Katharine HuntingtonIt is easy to feel lost when thinking of the vast scope of Earth sciences. After all, Earth sciences covers everything from the microscopic interactions of bacteria all the way to natural hazards like earthquakes and tsunamis. So how do scientists narrow down such a vast subject to prioritize investments into specific research areas?

Every ten years, scientists gather in a committee formed under the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to guide the National Science Foundation (NSF) in exploring priority Earth science questions that need attention over the coming decade. The committee makes research recommendations to the NSF to guide investments that will advance the field as a whole. We sat down with Katharine Huntington, professor in Earth and Space Sciences and a NASEM committee member who helped author the recent report A Vision for NSF Earth Sciences 2020-2030: Earth in Time to learn more.

How are the recommendations the committee made going to help the NSF?

The Earth in Time report lays out 12 priority science questions that capture the excitement and societal relevance of Earth science research from the core to the clouds that is poised for major advances in the next decade. It gives NSF a roadmap for investments in infrastructure, people and partnerships that will enable the scientific community to achieve this vision. Importantly, the report’s recommendations elevate true progress in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion as a priority in the Earth science community needed to advance the science and address challenges that are urgently important for the future of human society.

What’s the value of serving on a committee like this?

These reports only happen once a decade for a given field and can be really influential, so serving on a committee like this is a rare opportunity to make a difference in the broader scientific community. And you learn so much!

What’s the most exciting part of being on this committee?

I loved broadening my horizons working with fantastic colleagues who represent such a broad range of interests and expertise, from computational modelers and mineral physicists to biogeochemists and field-based volcanologists. It was fascinating to see how they all think! The most exciting part for me was those “aha!” moments when you see a new connection, get that flash of insight that lets you distill a vast body of literature into a single question, or put your finger on the specific “why now?” that sets the stage for breakthroughs.

What’s the science you’re most excited about?

I’m excited that these science questions get at key Earth science challenges that are not just compelling, but essential for our wellbeing. They span the breadth of geologic time; connections among Earth’s surface, interior, and climate; the co-evolution of geology and life; and the effects of human activities. And they demand demographically and intellectually diverse perspectives to answer them. The questions are so interconnected — several intersect with my own research, like understanding the connections between different parts of the Earth system that are expressed in Earth’s surface topography; measuring environmental change in Earth’s deep geologic past to advance our ability to anticipate future changes and adapt to them; and using Earth science research to reduce the risk and toll of geohazards like earthquakes, landslides and floods. I am also excited about the discoveries that have caused us to reconsider the very nature of earthquakes and their dynamics, and to ask the deceptively simple question that we are now prepared to address in full: what is an earthquake?

Did the recommendations build on past science or are they entirely new?

We (the committee) relied on extensive literature review and community input to develop the list of priority questions that are ripe for major advances in the next 10 years. These include some questions that have long been of great interest to Earth scientists. In such cases, the committee identified reasons why these questions are now poised for transformative advancement.

We have an opportunity to be creative and intentional in building an increasingly instrument-savvy, cyber-capable and more diverse and inclusive workforce.

For example, recent technological advances enable observation and modeling that can address long-standing questions in ways that were never before possible; conceptual advances or new observations have revealed unexpected connections between different parts of the Earth system that demand explanation; or fundamental Earth science research into that question has become urgent to the future of human societies on a rapidly changing Earth. In the case of most questions, all three.

The way we see infrastructure is also different from previous discussions, in that we focus on people as an essential component of infrastructure (in addition to instrumentation and cyberinfrastructure). By Human infrastructure we refer to the people who design, build, maintain, operate and improve these hardware and software tools.

What are the new capabilities we can do now that we couldn’t have done a decade ago?

Here are some examples from the report:

  • Harnessing big data to understand present-day biodiversity, its history and prospects for the future, particularly in light of ongoing environmental change.
  • Technologies for real-time monitoring of volcanoes, which are essentially anticipating the duration, magnitude and intensity of future eruptions through physics-based modeling of the key processes that drive them.
  • New methods for measuring long-term and rapid environmental change in Earth’s history that help us understand Earth system dynamics and provides magnitudes and rates of change, which are crucial for prediction.
  • Progress in molecular and genomic analysis for characterizing the diversity of microbial communities, genes and enzymes, rather than species alone, to understand biogeochemical cycles.

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