parts of the world, not
to mention the threats to our nation's wetlands due to ineffective environmental
regulations. International concerns about SARS and other potential disease
outbreaks are also familiar on a global scale, and potential terrorist
threats from biological and chemical agents will always be a concern.
Finally, our "long-term environmental security" should be
at the top of everyone's list of concerns. Involvement in international
conflicts, concern for the U.S. economy, and awareness of other pressing
issues that affect our daily lives do not justify disregarding our longer
term environmental health and welfare. We must continue to keep an environmental
vigil, because other problems do not mitigate the importance or the
impact of human-caused habitat destruction, losses in biodiversity,
and species extinctions.
Understanding all aspects of complex environmental systems, such as
the subtleties of contrail effects on local weather conditions, will
require teamwork among diverse scientific disciplines. NSF's recognition
of this imperative will be a critical factor in ecological research
for the next decade and beyond.
If you have an environmental question or comment, email