Scientists test a drone atop Mount Kīlauea in Hawaii.
Scientists prepare a sampling mechanism (on the blue tarp) and inspect an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) just before it took off to collect water from the Halema‘uma‘u crater lake in the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

The Earth sciences have made great strides in the past decade. New computational methods and real-time data gathering are revealing exciting and surprising results about the interconnected nature of Earth systems. At the same time, the looming threat of climate change has added an unprecedented sense of urgency to the field.

A new report released this week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, A Vision for NSF Earth Sciences 2020–2030: Earth in Time, lays out recommendations for how the National Science Foundation (NSF) should invest in the next decade of Earth sciences research. The report highlights 12 priority questions for the field to explore from 2020 to 2030, from the deceptively simple “What is an earthquake?” to the more urgent “How can Earth science research reduce the risk and toll of geohazards?” It also highlights which of these questions already have solid foundations of support and which, like continental drilling and archiving of physical materials, NSF should develop more support for in the coming years.

“We are poised to understand the wonders of the natural world,” said Kate Huntington, an Earth sciences professor at the University of Washington. “At the same time, these questions are dealing with issues that are urgently important to the future of human societies.”

Representing Community Voices

Selecting a handful of priority science questions for a field as diverse as the Earth sciences was no easy feat. The 20 committee members were selected to span a wide range of expertise and career stages, and they met every other month for a year and a half.

The committee reviewed several dozen white papers, reports, and review papers, with each paper read by at least two committee members. The committee also held listening sessions at big conferences like AGU’s Fall Meeting, and open sessions to get input from groups that are often less well represented, like early-career researchers, researchers involved in industry, and researchers from smaller or minority-serving institutions. It also conducted an online survey that garnered over 300 comments.

“NSF is a model to other funding agencies partly because it solicits this sort of input on the needs of the research community and society.”

“NSF is a model to other funding agencies partly because it solicits this sort of input on the needs of the research community and society,” said Jane Willenbring, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was not on the committee.

“This is a community consensus report,” said Andrea Dutton, a professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “We are representing the community, and this is their voice in the report.”

The committee received over 100 questions that it whittled down to just 12. To make the final cut, each of the 20 committee members had to agree that a question was both intellectually compelling and poised for a major breakthrough in the next decade. In other words, why was this important, and why now?

“In some cases, it might be a technological advance, or a conceptual advance—a new way of thinking about things—or, in some cases, it might be an urgency,” Dutton said.

The pressing need to address climate change, for instance, emerged as a thread running through many of the questions. “It’s connected to so many parts of the Earth system,” Dutton said. “There are a lot of opportunities for Earth scientists to look at this through an Earth science lens to help us respond to the rapid changes that we are experiencing now.”

“What emerged was a suite of questions that turned out to be very interconnected and to span, really, from the core to the clouds,” Huntington said. “I think this highlights the unexpected ways the different components of the Earth system connect and interact.”

New Tools and a Diverse Workforce

To address these questions, the committee made specific recommendations for what NSF should fund and how the Earth sciences workforce can be developed and supported. The members recommended funding for a national consortium for geochronology, a very large multianvil press user facility, and a near-surface geophysical center, as well as further development of SZ4D, a new initiative that studies hazards associated with subduction zones. They also recommended the exploration of possible continental critical zone and scientific drilling initiatives and the development of a community working group to build capacity for archiving and curating physical samples.

Advancing the field also requires new collaborations and an investment in a more diverse and technologically savvy workforce.

Advancing the field also requires new collaborations and an investment in a more diverse and technologically savvy workforce. “I audibly cheered when I read the many callouts to the pressing need to study the dynamic interaction of life, landscape, water, and climate, and how studies of the Earth system require collaborations with scientists typically funded by other GEO divisions and other funding agencies,” Willenbring said.

She also noted that she was pleased to see the report explicitly call out harassment and discrimination as reasons for lack of diversity in the field. “We can’t just get people through the geoscience door. We have to make them feel at home. To me, ‘at home’ means welcome, safe, and valued,” Willenbring said.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for Earth science,” Huntington said. “We need to be demographically broad and bring those diverse perspectives needed to advance the science…. We have this opportunity to really change business as usual and change the way Earth science embraces diversity and inclusion in how we make the workforce of the future.”

—Rachel Fritts (@rachel_fritts), Science Writer


Fritts, R. (2020), NSF plots a course for the next decade of Earth sciences research, Eos, 101, Published on 20 May 2020.

Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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