SNOWBIRD, UTAH--Time was when five ecologists couldn't sit in a room without arguing about what exactly their field was and where it was headed. Last month, however, about 2,000 of these scientists agreed on precisely those issues.

The result is a document that commits ecologists to examine topics important to both science and society. Although the document summarizing that consensus has a long title, The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative: An Ecological Research Agenda for the Nineties, its message is short and direct.

"We're really saying something quite bold: that critical ecological problems [worth researching] are tied to the needs of society," says Simon Levin, president of the Ecological Society of America, which prepared the agenda and presented it to members at last month's 75th annual meeting here. That approach bucks a tradition in which scientists study what intrigues them and are motivated primarily by their desire to make intellectual advances. "Our...

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