U.S. Needs to Do a Better Job of Charting Ecosystem Trends: White House Panel

Staff Writer

U.S. ecologists and environmental scientists have long wanted to know the overall state and trends of the nation's ecosystems. But their repeated calls for a comprehensive suite of indicators have gone unanswered with the exception of a privately funded $9 million effort that is defunct. Today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) asked the Obama Administration to make it happen by creating a quadrennial survey of ecosystem trends and making relevant federal data more accessible.

The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment funded surveys in 2002 and 2008 that synthesized a vast amount of environmental data—such as biodiversity, pollution, and water supplies—from federal agencies and other sources. The Heinz Center tried to get the federal to continue the surveys, but all that came of it was a small pilot project. The PCAST report (pdf) suggests that a committee of the interagency National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) could coordinate future surveys—or outsource the job to the Heinz Center. Rosina Bierbaum of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who co-chaired the PCAST working group that wrote the report, estimates that such surveys would cost between $5 million and $10 million apiece.

The surveys would be improved by better coordination among the federal agencies that gather environmental data. "We're optimistic that this can be accomplished," report co-author Barbara Schaal of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri said during a teleconference. Added Bierbaum: "We think a lot of this better coordination ... can happen for no money."

The report also urges more agencies to contribute to a federal clearinghouse called data.gov. Only 11 of 55 national monitoring programs have sent in data sets. In addition, it says NSTC should prod federal agencies to make their data more useful to researchers and other users by, for example, releasing them in formats that can easily be imported into databases and synthesized.

Peter Saundry, who leads the nongovernmental National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C., says that improved coordination and data policies are useful steps but that much more is needed to fully chart national ecological trends. The Heinz Center identified numerous indicators that lacked sufficient data, and filling those gaps will be costly. "When it comes down to ... who's going to pay for it, the air goes out of the balloon," Saundry says.

Posted in Environment