Editors' Vox

Earth and Space Science for the Benefit of Humanity

A collection of Commentaries published in the journals of the American Geophysical Union illuminate the deep and growing benefits of research in the Earth and space sciences for humanity.

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The March for Science is appropriately being held this weekend on Earth Day 2017. The broad theme for the March is “Science is Essential,” and this is applicable also to Earth Day. It may seem that with our growing cities, air conditioning, modern infrastructure, and energy-enabled amenities, we can be more isolated from our environment and less dependent on Earth than our ancestors, but the opposite is true: We are more intimately connected than ever before. Many aspects of modern society depend critically on rich real-time data and sophisticated models about all aspects of our planet and its space environment. Growing populations and development are taxing natural resources and increasingly altering Earth’s land, ecosystems, atmosphere, ice sheets, rivers, and oceans on a global scale. Globalization makes our societies, including the most developed ones, more sensitive to disruptions. These interdependencies make research in the Earth and space sciences critically important for society.

A collection of essays and other recent Special Collections across the American Geophysical Union journals illustrate, celebrate, and illuminate these deep connections. Three broad and generally underappreciated themes emerge across this collection. These themes have important implications in the context of recent U.S. and international political developments.

The first theme is that the notion that “basic” or “curiosity-driven” research is distinct from “applied” research is increasingly an anachronism. Most of the cutting-edge research being conducted by Earth and space scientists has direct relevance to society. This relevance is not new but is more extensive and broadly connected than in the past. Geologic research has long been a key contributor to energy and mineral exploration. But research motivated by curiosity about how the Earth works has also led to important resource discoveries. For example, deep ocean drilling to improve understanding of the ocean crust and sediments in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1960s led to the discovery of vast oil resources.

Today, the connections are broader. Businesses, societies, and economies operating from local to global scales are critically dependent on real-time data about our planet, increasingly at very fine spatial and temporal scales. In turn, these data feed improved models that both address new research questions and provide operational data and forecasts for societal decisions, from governments to individual farmers and shippers. Examples abound. Detailed real time mapping of ocean currents helps us understand how the oceans mix, directly helping companies save fuel in ocean transportation, trade, fishing, and recreation. Understanding subtle changes in Earth’s rotation tells us about Earth’s core and history but also improves GPS signals on which we increasingly rely. A huge amount of global data of great variety, including from citizen science as well as research into numerical methods and statistics, is necessary to provide ever more accurate weather and water-supply forecasts, yielding major economic benefits, and protecting people, crops, and ecosystems. Observations of the sun and of our near-space environment are used to protect our electrical grids, satellites, and airline passengers as well as to improve the fidelity of GPS signals. Testing of sensors on other planets has improved or led to new satellites that provide key data on Earth. And Earth and space science information provide critical insights for addressing many health concerns, from air pollution to human and agricultural pandemics.

The second theme is that these current capabilities have developed, and are critically dependent on, international collaborations, cooperation, and funding. These collaborations include scientists, of course, but they also involve governments and businesses. Global data for a global economy requires global research and data-collection efforts, which require global collaboration and cost-sharing. In addition, it is clear that understanding of local weather requires rich global data; snowfall in the Sierra Nevada is influenced by dust entrained in the atmosphere from Asia and Africa. Understanding the course of one volcanic eruption or earthquake improves understanding of the next one elsewhere in the world. The costs of research and infrastructure, including satellites, have increasingly been shared worldwide. The U.S. economy, as that of every country, greatly benefits from this global research collaboration and shared financing for Earth observations. These collaborations are needed to maintain and expand our global observing effort and the economic and security benefits that it enables.

The third theme, already introduced, is the inclusion of rich data from monitoring all parts of Earth’s processes and its environments (present and past) into sophisticated models that are used both to understand Earth’s processes and to inform critical societal decisions. This understanding is regularly included in engineering models used to mitigate hazards or design better structures. Likewise, such models provide weather forecasts, help predict water supply and coastal erosion, prepare cities and regions for natural hazards and climate change, and help coordinate responses to disasters in real time. Improvements to these models depend on global data, including data whose collection was originally motivated by scientific research.

Although there has been great progress over several decades in using research in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity, the collection of essays also highlights many areas where further progress is both possible and needed. These include new applications, constraining uncertainty, and improving models and forecasts. The authors of these essays also discuss how Earth and space scientists can better communicate both what we know and don’t know and where further improvements are within reach. The Earth complex, and the desire for more effective understanding and communication, is strong.

Two critical threats have emerged to the societal benefits provided by Earth and space science. The first is increasing nationalistic tendencies worldwide that threaten the international collaborations that have facilitated the development of global research, funding, and data collection. Our understanding of Earth processes and current global capabilities – and the economic and societal benefits – have developed directly because scientists and students have been allowed to interact internationally, conduct research worldwide, share global observation platforms, secure temporary and permanent positions in other countries, and attend international conferences. Restricting this exchange will directly harm existing capabilities and limit future scientific advances. Because this international cooperation is critical to understanding the Earth as a system, the Earth and space sciences are particularly vulnerable to such restrictions.

The second threat is proposed funding cuts in major science agencies in the United States and elsewhere. These cuts will do the most harm in two critical areas: collecting and interpreting important data, and training and engaging new scientists. The infrastructure supporting scientific data, especially relating to our planet, is fragile and needs new support for long-term preservation and connectivity, as well as broader availability and sharing of data given its critical economic and scientific role. We need better and more systematic data about our impact on the environment, not less. Instead, U.S. agencies are facing the prospect of substantial cuts, spurring efforts to “save the data.” As Harold Varmus noted in commenting on the proposed cuts to the NIH budget, the cuts are likely to fall most heavily on the youngest aspiring scientists. The proposed cuts send a message that these jobs are not valued, and that the resources needed to support both the long-term collection of data and the training of the next generation of scientists are not guaranteed.

Earth Day and the March for Science both celebrate the increasingly valuable benefit of Earth and space science research for society. It is also an opportunity to appreciate how these impacts are rooted in a very deep understanding of our planet and its past, present, and future environments. This connection between science and society can and should be made even stronger, for even greater benefit to humanity.

—Brooks Hanson, Director Publications, AGU; email: [email protected]; Jenny Lunn, Assistant Director, Publications, AGU; Ben van der Pluijm, Editor-in-Chief, Earth’s Future; John Orcutt, Editor-in-Chief, Earth and Space Science; Rita Colwell, Editor-in-Chief, GeoHealth; Susan Trumbore, Editor-in-Chief, Global Biogeochemical Cycles; Thorsten W. Becker, Editor-in-Chief, G-Cubed; Noah Diffenbaugh, Editor-in-Chief, Geophysical Research Letters; Robert Pincus, Editor-in-Chief, JAMES; Mike  Liemohn, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Space Physics; Uri ten Brink, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Solid Earth; Peter Brewer, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Oceans; Minghua Zhang, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Atmospheres; Steven A. Hauck II, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Planets; Bryn Hubbard, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Earth Surface; Miguel Goni, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Biogeosciences; Ellen Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, Paleoceanography; Philip Wilkinson, Editor-in-Chief, Radio Science; Mark Moldwin, Editor-in-Chief, Reviews of Geophysics; Delores J. Knipp, Editor-in-Chief, Space Weather; John Geissman, Editor-in-Chief, Tectonics; and Martyn Clark, Editor-in-Chief, Water Resources Research

  • Ben van der Pluijm

    Sharing the meaning and value of Earth Sciences (s.l.) research.