AS the flood waters from the Mississippi River recede, the
inevitable questions surface. Why did it happen? Who is to blame?
What could have been done differently? What are the impacts on the
people, ecosystems, and biota? Who is able to take this big-picture
approach and assemble a research team?
The Mississippi, like many other river systems, crosses dozens
of state and local political boundaries. No federal agency has
jurisdiction over the Mississippi River, let alone over its
watershed. The Corps of Engineers controls the levees that couldn't
and shouldn't hold the river.
Much of the upper Mississippi is a national wildlife refuge
under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the
Interior Department. Agriculture, under the Department of
Agriculture, has a tremendous impact on the watershed. The
Department of Commerce, with the national Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration and the Weather Service, has jurisdiction over
climatology and meteorology, but certainly not over the weather.
The federal bowl of alphabet soup continues with agencies such as
the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and
Urban Development, and the United States Geological Survey - all
having some role in the region.
This patchwork of federal agencies and programs that has grown
over the past decades has a major blind spot: the inability to look
at big issues and to support a comprehensive analysis of its
workings, problems, and opportunities.
Although the Mississippi may be the extreme case, this lack of
ability to take an overview is characteristic of our approach on
most major environmental systems. Yet this approach is the scale
that is necessary to really understand the environment.
To deal with its environmental problems, the nation needs a way
to launch scientific investigations that are not limited by the
geographical boundaries of its jurisdiction; it needs a way to look
beyond the narrow time horizons under which most agencies operate;
and it needs a way to provide credible scientific information
untainted by an agency's political agenda.
A group of more than 6,000 scientists, educators, managers, and
other citizens has proposed the creation of a National Institute
for the Environment (NIE) to take this big-picture look and to
provide this credible science. The concept of an NIE has been
endorsed by scores of scientific societies, environmental groups,
businesses and nongovernmental organizations.
The mission of the NIE would be to improve the scientific basis
for making decisions on environmental issues. It would have the
following goals: increase the scientific understanding of
environmental issues by supporting credible, problem-focused
research; assist decisionmaking by providing comprehensive
assessments of current knowledge and its implications; facilitate
access to environmental information; and sponsor higher education
and training. …