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National Science Foundation - Celebrating 50 Years

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Fifty Years
Of Supporting

Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the federal government's only agency dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines. NSF's mission is to ensure that the United States maintains leadership in scientific and engineering disciplines, in scientific discovery and in the development of new technologies. NSF has achieved this mission repeatedly over the past 50 years.

This series of articles highlight key advances in science and engineering enabled by NSF support that have had a beneficial impact on humankind. Previous articles have examined achievements by NSF-supported researchers in five different fields of science and education. This last article looks forward, at the way in which NSF is driving development of the new discipline of biocomplexity.

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New discoveries have highlighted unappreciated linkages between the environment, human health and prosperity. Simply put, the Earth's forests, grasslands, deserts, rivers, lakes, coral reefs and oceans are our life-support system. They provide us essential goods and services. The goods are familiar: food, fiber, raw materials, medicines and genes. Only recently have we recognized that living organisms interacting with their physical environment provide services needed for human survival and quality of life. Examples include purification of water and air, provision of fertile soil, control of pests and pathogens, and modulation of extreme weather events, like floods. Ecosystems also provide places for recreation and learning.

Although our environmental knowledge is expanding, we do not yet have the understanding needed to address the environmental challenges today facing our nation and world. Previous modes of scientific inquiry have proved inadequate, often being narrowly focused and fragmented, to achieve a predictive understanding of whole ecosystems.

In 1999, NSF director Rita Colwell took the lead and began the Biocomplexity Initiative, which supports teams of researchers from different disciplines to take a holistic approach to understanding the earth's complex environmental systems, both natural and human-derived. Each year, biocomplexity funds research projects and "incubation activities," enabling groups of researchers who have not previously collaborated to develop projects.

As Dr. Colwell noted "The interplay between life and its environment is complex. The connections are not necessarily straightforward or easily discerned. These ribbons of connection are what biocomplexity research addresses. The payoff will allow us to help preserve biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems. The knowledge that results from biocomplexity research will generate tools that can help us predict environmental change and understand the ramifications of human actions on life-supporting environmental processes."

"....knowledge that results from biocomplexity research will generate tools that can help us predict environmental change and understand the ramifications of human actions...."
                        Dr. Rita Colwell, NSF Director

The Biocomplexity Initiative builds on previous NSF-supported research, which applied the principles of biocomplexity. Among early efforts were projects on global change. Using ICAM-3, a computer model incorporating both social and physical factors, researchers at Carnegie Mellon addressed complex problems lying at the interface of natural and social sciences. They discovered that storms and the damage they cause are far more important to coastal property owners than are long-term sea-level rises associated with global climate change. They found slowly changing environmental conditions do not motivate people to address such changes, has important public policy implications.

NSF, partnering with other agencies, supported research on linkages between species diversity, ecological processes and atmospheric properties. Smith and co-workers examined the effects of increasing atmospheric CO2 on the Mojave Desert. Combined experimental and modeling research led to the discovery that elevated CO2 promoted the replacement of native grasses by cheatgrass, an invasive exotic species, that has already displaced native species over vast tracts of western North America.

Determining what controls production in the ocean is needed to understand global carbon cycling and the ocean's ability to respond to climate change. Hutchins and co-workers discovered the abundance of elemental iron limits production in coastal waters worldwide. This finding counters previous assumptions and provides a new perspective in understanding and predicting ocean carbon dynamics. This information may help us understand the ability of coastal oceans to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and transport it into the deep sea, thus lowering some of the atmospheric CO2 due to human activities.

Fernandez and colleagues at Maine led an 8-year experiment to determine the effects of nitrogen and sulfur deposition on other soil nutrients. The results showed that soil calcium, required for plant growth, was reduced ~65-80%. Because nitrogen and sulfur were applied at levels comparable to those being deposited in heavily polluted regions in the eastern U.S. and Europe, their results have public policy implications regarding the long-term impacts of air pollution on forest soils.

The biocomplexity approach has also been applied to understand the dynamics of disease and pests. Gary Marty established that disease was responsible for the unexpectedly low biomass of Pacific herring in Prince William Sound, Alaska during the spring of 1998. Since models of Pacific herring had not considered disease as a factor in population dynamics, Marty's findings demonstrated the inadequacy of present herring models and should lead to more accurate forecasting of fish stocks.

Life scientists and researchers from other disciplines, all supported by NSF, have also identified the infective path of a virus dangerous to people. Introduced into North America in the early 1900s, by infected rats on ships from Asia, the Hantavirus occurs predominantly in the U.S. southwest. NSF research tracked the virus to certain rats, and established the mechanism of rat-to-human transfer. Biologists and meteorologists at the NSF-supported Long Term Ecological Research site in New Mexico have also related virus outbreaks to wetter than average winter-spring periods.

Gilbert and associates at Texas discovered the growing threat of exotic Brazilian fire ants in the U.S. is associated with a lack of natural enemies. Phorid flies, which in Brazil are parasites of the ants, are absent here. This allows an expansion of fire ants throughout much of the United States, causing considerable ecological and economic harm. Because of their societal relevance, Gilbert's findings, which suggest ways to combat fire ants, have reached popular audiences through reports on NPR, CNN, and the BBC.

A new project funded through the Biocomplexity Initiative will model the interactions between humans, shoreline and lake ecosystems. Carpenter and colleagues at Wisconsin will examine whether an ecosystem's condition sets the stage for the collapse of game fish stocks, and also see if their model can be used to design manipulations for removing invading crayfish from a lake. If successful, a self-sustaining method for removing an invasive species will result - a path-breaking ecological restoration.

Environment Nanotechnology Astronomy Info.Tech. Education Biocomplexity
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Last Modified: Mar 28, '03