American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Report on International Geosciences Forum

The following report appears as a News Note in the February 1998 issue of Geotimes. It is reprinted here with permission.

On Nov. 17, the American Geological Institute (AGI) joined with the National Research Council's (NRC) Board on Earth Sciences and Resources (BESR) to host an international geoscience forum at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The for um focused on the increasing globalization of geoscience research and the role played by international unions.

AGI Past President Edward C. Roy Jr., and BESR Chairman J. Freeman Gilbert welcomed participants and introduced the goals of the forum. B. Clark Burchfiel, a geology professor at M.I.T., discussed the significant changes that have taken place since he chaired an NRC committee that produced the 1987 report, "International Role of U.S. Geoscience." Political changes have opened up many new countries and regions for research and exploration, he stated, and geoscientists must apply the best science possibl e to study them. Their research will be influenced by analytical tools; a growing philosophy of multidisciplinary projects; greatly expanded global and local data sets; and advances in communication, driven by the Internet. Burchfiel sounded a cautionary note that basic science agencies are losing ground around the world, and emphasized the need to better communicate the societal and economic relevance of research.

International unions
Much of the discussion at the forum focused on the role of the international geoscience unions and their interaction with geoscience societies. This discussion was framed by the presidents of the three principal earth-science unions -- Robin Brett, Intern ational Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS); Peter Wyllie, International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG); and Stephen Porter, International Union of Quaternary Research (INQUA). Their presence was historic on two counts: It was the first time that all three union presidents had appeared together in their organizations' history and the first time that all three presidents were from the United States.

Brett emphasized the importance of international scientific training and the positive impact it can have on foreign relations. He also provided background information on IUGS, which was founded in 1961. With a membership of more than 110 countries, the IUGS "promotes and supports the study of geological problems of worldwide significance, and facilitates international and interdisciplinary cooperation in the earth sciences."

Wyllie underscored the importance of international collaboration by noting that "global processes pay no attention to academic distinctions." IUGG was formed in 1919 and has 76 member countries. It is "dedicated to the scientific study of the Earth and the applications of the knowledge gained by such studies to the needs of society, such as mineral resources, reduction of the effects of natural hazards, and environmental preservation." Wyllie cited the importance of IUGG in providing an international i nfrastructure for collaboration. He also pointed to member benefits, which include international symposia and a forum for data gathering, exchanges, and observations.

Porter spoke about the activities of INQUA -- founded in 1928 -- which promotes communication and international cooperation in basic and applied aspects of quaternary research, including reconstruction of physical and biological evolution of Earth, res ource utilization, and hazards planning. Porter provided overviews of recent studies, including monsoons, glaciation of the Tibetan plateau, and the environment of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Following the presidents' presentations, a panel discussion focused on the relationship between U.S.-based geoscientific societies -- with their own increasingly international memberships -- and the international unions. Of particular concern, the pane lists agreed, was the need to increase communication and coordination: One prominent problem raised was the lack of awareness of the unions among working scientists. M.I.T.'s Burchfiel, for example, noted that his contact with the unions had been minimal, despite many decades of work on several continents.

Globalization of science

In the first keynote address, F. Sherwood Rowland, foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, spoke about the forces affecting the chemistry of the global atmosphere. He pointed out that fast mixing times make it imperative that the atm osphere be studied on a global basis. He used topics such as ozone depletion, for which he won a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and climate change to illustrate the global and interconnected nature of environmental sciences.

A second keynote address was presented that evening by Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth on international environmental cooperation focused on climate change. Wirth, who was scheduled to lead the U.S. delegation in the Kyoto nego tiations, spoke of the need to make a transition from coal to oil and from oil to natural gas, but emphasized that the greatest challenges lay in increasing efficiency of fossil fuel use by developing nations such as India and China. He also spoke of the need to address this country's ambivalence about nuclear power as an alternative energy source. Wirth stated that population growth was a major problem and should be the defining focus for addressing global environmental issues. His comments often went be yond administration policy, a candor that perhaps was explained the following day when he resigned from the State Department to manage Ted Turner's contribution to the United Nations.

Participants also heard perspectives on international minerals and energy exploration from Milton H. Ward, president and CEO of Cyprus Amax Minerals Company, and independent consultant Susan Morrice, respectively. David Simpson, president of the Integr ated Research Institutions for Seismology, spoke on the evolution of international seismic networks and the need to involve host countries and local communities in such efforts.

After these presentations, participants broke into working groups to discuss four topics: international geoscience research programs, international energy and mineral resources, roles of scientific societies and international unions, and societal benef its of U.S. participation in international geosciences.

AGI President Susan Landon wrapped up the forum by emphasizing the need to increase K-12 education in earth science through the study of scientific processes, natural resources, geologic hazards, and humanity and the environment. She also stressed the importance of U.S. participation in international unions, since formal and informal discussion throughout the day revealed a lack of involvement and knowledge of these organizations by many earth scientists. Landon stated that scientific societies can pla y an important role in facilitating this involvement. Finally, she suggested implementing a recommendation from the 1987 NRC report to establish a nongovernmental clearinghouse for international geoscience projects and information. A report on the forum w ill be available from the National Research Council.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs Program
Last updated June 12, 1998 
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