Twenty-years of long-term ecological research: National Science Foundation releases review report

August 05, 2002

The National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program must forge ahead to a bold decade of synthesis science that will lead to a better understanding of complex environmental problems, and result in knowledge that serves science and society, according to the authors of the just released NSF report, "Long-Term Ecological Research Program: Twenty-Year Review."

At the same time, "achievements of the LTER program in the past 20 years are impressive," states the report. The program's first decade was devoted to long-term data collection and analysis in five core areas: primary production, nutrient flux, trophic structures, disturbances (such as fires and hurricanes) and organic matter accumulation and decomposition. In its second decade, the LTER program incorporated the advice of NSF's 10-year review report, and dealt with large-scale and cross-site ecological patterns and processes as well as anthropogenic influences on ecological systems.

"Twenty years of research at LTER sites have yielded major synthetic and theoretical advances in ecological knowledge, and have served society by informing solutions to environmental problems," write the 20-year review report's authors.

Says Mary Clutter, NSF's assistant director for biological sciences, "This report comes at a critical time in the history of the LTER program, and will help guide the development of the program over the next 10 years. The scientific vision in the report is clear, appropriate, and consistent with the current state of LTER science. The next ten years should be the 'Decade of Synthesis.'"

The LTER program has evolved from five sites with an annual budget of $1.2 million into a network comprising 24 ecologically diverse sites--including two urban sites, a network office, an annual budget of $17.8 million in FY 2002 across four NSF directorates, and some 1,100 scientists and students who generate approximately $44 million in LTER-related research. Twenty-four nations now have associated International LTER (ILTER) programs.

In the decade ahead, the LTER enterprise will inhabit a new

scientific landscape, according to the report. "Technology is revolutionizing how research is done and enlarging the scope, scale and complexity of research that can be done. Policymakers, funding agencies, organizations, and the public increasingly are asking science to provide solutions to environmental issues and to be more accountable for public investments in research."

The report makes 27 recommendations about how the LTER

program might best enter its third decade. Among the recommendations are that: the LTER program adopt and make systemic what NSF has informally termed "21st century biology," science that is multidisciplinary, multidimensional, scalable, information-driven, predictive and model-based, education oriented, and increasingly virtual and global; biological diversity be designated a new core area (or function) for the LTER program at all or selected sites; and the LTER program should partner with social scientists to increase understanding of the interrelationships and reciprocal impacts of natural ecosystems and human systems in order to inform environmental policy.

Henry Gholz, NSF program director for LTER, says the report "will be invaluable in focusing ecologists and the larger scientific community on the future of long-term ecological and environmental science in the U.S."
Program Contact:
Henry Gholz
(703) 292-8481/

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