Advancing science

By Scott J. Carpenter

Iowa City Press-Citizen
April 18, 2004, p. 11A

What if by decade's end, the Iowa City-Coralville area was home to a world-class facility that examined a variety of globally important environmental issues?

What if this facility also was a dynamic center accessible to students of all ages - a facility that immersed the visitor in a variety of ecosystems, both physically and "virtually"?

What if this facility was a model of sound "green" building practices, a centerpiece for alternative energy and sustainability?

What if this facility worked cooperatively with the University of Iowa to establish a national center for environmental research and policy - a place where leading scholars of the environment met to discuss, plan and teach?

All of that is in reach.

With a structure larger than the Biosphere 2 Center and a distinctly different architectural design, the Iowa Environmental/Education Project may be a terrestrial ecosystem research facility that can address global climate change research. It's likely that few in our community are aware of the scientific aspects of this project proposed to be built in Coralville.

The Biosphere 2 Center

In the March 31 guest opinion, "Rain forest organizers mist over issues at town meeting," Norman Luxenburg questioned the funding potential of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project. Unfortunately, many aspects of his commentary regarding this project and Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center either are incorrect or unfounded.

I was among the first group of visiting scientists invited to work within the Biosphere 2 Center following Columbia University's decision to operate it in 1996, and I conducted research in the facility's Ocean Biome for nearly three years. The name of the geochemist to whom Prof. Luxenburg incorrectly refers is Dr. Wallace S. Broecker, of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a part of Columbia University. Broecker, an emeritus member of the National Academy of Sciences and recipient of the National Medal of Science, invited me and other scientists to conduct research in the Biosphere 2 Center.

The scientists working in the Biosphere 2 Center's various biomes, its two executive directors, and its many advisers, could not make the facility a scientific success. Why?

Numerous problems have plagued that facility since its construction. Many of the scientific problems are detailed in a Department of Energy document "An Evaluation of the Biosphere 2 Center as a National Scientific User Facility" ( Numerous design problems are described that make scientific research impractical, such as a building layout that creates shadows in the structure's interior, a glass exterior that diminishes UV light transmission, unrealistic biodiversity (in plants, animals and soil microbes) and artificial soils that contain excessive amounts of organic matter.

It was the design flaws (initially not designed to conduct carbon dioxide experiments) - not the inability to attract excellent scientists - that caused the Biosphere 2 Center to fail. The scientific community did not lack interest in conducting science at the scale that a facility such as the biosphere could deliver. There is, however, a lack of interest in working within a poorly designed facility. Much has been learned from the mistakes of this facility, and these lessons are being used to improve the plans for the Iowa Environmental/Education Project.

Research initiatives and funding

We still face the same global environmental issues that Columbia University wanted to examine by operating the Biosphere 2 Center. Among them are the dramatic increases in greenhouse gases and associated global warming and climate change since the industrial revolution. I urge readers to examine "Climate Change Science - An Analysis of Some Key Questions" (, published by the National Academy of Sciences, and "The U.S. Climate Change Science Program - Vision for the Program and Highlights of the Scientific Strategic Plan" ( These documents outline the importance of climate change research and the direction that this research (and funding) will take over the next decade and beyond. U.S. research initiatives related to global carbon cycling currently receive more than $250 million of federal funding annually.

Although the exact number and type of biomes to be housed within the Iowa Environmental/Education Project is yet to be determined, I suggested at the March 22 town meeting that about $5 million per year of gross research revenue (including overhead) could be generated within a fully functional facility of this scale. The basis for such an estimate is the typical funding for biological and environmental research associated with global climate change. Such grants include: principal investigator, graduate student, and technical staff salaries and benefits; instrumentation, computing and analytical costs, with overhead of about 50 percent. Research grants from funding agencies such as DOE, NOAA, EPA, NASA and NSF would be on the order of $200,000 annually. Therefore, 25 such grants would be needed to run concurrently to achieve a funding level of $5 million per year. DOE's Free Air CO2 Enrichment projects ( have, on average, more than 25 investigators per site - sites that are significantly smaller than the Iowa Environmental/Education Project. EPA's NCER Star Grants ( and DOE's Biological and Environmental Research Grants ( are on par with the funding levels that I have suggested. These are reasonable estimates for the size of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project and its potential research activities.

A scientific plan for IEEP

On the basis of the agency initiatives cited above, it seems reasonable for the project to seek to address some of these globally important issues. Clearly, project planning involves maximizing its design so that it will be research-capable. One possibility is to design a portion of the facility that could function as a DOE National Scientific User Facility. This means that the project cannot contain the same design flaws as found in the Biosphere 2 Center. Such a goal seems plausible given the sizeable investment that the DOE soon will be making in the construction of the project. The Iowa Environmental/Education Project should strive toward a design that embraces the concepts of a 2002 DOE workshop report entitled, "Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Facility." Designation as a scientific research facility would ensure significant financial support for operating and maintaining the project.

The most compelling scientific issue that could be studied in the project is the relation between plants and carbon dioxide. A key concern of such research is the relation between this greenhouse gas, the global cycling of carbon and climate change. This type of research can be conducted in a variety of biomes (rainforest, prairie, wetland and agricultural). An example of such research would be the examination of how well prairie grasses and corn (that share a similar photosynthetic pathway) adapt to elevated atmospheric CO2 levels.

Perhaps the most important design issue is that of biome selection. These biomes must be representative of their natural system counterparts - including requisite sunlight (daily amount, intensity and wavelength) and the amount and timing of rainfall. Soils must closely imitate nature (in terms of mineralogy, layering and macro- and micro-organisms, particularly those that facilitate aeration of soils and decomposition of organic matter). If these conditions are met, then reconstructed biomes will have an excellent chance of success as a research system.

The sustainability aspects of the project provide a dimension unlike that of the Biosphere 2 Center - alternative energy systems (geothermal, passive solar energy and fuel cells), bioremediation of sewage, and yes, water recycling. Alternative energy systems will reduce overall operating expenses and will be a research topic in their own right. With such design concepts, the project is pursuing a LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council ( Other possible innovations include construction site monitoring using weather data and soil moisture sensors and the electronic tagging of all building materials and imported plants to track their history and allow the construction management team to more efficiently plan daily activities. Post-construction, this will allow visitors to access the detailed history of individual plants.

Unlike the Biosphere 2 Center, the Iowa Environmental/Education Project's design maximizes incident sunlight and uses a Foil-Tec "skin" composed of multiple layers of Texlon separated by low-pressure air that can be inflated/deflated to "open and close" the patterned/fritted surface of each foil ( This material allows UV radiation inside the structure and is self-cleaning (snow/ice, dust will not adhere to it).

The Iowa Environmental/Education Project is pursuing computing systems that truly will be at the cutting edge of technology. Among them is high-bandwidth connections with the Iowa Communications Network ( All public and educational facilities in Iowa will be able to interact with the facility via conventional Internet connections and selected sites will be able to stream high-resolution 3-D graphics. These visualization initiatives will allow both on-site and off-site visitors to be immersed in a variety of ecosystems.

Research activities associated with the Iowa Environmental/Education Project should cover a broad range of topics that encompass not only basic research but also world-class computing, monitoring and visualization technologies together with study of the economic and social implications for environmental policy. The facility should be a dynamic, life-long learning center that brings together the world's best educators, scientists, policy makers and students of all ages to discuss and understand the world's most important environmental issues.

Admittedly, the goal of building a world-class scientific facility is lofty. Not choosing to achieve this goal is certainly easier, but it resigns us to the status quo. If designed properly, the Iowa Environmental/Education Project can be a unique blend of eco-tourism, environmental learning and scientific research. With the help of a tremendously talented local community and state, this project can succeed as both an engine for economic growth and as a driving force in environmental education.

Reach Scott J. Carpenter, a research scientist at the University of Iowa in the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and the associate director of the Paul H. Nelson Stable Isotope Laboratory in the Department of Geoscience, at