National Reserach Council Report Summary: Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science (2-18-01)

The National Research Council (NRC) has released Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science, a much-anticipated report that outlines high-priority research topics in earth science. It emphasizes those diciplines that integrate traditional geological research (geodynamics, geology, geochemistry) with the related disciplines of hydrology, biology, planetary science, and oceanography. Declining funding by other federal agencies to earth science research prompted the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Earth Science Division (EAR) to contract this report.  The report defines the significance of general Earth studies in the context of human society, identifies research topics that are pertinent to problems faced by society, and recommends ways in which EAR can further promote earth science research.  EAR is the only federal agency that funds a full range of basic research in the earth sciences.  Six important areas to focus future study are identified in the report -- "Critical-Zone" research, geobiology, Earth and planetary materials, investigations of the continents, the Earth's deep interior, and Planetary science.  The report stresses that new technological advances have improved the ability of scientists to obtain reliable and useful data.  Developments have been made in monitoring techniques, deciphering of past events, gathering of geospacial information, computational capacity, and other laboratory capabilities. The report recommends that future Earth science studies make full use of new technology.

The Importance of Basic Earth Science Research
Basic earth science research is the foundation of our understanding of earth systems.  Applied research in matters that directly impact society -- natural hazards, agriculture, civil engineering, environmental health, and natural resources -- cannot be implemented without a strong foundation.  The NRC report found Earth science research essential in approaching societal needs in a number of areas:

"Critical-Zone" Research
The "Critical-Zone" is the near surface environment where interaction occurs between rocks, water, the atmosphere, and  living matter.  Research in the "Critical-Zone" involves many scientific disciplines and addresses problems that bear directly on society.  Future opportunities for basic research in the "Critical-Zone" include: Geobiology
Geobiology is the study of how life interacts with the Earth now and in the past.  Scientists use a variety of techniques from geological and biological disciplines in their studies. Research opportunities include: Earth and Planetary Materials
Studies in molecular-level chemistry and physics of Earth and planetary materials has been greatly enhanced by new analytical tools.  Instruments now allow determination of physical and chemical properties on a very small scale, and experimentation under extreme conditions.  Basic research opportunities include: Investigations of the Continents
Traditional geologic study along with new technological advances make detailed continental studies achievable.  Satellite-based instrumentation (InSAR and GPS) can provide small-scale resolution of crustal deformation, and improvements in seismic tomography have made it possible to determine the subsurface expression of surface features.  These remote-sensing techniques, along with geologic mapping and deep continental drilling will help scientists to resolve the three-dimensional structure of continents.  Specific areas of research include:

The Earth's Deep Interior
The goal of research into the Earth's deep interior is to determine it's structure, composition, and physical state as well as to understand the driving force of mantle convection and the core dynamo.  These studies have been augmented by computer simulations that can accommodate large data sets.  Primary areas of research identified in the report are:

Planetary Science
Planetary science investigates the origin, evolution, and structure of planetary bodies.  This field uses a wide variety of techniques to gather data including telescopic observation, analysis of meteorites, and space missions.  Comparisons of other planetary bodies with the earth can give insight into the processes operating on or within the Earth, and the stages of planetary evolution.  Earth science techniques must be employed in planetary studies to compare the composition, structure, topography, and geology of bodies in the solar system.

In addition to identifying basic research opportunities, the report gives recommendations for EAR to maintain it's efficacy and promote earth science research.  The first recommendation of the report for EAR is to continue to support a wide spectrum of  investigator-driven science.  In addition to traditional funding, the agency should seek to fund long-term research in geobiology, Earth and planetary materials, and in the "Critical Zone" where emphasis should be placed in soil science, hydrology and coastal zone processes.  These research topics incorporate many disciplines and may be directly applicable to problems faced in society.

The second recommendation is that EAR should emphasize the multidisciplinary aspects of earth science.  The report highlights several programs that would strengthen EAR's commitment to long-term multidisciplinary studies.  EarthScope is an observational system employing seismology, deep-drilling, strain meters, and satellite-based radar.  Information gathered by EarthScope would improve the understanding of the geodynamics of the Earth, earthquake and volcanic hazards, active tectonics, and continental evolution.  Another opportunity for EAR to support cooperative, long-term research is through natural laboratories. The report recommends the establishment of an Earth Science Natural Laboratory (ESNL) Program that allows for the establishment of  broad-based research facilities at a number of sites within the U.S. and territories.  Special funds should support research in the areas of microorganisms in the environment and planetary science.  Both of these disciplines have aspects that will allow incorporation of many scientific fields as well as collaboration with other organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The third recommendation is for EAR to expand the resources it has allocated for instrumentation and facilities.  Operating state-of-the-art research facilities should be a primary goal of the agency.  EAR should solicit more funds for the purchase of analytical equipment and facilities.  Also the agency should encourage input from the user communities to decide what to acquire.

A final recommendation of the report was for EAR to encourage education in the many earth science disciplines.  Advancement of the Earth sciences will require a continuous stream of well-trained investigators and professors.  EAR can encourage further education through funding of training grants, expanding the established fellowship program, creating sabbatical leave and post-doctoral training programs, and funding graduate and undergraduate field work.

Many of the research goals set out in the report will require EAR to foster relationships between government agencies.  Multidisciplinary projects can benefit from partnerships between agencies that have different scientific foci. Collaborative research will help to best use limited resources, combine skills across the agencies, and probably have more success in transferring findings to the public.

Sources:  NRC

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

Contributed by  AGI/AAPG Spring 2001 Government Affairs Program intern, Mary H. Patterson

Posted February 18, 2001

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