International ecosystem assessment now under way

In “Ecosystem Data to Guide Hard Choices” (Issues, Spring 2000), I discussed the rationale for a new international scientific assessment focused on the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and described the proposed Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). The assessment is motivated by the great changes humans are making in global ecosystems, along with the growing demands for goods and services from these ecosystems. To meet these demands and to prevent and eventually reverse ecosystem degradation, we can no longer manage biological resources sector by sector but must instead consider the consequences of actions on the multiple goods and services provided by ecosystems. Decisionmakers increasingly require integrated and forward-looking information to help guide the complex choices that they face.

The MA was a proposed response to these information needs. Modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the MA was designed to help meet decisionmakers’ needs for information on ecosystems and human well-being and to build capacity within countries to undertake similar assessments and act on their findings. The MA received the endorsement that it needed from governments, as well as significant financial support in 2000, and in June 2001 it was formally launched by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The MA has been authorized by three international conventions–on biological diversity, wetlands, and desertification–as one source of their assessment input. A distinguished 45-member board represents the various users of the MA. An assessment panel of 13 leading social and natural scientists has been established, along with four working groups, each involving 30 to 80 coordinating lead authors. More than 500 lead authors are now being invited to join these working groups, and an independent review board is being established. The first product of the assessment, Ecosystems and People: A Framework for Assessment and Decision-making, will be published early in 2003, with the main assessment and synthesis reports planned for release in late 2004.

Major financial support for the MA has been provided by the Global Environment Facility, United Nations Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, World Bank, United Nations Environment Programme, and the governments of Norway and Saudi Arabia. Significant in-kind contributions have been made by China, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. In addition, the U.S. government has made nearly $5 million worth of Landsat-7 images available to the MA. These images will provide governments and researchers around the world with invaluable baseline information on land cover at the turn of the millennium.

Now, one year into the assessment, three aspects of the process are proving to be particularly interesting. First, the multiscale structure of the MA has attracted considerable interest in countries around the world and promises to be one of the most influential components of the process. The MA is not just a global assessment but a variety of assessments being conducted at every geographic scale, from local communities to subcontinents to the globe, with methodologies being developed to link these into a multiscale framework. Assessments at subglobal scales are needed because ecosystems are highly differentiated in space and time and because sound management requires careful local planning and action. Local assessments alone are insufficient, however, because some processes are global and because local goods, services, matter, and energy are often transferred across regions.

Considerable interest exists around the world in taking part in these subglobal assessments, even though the MA is able to provide only modest seed money for these activities. Subglobal assessments (local, national, regional, or multiscale) are now underway in Norway, western China, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, and in a network of tropical forest sites through the Alternatives to Slash and Burn project of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Additional subglobal assessments are being designed in Chile, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines, Canada, and eastern Russia. The European Environment Agency will also be using elements of the MA methodology in its upcoming European environment report, so that it too can contribute to the overall MA process.

Second, the MA will be the first global assessment to incorporate traditional local knowledge and western scientific knowledge in its findings. The importance of local knowledge in informing management choices for ecosystems is clear, yet the standard protocols for scientific assessments make it difficult to incorporate this type of information into assessment products. In addition to the development of methods for linking assessments across scales, the MA is also attempting to develop methods for linking different epistemologies within each scale. These two issues will be the focus of an international conference planned for 2003 in Kunming, China: Bridging Scales and Epistemologies: Linking Local Knowledge and Global Science in Multiscale Assessments.

Finally, drawing on the findings of research conducted by the Global Environmental Assessment project at Harvard, the MA is striving to maintain a high level of engagement and interaction with its various audiences. Experience from past assessments has shown that the incorporation of scientific findings into decisionmaking processes is aided through a process of continuous dialogue between the assessors and the users of the findings. This ensures that the assessment is responsive to user needs and strengthens the legitimacy of the process.

The MA faces a daunting challenge in this regard, because it seeks to meet the needs not just of three different conventions but also of users in the private sector and civil society, who often have as much influence on ecosystems as government policymakers. In order to reach these diverse stakeholders, the MA is working with institutions in a number of countries to establish user fora at a national scale. Working with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and with industry associations and individual firms, the MA is now planning a series of workshops in 2003 to fully engage the private sector in the process. And to strengthen the engagement with the scientific community, more than 15 of the world’s national academies have now become partners with the MA to help with the review process and the outreach of the final products.

The impact of the MA will depend in part on whether it improves decisions, stimulates action, and builds assessment capacity. But it also depends on whether a mechanism for regular integrated assessments can be institutionalized within the intergovernmental framework after the completion of the MA. Governments, the private sector, and civil society will have growing needs for information and guidance from science as we pursue the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty, improving health, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Sector-by-sector assessments such as the IPCC must continue, but it may now be time to build on the experience of the MA and establish an assessment mechanism that can bring the findings of sustainability science to bear on the critical, synthetic, and complex challenges that must be solved to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Walter V. Reid

Advanced Technology Program survives challenge

In “The Advanced Technology Program: It Works” (Issues, Fall 2001), I argued that the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) had proven its success. The research carried out under the National Research Council (NRC) review of government-industry partnerships had found the program to be well conceived and well managed. Reviews of the awards made suggested that this highly competitive program was successfully addressing an important aspect of the U.S. innovation system. Despite the inherent risk associated with high-risk, high-payoff technologies, the program had established a record of achievement. Indeed, one of the effects of the political debates surrounding the program in the mid-1990s was the development of a widely acclaimed evaluation program.

At the time the article appeared in Issues, the program’s future seemed to be in doubt. The incoming administration had suspended new awards and recommended a $13 million budget, sharply down from previous year’s funding of approximately $146 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee responded with a recommendation for a $204 million appropriation. (The final 2002 budget was about $185 million.) The committee found that extensive rigorous assessments had revealed that the ATP does not fund projects that would have been financed in the private sector but focuses on “valley of death” projects that the private sector is unlikely or unable to fund on its own. The committee also endorsed the principle that the government should play a role in choosing promising technologies to fund.

The second major development concerned the decision by the Department of Commerce to review the program. In a February 2002 report entitled Reform with a Purpose, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans proposed six program reforms for Congress to consider. In so doing, the department endorsed continuing the program, albeit with less money than the Senate Commerce Committee recommended, thus putting to rest any fears that the program would be eliminated. A number of the reforms recommended by the administration, such as increased program emphasis on cooperation with universities, corresponded with recommendations made in the NRC assessment. One problematic recommendation called for recipients of ATP awards to “pay an annual royalty to the federal government of 5 percent of any gross revenues derived from a product or an invention . . . created as a result of ATP funding.” This “recoupment” proposal met with a chilly reception on Capitol Hill.

As noted by one critic, it suffers from the “one invention/one product myth,” which seriously understates the complexity of the innovation and commercialization processes. Implementing the program would be an accountant’s nightmare, and it would likely drive away many of the businesses that now participate. Perhaps the key point is not just that it would be hard to implement, but that it is unnecessary. We already have a recoupment program; it’s called the tax system.

The good news is that the program has at last been recognized for the quality of its operations and its rigorous assessment activities. In fact, officials from other governments have been coming to study the program, looking for lessons they can apply at home. And here at home, Congress has mandated that the nation’s other major award program, the $1.3 billion Small Business Innovation Research Program, should be subject to similar independent assessment, suggesting that ATP has not just funded innovators, it has become an innovator.

Charles Wessner

Cite this Article

"Update." Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 1 (Fall 2002).