The birth of new suns and the death of old stars are the stuff of science. But in the federal research establishment, there is nothing quite so awesome as the possible birth of a new bureaucracy.
For the past year, a group of renegade ecologists led by Stephen Hubbell of Princeton University and Henry Howe of the University of Illinois has been beating the drums for the creation of a new agency they have dubbed the National Institutes for the Environment.
The duo and their associates recently persuaded Congress to appropriate $400,000 to study the possibility of creating such an agency. Last week, the National Academy of Sciences agreed to take the money and ponder the issue of environmental science and its support in Washington.
According to its backers, ideally an environmental institute would fund scientists to study such things as sustainable agriculture, the effects of climate change, the societal cost of environmental policies and the preservation and rebuilding of ecosystems. The boosters want the new agency to compile inventories of threatened species and areas. They want to search for new medicines and pesticides made from natural sources. To do this, they want about $500 million a year.
Hubbell and Howe contend environmental research is under- funded. Ecological studies have fallen between the cracks, they say, ignored by other agencies, a victim of narrow agendas and regulatory myopia.
"The community is strongly sensitive to the fact that ecology is underfunded," said W. Franklin Harris of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency that funds most of the academic ecologists. "There is a lot of frustration."
But Harris, an ecologist "before I became a faceless bureaucrat," said his colleagues might have unrealistic expectations. Five hundred million dollars is a lot of money. "I'm not sure this is the best time to be so optimistic," Harris said.
No matter. Hubbell and Howe appear to be on a roll. They envision a National Institutes for the Environment modeled after the National Institutes of Health, which supports basic and applied biomedical research. The new environmental agency would concentrate on bringing together teams of scientists, including economists and sociologists, to tackle environmental problems such as acid rain, ozone depletion, vanishing species and degraded ecosystems. Moreover, proponents of the new institute say researchers would not only identify problems, but recommend solutions.
All this is considered well and good, except for the fact that almost a dozen agencies in Washington already fund environmental research.
"Look, I'm an ecologist. When somebody says we want to double the amount of money we're spending on environmental research, who's against that? It's like being against motherhood," said William Cooper of Michigan State University, who serves on the scientific advisory board of the Environmental Protection Agency. "It's how we get there from here that we argue about."
The controversy stems from the fact that the proponents of the environmental institute want to create a new, free-standing agency. The boosters do not want the institute nestled within existing science bureaucracies, such as the National Science Foundation and the EPA.
Their reason for not liking the EPA is straightforward.
"Scientists don't think much of EPA research," said David Blockstein, an ecologist and executive director of the Committee for the National Institutes for the Environment, a private group.
The EPA funds environmental research, but most of it is contractual research-for-hire, which academic scientists view as too narrow, and more dedicated to creating new regulations than new knowledge. Blockstein said things might be different if EPA were elevated to a Cabinet-level department. But maybe not.
Blockstein also said his colleagues do not want their institute housed in the NSF. This objection is harder to figure, say NSF officials, who point out that NSF already supports the bulk of ecological research at universities, the very clients that would be served by National Institutes for the Environment.
NSF also awards its grants by a system known as "peer review," in which a group of scientists huddle in a conference room and pass anonymous judgment on their colleagues' proposals. The ecologists want their new institute to also operate by peer review, a system rarely employed at other agencies doing environmental science, such as the Forest Service, the Agricultural Research Service and EPA.
However, Blockstein said that NSF is too dedicated to pure science to support the kind of grunt work the National Institutes for the Environment must undertake, such as compiling inventories of species and monitoring habitats. Blockstein stresses that the new agency would be somewhere between the pure science of NSF and the regulatory EPA, and serve instead as a sort of independent "solution shop" for enviromental woes. Such applied research would not be as welcome at NSF, Blockstein said.
Some science managers think the ecologists are kidding themselves. In tight fiscal times, they say, there is not going to be new money for a new institute -- and who needs a new bureaucracy? Other science officials worry that a new institute will rob existing agencies of their environmental expertise and mission.
"If we have to build an National Institutes for the Environment by stripping what little expertise exists in the other agencies, I have a problem with that," Cooper said. "I have a big problem with that. And I think people in Washington are going to have a big problem with that, too."