Science Policy & Funding News

NSF Geosciences Report Provides Updated Roadmap

Core research programs and key imperatives are stressed in a new report by the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for the Geosciences.

By

A new strategic planning report, the forthcoming release of a major ocean sciences survey, and the introduction of three new division directors were the key topics at a recent town hall meeting by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences (NSF GEO).

NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences has an updated strategic planning report.
NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences has an updated strategic planning report.

The report, Dynamic Earth: Geo Imperatives & Frontiers 20152020, provides a near-term plan for NSF-supported geoscience research by outlining imperatives and frontier areas for GEO. It was released at a 16 December town hall held at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Issued by NSF’s Advisory Committee for the Geosciences (AC GEO), the report states that support of GEO core research programs “is the highest priority” of the directorate. In addition to the overall emphasis on core research, the report focuses on directorate-wide imperatives. These are plans that the report states must be accomplished “to advance knowledge and address critical national needs” within each of four thematic areas: research, community resources and infrastructure, data and cyberinfrastructure, and education and diversity.

Geoscience Imperatives

Within the research theme, imperatives include cross-divisional work to improve the understanding of and resilience to hazards and extreme natural events as well as to support basic research that focuses on the nexus of food, energy, and water. For the second theme, community resources and infrastructure, the highest priorities are NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) projects. Data and cyberinfrastructure imperatives include focusing on integrated data management infrastructure across the geosciences. Among the education and diversity imperatives are increasing undergraduate exposure to the geosciences, preparing the geoscience workforce, and broadening participation of underrepresented groups.

The report, which is an update to GEO’s 2009 Geo Vision document, also identifies four frontier areas that could rise to become imperatives. These are Earth systems processes that cross the land/ocean interface, high-latitude ocean-atmosphere-ice-ecosystem interactions and processes, urban geosystem science, and research on early Earth. These or other emerging themes could become imperatives “if GEO and the community collectively agree that the timing is right for increased resources and effort. Frontier activities require an infusion of new resources in order to be fully supported,” the report states.

A High-Level Set of Priorities

While the Dynamic Earth report focuses on directorate-wide priorities, various GEO divisions are developing and refining division-level priorities to complement the report and provide more details about core research and program activities.

“Strategic planning is difficult no matter what. Strategic planning in difficult budgets is really tough.”

“Strategic planning is difficult no matter what. Strategic planning in difficult budgets is really tough,” GEO Director Roger Wakimoto told Eos, stressing that the document is “a road map” that focuses on directorate-wide priorities.

“This isn’t a ‘kitchen sink’ document,” he said. “People think that ‘if my project doesn’t get in here, it’s subject to termination.’ And that’s not true at all. What we want to tell people is that at least at the [GEO] level, these are things that are really near and dear and important to us.” He said, for example, that although there are many important facilities supported by the directorate, MREFCs are by definition a foundation priority. “That doesn’t mean the other facilities are unimportant. But we need to highlight MREFCs. [They have] got Congress’s attention. I would say we lose credibility if we didn’t highlight those as the most important facilities at the GEO level,” Wakimoto said.

New Division Directors

At the town hall meeting, Wakimoto introduced three new division directors: Paul Shepson, Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences; Carol Frost, Earth Sciences; and Rick Murray, who started his post in mid-January in Ocean Sciences (OCE). Wakimoto told Eos that while the strategic plan is important, bringing three new division directors on board “takes precedent” over the plan.

“I can’t do something more important than this,” said Wakimoto, who is halfway through his 4-year appointment. The new division directors “provide the stability, [and] they represent their disciplines,” he stated, adding that they have strong managerial and scientific skills and are good listeners.

Ocean Sciences Decadal Survey

Debbie Bronk, acting OCE division director at the time of the town hall, said that an anticipated U.S. National Research Council Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences is expected to be issued in early to mid-February. The goals of the survey, which was requested by NSF, include summarizing ocean science advancements from the past decade, identifying ocean science priorities for the next decade, and recommending an infrastructure portfolio to advance those priorities.

“Over the last 5 to 6 years, historically the budget that NSF OCE has had has gone mostly into research, with maybe 40% into facilities,” she explained. “And now we are in a situation where that is flipping. We have flat budgets, we have increasing facility costs, and the core programs really have been hit.”

Bronk said she is optimistic that the survey will be a useful and “actionable” report. “When that report comes out, I am hoping that our community will try to be as altruistic as possible. The only way that [decadal survey] fails is if nothing changes. We have got to rebuild our core programs,” she said. Speaking directly to the ocean sciences community, she added, “Don’t look for your own topic or your own pet facility or your own question without thinking about it as a community, because these next couple of years are going to be real critical” for the ocean sciences.

According to Wakimoto, NSF “has been struggling” in terms of facilities. “When budgets are difficult, flat, maybe slightly declining, there really is this drain on the core program to support things that are very near and dear to our hearts, and that is facilities,” he said.

Geoscience Budget Concerns

Wakimoto also expressed concern to Eos about some language included in a House of Representatives report related to the fiscal year (FY) 2015 omnibus appropriations act that became law on 16 December. That language, included within a section on research and related activities, states, “Any increases provided above the request and not otherwise specified below shall be applied to math and physical sciences; computer and information science and engineering; engineering; and biological sciences.” The language does not include the geosciences.

Wakimoto told Eos that he is “a little nervous that Congress feels that it has to come in and allocate specifically to individual directorates.” He said that while Congress “has every right” to make the allocation decisions, directorate-specific allocation “is a very rare event.”

The appropriations act provides NSF overall with a 2.4% increase above the FY 2014 funding level. However, Wakimoto said that implementation of the language would mean that funding for the geosciences directorate would be “held flat” at the FY 2014 level. NSF is required to submit its spending plan to Congress within 45 days of the legislation’s enactment. According to an NSF spokesperson, the agency expects to meet the target deadline. The Obama administration is planning to release its FY 2016 federal budget proposal on 2 February.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), NSF geosciences report provides updated roadmap, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO022453.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0