The U.S. should establish a National Sustainability Policy and take additional steps to encourage federal agencies to collaborate on sustainability challenges that demand the expertise of many agencies, such as improving disaster resilience and managing ecosystems, says a new report from the National Research Council.

Read the complete report here.

Currently, the government is generally not organized to deal with the complex, long-term nature of sustainability challenges, the report says. Statutes and government culture encourage agencies to focus on a single area – energy, water or health, for example – with little attention to how areas affect one another. This “stovepipe” or “silo” effect makes it difficult to address issues that cut across agency boundaries.

The federal government should take steps to help build linkages among agencies and stakeholders outside government to address these challenges, the report says. A National Sustainability Policy, developed with input from agencies, NGOs and the private sector, could help surmount obstructions and enable initiatives that cut across agency jurisdictions. The policy would establish the principles of promoting the long-term sustainability of the nation’s economy, natural resources and social well-being. It should set out broad general objectives, management principles, and a framework for addressing complex issues. Several models exist for such a policy, including the National Ocean Policy, which was created in 2010 through an executive order to guide management decisions with the goal of protecting the nation’s coasts. Once a National Sustainability Policy is in place, agencies should develop specific plans that define how they expect to implement it.

The report offers a decision-making framework that can be applied to sustainability-related projects and programs. The framework can help agencies identify and enlist other agencies and private stakeholders that should be involved. Given the inherent complexities and uncertainties of many sustainability issues, strategies may need to be altered based on emerging results; the framework builds in an “adaptive management” approach that allows for these adjustments.

Although the framework can be applied to many sustainability challenges, the committee that wrote the report identified four challenges of national importance that should be top priorities:

• Connections among energy, food and water. Producing and using energy often consumes water and can also impact water quality, air quality, land use and the agricultural sector. For example, intensive production of corn for ethanol requires water for irrigation, and chemical fertilizers that are heavily applied to corn run off into rivers and become a major source of pollution.

• Diverse and healthy ecosystems. Ecosystems, which are affected by the actions of many agencies, provide services to human communities – such as water supplies, coastal storm buffers, productive fisheries and pollination of food crops.

• Resilience of communities to natural disasters and other extreme events. Improving the sustainability of communities means identifying their vulnerabilities and enhancing their resilience to catastrophic events – such as earthquakes or terrorist attacks – as well as to more gradual processes, such as climate change.

• Human health and well-being. Sustainability efforts may affect human health and well-being in complex, crosscutting ways. For example, agricultural practices affect the nutritional content and contaminant levels in food, as well as food’s availability and price, and land use and transportation decisions affect levels of physical activity, which in turn affect the risk for cardiovascular disease, many cancers and other conditions.

The report also recommends that the federal government offer incentives to its employees to collaborate across agency boundaries. Agencies should nurture “change agents” both in the field and at regional and national offices, an effort that may include revisions to managers’ performance plans, rewards and training. Similarly, agencies should encourage and enable cross-agency management and funding of linked sustainability activities; in some cases, changes in statutory authority may be needed to do so.

Because sustainability challenges play out over long time scales, agencies should invest in long-term research projects to provide the scientific understanding needed to inform strategies, the report says. Agencies should collaborate to design and implement cross-agency research portfolios in order to better leverage funding.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, BP, Lockheed Martin, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.