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Environment: Taking the Long View

The Birth of Long Term Ecological Research

Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) - click for more detailsToday most of us take it for granted that the Earth's diverse systems, from forests, grasslands, and deserts to the oceans and the atmosphere, are interconnected. But in the early 1960s, thinking about the world as a set of interacting systems was a "totally revolutionary concept," says Joann Roskoski of NSF's Division of Environmental Biology. At the time, researchers took what the late influential ecologist Tom Callahan called a "critter-by-critter" approach, focusing on single species.

"That's fine as far as it goes," Callahan said, "but it doesn't say much about the bigger picture."

And the bigger picture is what the 1960s environmental movement was all about. During this decade, NSF helped move ecology to science's center stage by serving as the primary U.S. representative in the International Biological Program (IBP). The IBP, which was approved by the International Union of Biological Sciences and the International Council of Scientific Unions, was a controversial effort to coordinate a series of ecological projects conducted by scientific communities around the world. The program's critics charged than the IBP focus was too vague and unwieldy. Amid the controversy, NSF decided that the major aspect of the U.S. program would be large-scale projects featuring new, multidisciplinary research—specifically, systems ecology, the analysis of ecosystems by means of computer modeling, a strikingly new approach at the time. A total of five different "biomes" were studied between 1968 and 1974: western coniferous forests, eastern deciduous forests, grasslands, tundra, and desert.

The IBP helped to consolidate ecosystem ecology; resulted in a permanent increase in funding for the field, stimulated the use of computer modeling in ecology; produced smaller-scale models of ecological systems; and trained a generation of researchers. "If you now look at a lot of the leadership in American ecology today, these folks cut their teeth on IBP," says the University of Tennessee's Frank Harris, who was NSF program director for ecosystem studies in 1980.

Still, researchers and policymakers came to realize that huge projects such as the IBP ultimately had only limited applicability to the practical problems of environmental management. Attention began to turn to smaller-scale integrated projects such as the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, which NSF had been funding since 1963, even before IBP. Results from Hubbard Brook, such as being able to predict how forests recover from clear-cutting and the discovery of acid rain in North America, demonstrated the power of taking an ecosystem approach to understanding the environment, but over a longer time scale than was typical of IBP projects.

Six years after the IBP ended, NSF launched its Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, today's new standard for excellence in environmental science. So successful have LTER researchers been that in 1993 an international LTER program was launched after a meeting hosted by the U.S. LTER network. The international LTER effort now includes seventeen countries (with thirteen more in the wings), all of whom support scientific programs or networks that focus on ecological research over long temporal and large spatial scales.

PDF Version
The Big Picture
An Ecological Solution to a Medical Mystery
Contributing to a Cleaner World
Counting the Blessings of Biodiversity
Keeping Up with Global Change
Cityscapes Are Landscapes, Too
Long Term Research: A Model for NSF's Future
The Birth of Long Term Ecological Research
Solving the Biocomplexity Puzzle
Wanted: A Complete Catalog of Creatures and Plants
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