State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Whole-Earth Systems Initiative Is Needed, Says Report to National Science Foundation

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) should create a next-generation initiative to explore the complex interactions between human society and the various systems of the natural world, says a new report. The initiative should look at  the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and the individuals, institutions and technologies that respond to and influence these systems, says the report. The report, commissioned by the NSF, just came out from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Interactions among the planet’s natural systems have maintained life for billions of years. Our understanding of  their dynamics and their importance to humanity has grown substantially over the last few decades. However, critical questions remain about how the systems function and interact, including how decisions made today might impact them, and us, in the future.

“The time is ripe for an integrated research approach that can generate knowledge to help us address some of our most urgent challenges as a species,” said Ruth DeFries, co-dean of the new Columbia Climate School and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our future depends on improving our understanding of how Earth’s systems work, and how our actions today might affect the planet tomorrow.”

Edge of the tundra, northern Alaska. (Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute)

“Climate change [is] one of many problems that such an initiative could address,” added George Hornberger, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, and committee co-chair.

The report says the foundation should place increased emphasis on research inspired by real-world problems, and enhance the participation of social, engineering and data scientists,. At the same time, it would have to maintain its strong legacy of purely curiosity-driven research.

The report lays out six key characteristics for the proposed initiative:

  • Advance research driven by curiosity, as well as research driven by real-world needs, across a range of locations and time spans.
  • Facilitate the convergence of social, natural, computational and engineering sciences.
  • Ensure diverse, inclusive, equitable and just approaches to Earth systems science.
  • Prioritize engagement and partnerships with affected communities so they are included in the research process.
  • Develop synergies among observational, computational and modeling capabilities to accelerate discoveries.
  • Educate and support a workforce with the skills and knowledge needed to participate in an integrated research approach.

The report says NSF needs to better facilitate convergence research—that is, research driven by a specific, compelling problem, and which integrates expertise from different disciplines to find an answer.

A legacy of low racial, ethnic and gender diversity in Earth sciences is a barrier to convergence research, according to the report. It says NSF should support programs that help improve diversity and inclusion in relevant fields, including in leadership positions, and consider diversity in determining research priorities. NSF should also put an emphasis on facilities where community members can observe research, such as field stations and marine laboratories, says the report.

As the report notes, computing in Earth systems science is changing rapidly and becoming more complex. New programming methods and models mean many research teams need a research software engineer; yet, NSF computing resources are already stretched thin. NSF should expand hardware, software, data analytics, and its skilled workforce in order to harness the computational revolution, it says.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent advice to the nation to solve complex problems, and inform policies. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Adapted from a press release by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

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