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Geosciences and the Future of Environmental Research at NSF
Margaret Leinen

In 2000, a group of leading geoscientists concluded that the research agenda for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the geosciences should “develop the understanding society needs to maintain a healthy and habitable planet.” In the report, NSF Geosciences and Beyond 2000, they stressed the need for integrated studies of “interacting physical, chemical, biological and geological processes” in order to satisfy the needs of decision-makers for accurate, real-time information to set policies for hazard mitigation and resource use.

These conclusions were echoed and extended by a report issued early this year entitled Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life and Society in the 21st Century. The NSF Advisory Committee on Environmental Research and Education urged increased emphasis on research that will “integrate spatial, temporal, and organizational scales, draw from many disciplines, and facilitate the synergy that results from partnerships among governmental, academic, and private organizations.” This concept of environmental research draws not only on traditional geological and biological fields, but also on engineering, mathematics, computer science, economics, and social and behavioral sciences in order to address major questions that no single discipline would be likely to tackle, or perhaps even to pose.

In an attempt to capture the depth of integration needed to accomplish a comprehensive understanding of environmental systems, the committee characterized the term “environmental synthesis” by four main activities:

What is the source of this growing interest in interdisciplinary work, of the daring to raise questions about exceedingly complex systems that cross a vast range of scales? At least part of the answer lies in the growing sophistication of the instruments and observing systems at our disposal to study the environment. Other factors include increased modeling, computation and data-management capacity; the prospect of more resilient sensors and more extensive sensor networks; and reliable communications technologies that facilitate collaboration by talented teams from around the world.

Also, the need to understand the primary processes in the world around us is becoming increasingly urgent: The footprint of human activity increases and shifts each year as populations move, demands for resources increase and the human influence in major biogeochemical cycles becomes more pronounced. We must understand the impact of these changes in order to protect long-term global security and prosperity.

Of note to geoscientists in this report is the increased emphasis on understanding the complete system, in which we must consider the activities of the biota and of humans along with their physical foundation. Interdisciplinary investigations must extend to include meaningful collaborations with biologists and with social scientists. By including these factors, the report’s synthesis approach becomes both challenging and intriguing.

In the past, the geosciences community has mobilized to address questions associated with global change. This call for environmental-synthesis research shares many of the same characteristics and is certainly as long-term and as visionary. The results would ultimately provide a scientific basis for problem solving across a wide range of environmental issues. One attractive feature of the approach is that it clearly defines the scientific basis for efforts like sustainable development or “place-based” environmental science.

One focus for early response to the report is capacity building, for example, cyberinfrastructure — a suite of critical tools and research for supporting a diverse array of data, modeling frameworks, development tools and hardware. Cyberinfra-structure is critical for synthesis of observational data and models, for mechanisms of collaboration, and for formal and informal education. Other critical capacity issues are sensors and sensor networks and the development of major observing platforms and networks. Inattention to these issues will substantially weaken advancement across all areas of environmental science.

The approach also highlights the many complex environmental questions that tease the intellectually curious. Consider, for example, the possibilities for exciting and important investigations of complex systems that involve water. Studies of coastal margins, estuaries, rivers and lakes would be all the more stimulating if they were to take into account a variety of perspectives, from traditional physical (hydrology and climate change) and biological sciences (biogeochemical cycles, agriculture, ecosystems, pollutant and nutrient flow) to engineered structures, manufacturing, human uses and municipal policies.

While the geosciences have traditionally focused on Earth’s structure and geochemistry, they recently have recognized the effects of biological activity. We now know that biotic factors place limits on geochemical cycles and affect atmospheric composition, weathering and climate. Incorporation of such integrated investigations into the repertoire of geoscientists has enriched the discipline. As a result, we see that geosystems are at the heart of complex environmental systems and essential to understanding their processes and predicting their future state. For this reason, I urge geoscientists to participate fully in the next stage of learning about our planet and its relationships to its living passengers. Step up to the challenge!


Leinen heads the Geosciences Directorate and coordinates environmental research and education activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Visit Geotimes online to link to the NSF reports.
Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of Geotimes publisher the American Geological Institute, its staff or its member societies.

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