Environmental System Science Program (ESS)

Program Goal

The goal of the Environmental System Science (ESS) program is to advance understanding of terrestrial ecosystems and watersheds, which include interdependent microbial, biogeochemical, ecological, hydrological, and physical processes across spatiotemporal scales. To support this goal, the program focuses on exploring complex systems with integrated experimental-modeling approaches to achieve a realistic, robust, and scale-aware predictive understanding of the processes and controls underlying the Earth’s terrestrial environment. Of particular interest to the program are coastal environments and other systems characterized by strong environmental gradients and interfaces (e.g., mountain systems, urban transition zones), and climatically sensitive ecosystems and regions (e.g., Arctic, tropical, boreal), all of which play important roles, but are currently not well-represented in large-scale models of the Earth system. Developing this understanding is critical to providing the scientific foundation for solutions to DOE’s most pressing energy and environmental challenges. The ESS program is part of the Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences Division (EESSD) within the Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER).

Program Scope
The ESS program’s scope spans from molecular to global and extends from the bedrock to the atmosphere. ESS supports fundamental process research in terrestrial ecology and watershed science that addresses key knowledge gaps within and across terrestrial systems and their interfaces, as well as model development to capture system processes, functions, and feedbacks. ESS-supported science involves a wide variety of disciplines, including: microbial ecology, plant and ecosystem ecology, biogeochemistry, genomics, geology, hydrology, and process and systems modeling. ESS research integrates observations with understanding of mechanisms and processes fundamental to Earth and environmental systems.  

Program Approach
ESS builds from successful approaches used by the preceding Subsurface Biogeochemical Research (SBR) and Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences (TES) programs. Through site observation, experimentation, and model simulation, the ESS program uses the new knowledge gained to enhance the understanding of the current functioning and future dynamics of watershed and ecosystem processes in terrestrial systems. A hallmark of ESS science is support of large-scale manipulations and long-term testbeds to tackle critical but difficult science questions. ESS research engages the Modeling-Experimental (ModEx) approach that emphasizes an iterative exchange of knowledge and discovery among predictive models, experiments, and observational field research. In ModEx, expert knowledge and data from laboratory experiments, field observations and manipulations are used to test, inform, and improve how a particular model represents processes and systems. At the same time, knowledge gained from model runs and simulations aid in identifying critical needs and uncertainties, that in turn informs and prioritizes new experimental and observational field research needs and designs. The ModEx approach is highly effective for addressing terrestrial system properties that exhibit large uncertainties in function, feedback, dynamic processes, and emergent behaviors that are insufficiently captured in open-source or community models.
Using an open-science and open-data philosophy, the ESS program advances two priority research areas in terrestrial ecology and watershed systems, along with cross-cutting research areas such as coastal environments, by supporting a complementary and coordinated mix of investments from short-term projects to decadal experiments and long-term studies, including university-led projects, next-generation ecosystem experiments (NGEEs), national laboratory-led science focus areas (SFAs), and observation networks. More information on current investments can be found on the ESS program website.

Collaboration with other BER Activities
ESS coordinates and collaborates closely with other research activities within EESSD and BER’s Biological Systems Science Division (BSSD), capabilities available from BER and other DOE user facilities, other DOE research programs, and other federal agencies. Within BER, ESS coordinates with the Earth and Environmental System Modeling program’s initiatives to inform model capabilities such as the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM); the Atmospheric System Research program for understanding the atmospheric dynamics of land-atmosphere coupling; the Data Management program’s data curation and archival capabilities (including the Environmental System Science Data Infrastructure for Virtual Environments, ESS-DIVE; and environmental microbiology research within BSSD.

Program Funding Opportunity Announcements
ESS supports BER mission-oriented ecosystem research at universities, national laboratories, and other research institutions through regular peer-reviewed, hypothesis-driven competitions. Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) are posted on the DOE Office of Science Grants and Contracts website and at grants.gov. Information about preparing and submitting applications, as well as the DOE Office of Science merit review process, is available at the DOE Office of Science Grants and Contracts website. For current announcements, visit BER funding opportunities.

 More Information
ESS Program website

Program Managers
Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences Division (EESSD), SC-33.1
Department of Energy, GTN Bldg.
1000 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20585-1290
Fax: (301) 903-8519

Jennifer Arrigo
(301) 903-3120

Paul Bayer
(301) 903-5324

Brian Benscoter
(301) 903-1239

Aaron Grade
AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow
(240) 220-0846

Daniel Stover
(301) 903-0289