Interdisciplinary model would benefit government

On March 3, President Bill Chace responded to Henry Howe's request that Emory join other nationally recognized institutions in support of the creation of a National Institute for the Environment. In that letter, he stated: "I find it difficult to fathom how the federal government might respond to a proposal to create a new national institute in the current political and economic climate. Nonetheless, the need for a deeper understanding of the environment, and of public policy and practices affecting it, is profound and in want of dedicated attention. I would be pleased if Emory's name could be associated with others who support the creation of a National Institute for the Environment. Please add our name to the list."

Howe is vice chairman, Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE). His letter to President Chace followed a Feb. 20 meeting of regional environmental leaders to discuss the NIE concept. But what exactly is the National Institute for the Environment (NIE) and how could Emory benefit by supporting it?

The proposed NIE is an evolutionary step for a federal agency. Environmental issues in this country have been handled according to the traditional disciplinary model of our colleges and universities. That is, after all, what we as educators taught those who staff federal agencies. Significant and interacting elements of single environmental issues are distributed throughout many federal agencies. These agencies have differing histories, philosophies, responsibilities and motivations. They are no more successful in handling interdisciplinary environmental issues than are college departments in reaching agreement on budgetary allocations. How will the NIE change our comprised record on environment management?

The National Institute for the Environment's mission is to improve the scientific basis for decision-making on environmental issues. This is accomplished by focusing on the science of the environment, not environmental management or regulation. Many agencies such as EPA already focus on regulation. One NIE goal is to increase scientific understanding of environmental issues by sponsoring credible, problem-focused research. As our government has moved ahead with regulation and management, it has become clearer that the United States does not have the knowledge to effectively deal with environmental problems. The application of earlier ecological theories to today's complex problems of industry, urban areas, agriculture and forestry illustrates both the inadequacy of our scientific knowledge base and the site-specific nature of most environmental dilemmas. How money should be spent to solve or avoid an environmental problem requires knowledge of both the human and natural systems producing that problem. The example of ground-level ozone management in Atlanta illustrates this point.

In Atlanta, we used an EPA model that clearly suggested ozone levels in our city would decline if we reduced the organic aerosols generated by industries such as painting factories. This was diligently pursued by responsible state agencies with real costs to taxpayers and businesses. Ozone concentrations increased in Atlanta despite the well-intended management effort. New research then indicated that pine trees contribute to ozone formation through the release of turpenes, which give the characteristic evergreen odor. This was falsely interpreted by many to mean that Atlanta's pine trees cause low-level ozone pollution. As ozone concentrations increased to medically significant exposures, EPA's model was abandoned and the idea that trees caused Atlanta's increasing ozone problem was dropped (the number of trees in Atlanta is decreasing each year). The only major variable left was the annual increase in automobiles in Atlanta. Since the automobile population expands with our continually increasing human population, and since the internal combustion engine produces all the chemicals necessary for ground-level ozone formation, attention turned to reducing the number of automobiles. The net result of years of ozone management is a continually increasing health threat to both human and natural systems of Atlanta from ozone. As a result of inadequate knowledge, Atlanta lost an important 20 years of lead time in managing ground level ozone concentrations.

To avoid this kind of fragmented, ineffective approach, the NIE will provide comprehensive assessments of environmental knowledge and its implications for human and natural systems. The integrated environmental information and the basic science and technology supporting it will be communicated through modern information technology. Unlike the "disciplinary" agencies of today, an NIE will provide a single integrated source of knowledge, research and assessments. This will improve societal decision-making and move us closer to sustaining development and environmental quality.

Emory joins a long list of universities and colleges already supporting creation of an NIE. These include the University of Arizona, Duke University, the University of Florida, the State University of New York-Buffalo and Stony Brook, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Rutgers University and Yale University.

The NIE will benefit education and research by supporting undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral programs with fellowships, training grants and supplements to research grants. Funds will be provided for development of environmentally related curricula and for teaching/training in the context of those programs. Research related to environmental resources, environmental systems and environmental sustainability will be sponsored through the NIE's Research Directorate. Emory will stand to benefit if interdisciplinary research and education in our University grows.

Larry Ragsdale is professor of Human and Natural Ecology.