The case for the geosciences.

Recent months have seen a bit of back-and-forth between the Congress and the scientific community about the value of geosciences research. Throughout this discussion, there’s been a tendency for advocates to see funds for science as extremely limited; to view investments in different fields of science and technology as a zero-sum game; and to focus on jobs creation, and the state-by-state distribution of those jobs, as the paramount concern. This mindset has tempted some members of Congress, and some scientists and policy analysts from other fields, to question the contributions of geosciences to the economy relative to the stimulus provided by other R&D, say information technology or biotechnology. The truth remains, though, that credible economic justification for the various views, pro and con, has proved hard to come by. The analyses and arguments on all sides have been fragmented, anecdotal, narrowly focused – and arguably a bit too disputatious, misdirected and shortsighted.

It might therefore be useful to pause, and to step back a bit from the particulars, in order to look at the larger context, the sweep of history, and the challenges of the future. To do this is to discover that America’s focus on the geosciences has been enduring; that the geoscience of the past two centuries has led to America’s preeminent and indispensible place in the world today; and that going forward the stakes riding on progress in the geosciences have never been higher, nor the urgency greater. Such a 3600 view also reveals that investments in science are not zero-sum but synergistic. If the United States, with just four percent of the world’s population, aspires to remain the indispensible nation through the end of the 21st century, we’ll have to earn that label anew. Sustained, high levels of balanced investment not just in the geosciences, but across the whole of physical, natural, and social sciences, as well as engineering and STEM education, will be essential.

Background: science policy in the United States and its legacy.

Most of us have a tendency to see U.S. science policy as originating post-World-War II. Certainly that shared experience and the horrific loss of life served to focus minds. Scientists, political leaders, and the general public all understood the role of science and technology in helping to win the war, and the importance of continuing strategic investments in science, especially the physical sciences, in the face of Soviet aggression worldwide throughout the years of the Cold War[1].

We tend to lose sight of the earlier national history. Prior to World War II, the United States was just as preoccupied with national security. But the policies and coping strategies took a different form. The former colonies and the young nation relied on a measure of protection provided by the world’s vast oceans. Americans realized that the key to economic opportunity was the continent’s seemingly limitless store of natural resources, and the transportation infrastructure needed to bring those resources to world markets – globally, across those same vast oceans, and domestically, especially in the early days before rail, by river and canal. West Point was established in 1802, with a military focus but an educational emphasis on engineering that would evolve into today’s US Army Corps of Engineers with its capabilities for managing waterways, building canals, and providing safety in the face of floods. The Survey of the Coast, to assess and ensure the navigability of the harbors and coastal waters so important for trade, and the progenitor of NOAA’s National Ocean Service and the NOAA Commissioned Officers Corp, was established in 1807. A series of great scientific explorations of the continent followed, with the twin aims of inventorying natural resources of every type and identifying and staving-off security threats: The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. The Zebulon Pike explorations of 1806-1807. The Wilkes expedition of 1838-1842. John Wesley Powell’s exploration along the Colorado River in 1869. Myriad other efforts of lesser scope were sandwiched in between. These were paralleled by Navy studies led by Matthew Fountaine Maury and others to characterize the navigability and resources of world’s oceans and coasts. Meanwhile, during the Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant colleges with a focus on education in agriculture and industry. In 1870, the nation expanded the U.S. Army Signal Service mandate to include responsibility for weather, climate, and river observations and forecasting services to meet the needs of agriculture and public safety. [In the 1890’s, this unit would be moved into USDA; today, housed in the Department of Commerce, it’s NOAA’s National Weather Service.] The US Geological Survey was established in 1879.

There’s much more texture to the narrative[2], but here’s the bottom line. Up to the present, our national prospects and standing in the world have remained fundamentally aligned with our ability to identify and locate, and then master the management of natural resources, including but not limited to food, water, and energy. To maintain our current world position it is simply not enough that we can not only meet our own needs domestically, and market any small surplus to others. Our government and private sector have to be so adept that they can continue to serve as trusted consultants and advisors to a hungry, thirsty, energy-needy world. A high bar indeed.

During the time we had been discovering and coming to appreciate fully the true value of our natural resource base, we also uncovered two additional – and more sobering – realities.

First, we’ve learned to our dismay that we live on some of the world’s most hazardous real estate. Disastrous cycles of flood and drought mark every region of our vast country. We experience as many tropical storms as tropical nations in the western Pacific. We suffer through as many winter storms – and bad winters – as high-latitude nations such as Canada or Russia. We have a virtual lock on the world’s tornadoes. Subduction zones of the type triggering the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2011 Japanese tsunami lie just offshore of our own Pacific Northwest. We have dozens of active volcanoes and some major dormant ones. Our west coast is laced throughout with dangerous seismicity, but the earthquake threat also lies poised throughout the nation’s mid-section and along the Middle Atlantic states. Iconic economic giants such as Boeing and Microsoft, and hundreds of thousands of people live and commute across former mudslides slipping from the flanks of Mount Rainier. Most of the natural gas pipelines servicing the northeastern United States run through the site of the 1812 New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri. Our vulnerabilities are rife and growing. A big part of any national risk management strategy has to cope with these and similar hazards. Again, we have the challenge and opportunity not simply to meet our responsibilities for domestic risk management but to market and contribute our science and services to other nations facing similar problems worldwide.

Second, our scientific and economic success over the past two centuries has created new environmental challenges. As early as the late 19th century we began to recognize that our footprint on the environment, on habitats and landscapes, on biodiversity, and the chemistry of our air, water, and soil could no longer be ignored. Here again, thanks to progress in the geosciences, and thanks to action by political leaders, business, and the public, America has joined other nations worldwide in early detection of emerging environmental problems, dealing with them at home, and helping out abroad in ways that foster our national security, maintain our standing as a good neighbor, and make the world a better place for everyone, not just ourselves. But we’ve lost our naiveté: we now know that the Earth is not just a resource and a threat; it is also a victim.

Throughout this two-century span the geosciences have provided all manner of practical help with regard to each of these three defining challenges. We’ve developed the geospatial information base needed to inventory our resources and match them against national and worldwide needs. We’ve provided the weather, water and climate information needed to make America the breadbasket to the world; making and sharing the advances needed to reinvigorate the Green revolution of past decades so that we can sustain a world of 9 billion versus 7 billion people. We’ve developed new tools for monitoring water availability, quality, and use. We’ve uncovered new ways to access old energy sources and returned the United States to its position as a leading exporter as opposed to an importer of energy. We’ve done the geoscience necessary to support solar and wind-power technologies. We’ve identified a new, 21st-century hazard – space weather – and developed coping measures to handle that threat. We’ve so far avoided the worst of the environmental crises we see emerging in other countries such as Indonesia and China.

In addition, the geosciences have at the same time made fundamental contributions to our understanding of science and the universe itself. In 1776, people the world over held three ideas to be true:

  • The climate is unchanging
  • Weather is unpredictable
  • The assimilative capacity of the atmosphere is infinite

The geosciences haven’t just tweaked or fine-tuned these ideas, but turned each on its ear. Studies of weather prediction led to the discovery of a wholly-new class of physical phenomena – chaotic systems – which have since been found to populate every nook and cranny across the span of the universe itself. Studies of Earth and exotic forms of life known as extremophiles found in seafloor-spreading sites, in Antarctic ice, and at great depths in the Earth’s crust have motivated, informed, and improved the effectiveness of the study of other planets in the solar system and other solar systems across the galaxy.

The new challenge and urgency for the future.

So far, so good. But the fact is, that our geoscience has enabled us to see the outlines of an unprecedented national and global challenge coming our way – and on nature’s hurried timetable, not the more relaxed pace we might desire. The three trends – the world’s population and appetite for resources, vulnerability to the disruptive impacts of hazards, and disruption of the ecosystem services on which we depend – have grown so extensive, complex, and fast-paced that it no longer suffices to treat them in isolation. We can sustain human progress and prospects only by managing all three of these challenges simultaneously – globally, to be sure, but actually everywhere locally. We don’t possess the science needed to handle each of these three pieces to the 21st-century puzzle separately, let alone in combination. Much further work is required, and on an accelerated time frame.

The good news is that we’re close – and that progress in other areas of science and technology has given us new tools for dealing with the geoscience problems we face. Computing power. Communication. Experience managing big data. Supplementary pieces of the puzzle from fields such as biology and ecology. Social science for helping 9 billion people navigate the psychological, social and institutional adjustments needed to adjust to the new realities. Innovative policy options. But we can’t rest on our oars. To meet this challenge will require our best, united efforts over coming decades.

[Another historical aside. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been forced to match or exceed Soviet military build-up step-by-step. but that didn’t distract us from our resolute focus on natural resources, hazards, and the environment. The rocketry developed to launch nuclear missiles was quickly put to work to orbit weather satellites to collect and communicate data for initializing computer models. Space-based satellite military surveillance has been extended to monitor crops, forests, ice and other land-, ocean-, and atmospheric conditions from pole to pole. The radars developed to detect inbound air strikes and missiles have been harnessed to monitor severe weather threats. The nuclear physics used to build warheads has spawned a raft of isotopic techniques for studying Earth’s chemistry, identifying the sources of pollution, reaching back in time to assess past climate variability, and more.]

A range of possible futures awaits.

At one end of the spectrum of possible outcomes, we fail to muster the political will and national consensus needed to advance the geo-sciences in a balanced way with progress in other R&D in related fields, and we slowly fall behind in our efforts to sustain resources, build resilience to hazards, and maintain ecosystem services. Our options gradually erode, economic growth is first constrained and then begins to decline, and political polarization increases in response to the attendant social stresses.

At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, we invest aggressively but deliberately in science and innovation across the board, and place emphasis on rapid-prototyping and infusion of new knowledge and ways of doing business across our land. We support the STEM education needed to provide the 21st century workforce and the public support for this work – and at the same time equip that same public to hold both scientists and political leaders accountable for their performance. We recognize that there is no way that the United States can prosper for any extended period unless the entire world is enjoying a measure of that same prosperity. We therefore put our house in order domestically but share what we’re learning with other nations – and learn from their experiences – so that the world as a whole makes progress together. Our options steadily expand. Economic growth – true economic growth, with minimal externalities – accelerates. In fact, the economic growth is so great that the costs of the investment, which had seemed significant to start, recede into the background. Domestic and world politics become more civil; national security, the primary policy preoccupation all along, is maintained and even enhanced.

These last considerations should make it clear. The issue is not more funding for geosciences, or science more broadly, alone, though such emphasis is essential. The issue is for more innovation and application of that innovation for the benefit of life. That’s going to require an effective governing policy framework and public will.

To work on these problems? With the rest of you? What a great time to be alive! The only better time is tomorrow. And the next day.[3]


Note: This piece was originally posted March 27. It was subsequently edited midday EDT on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

[1] Have time and inclination to read about modern-day U.S. science policy? Hard to find a better place to start than Homer A. Neal, Tobin L. Smith, and Jennifer B. McCormick, Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the Twenty-First Century, University of Michigan Press (2008).

[2] For a readable, thoroughly-researched history of U.S. science policy prior to World War, consult A Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (1957). It’s out of print but available on-line here.

[3] Many of these ideas are expanded on here.

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3 Responses to The case for the geosciences.

  1. Hans Erren says:

    Before the climate hype started in 1980, I started my study geophysics, In my first year there were 100 geographers, 50 geologists and 30 geophysicists of which THREE would specialise in meterology and ONE would study climate.

    That’s the travesty.

    • William Hooke says:

      ! thanks for commenting/interesting statistic! Was this at Utrecht? What’s the profile of students look like today?

  2. Hans Erren says:

    The geosciences in Utrecht were merged in the 90’s into one super-department, including environmental sciences. I visited the alumnus days for the last four years and there now is a dominating anti-oil sentiment. Only students that agree with the green dogma are suffiently motivated to continue with a PhD. The department even advertises with “sustainable studies” to attract students.

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