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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey Executive Summary Imagine it is the year 2011, a decade after the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) redefined priorities in its geography research and increased emphasis on the “Critical Zone,” the earth’s surface and near-surface environment that sustains nearly all terrestrial life (NRC, 2001a, p. 35; Sidebar 1–1). A decade after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the USGS is a fundamental contributor to the nation’s homeland security. By increasing the research emphasis within the Geography Discipline (formerly the National Mapping Division) and enhancing the interaction between the Survey and its research partners, the USGS has assumed a major role in applying geography to problem solving. When in 2011 terrorists introduced deadly bacteria into the water supply of several U.S. cities, the Survey used geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis to predict the pathways of the contaminants. The Survey then mapped the distribution of likely casualties by splicing social science data with hydrologic data. Using the virtually real-time National Map, the USGS specified efficient mass evacuation routes and provided city maps so complete that they included rivers and streams, as well as water mains and pipes. Based on the Survey’s past experience and research into responses to natural hazards, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, the USGS identified likely bottlenecks in the delivery of emergency medical, food, and shelter supplies. The Survey’s regional specialists, integrators of information about the natural and social systems of the areas attacked, were able to advise federal, state, tribal, and local officials in managing the massive dislocations and in reclaiming the damaged water supplies. After the biological attacks the Survey provided geographic information and new knowledge about spatial processes that
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey improved decision-support systems. These computer programs allowed decision makers and individual citizens to refine their response to the threat using a series of “what if” scenarios. USGS VISION AND MISSION Such a role for the USGS would be a reality if the Survey capitalized on its opportunities. The Survey is undergoing reform, by redefining itself as an organization capable of supplying natural science products that are globally recognized as credible, objective, and relevant to society’s needs. The USGS is focusing its activities on the “Critical Zone,” the earth’s surface and near-surface environments, where humans most directly interact with the natural system (NRC, 2001a, p. 35; see Sidebar 1–1). Its challenging mission is to provide reliable scientific information to: describe and understand the earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy and mineral resources; and enhance and protect quality of life. To achieve this mission the USGS has organized itself into four disciplines—the Geography Discipline, Geology Discipline, Water Discipline, and Biology Discipline. Each Discipline emphasizes a regional structure, resulting in a greater focus on geographic integration of its activities. The Geography Discipline assumes a position of prominence at a time when U.S. geography is re-emerging with newly recognized relevance to science and society. The juxtaposition of disciplinary change (throughout geography) with organizational change (throughout USGS) creates an unusual opportunity for geography to fulfill the Survey’s mission in new and innovative ways. NRC COMMITTEE CHARGE In 2000, to maximize the benefits of internal reform in the USGS and external change in geography, the USGS invited the National Research Council (NRC) to form a committee of experts to advise on issues related to research priorities in geography throughout the Survey. The Committee on Research Priorities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey was asked to address, for multiple audiences, the society’s need for geographic research and the appropriate federal research role. Specifically, the committee was charged to consider the following areas of concern for the Geography Discipline:
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey The role of the USGS in advancing the state of knowledge in the discipline (geography, cartography, and GISciences); The role of the USGS in improving understanding of the dynamic connections between the land surface and human interaction with it; The role of the USGS in maintaining and enhancing tools and methods for conducting and applying geographic research; and The role of the USGS in bridging the gap between science, policy making, and management. The overall goal of the study was to provide a fresh perspective and guidance to the Geography Discipline about its future research and strategic directions. The importance of defining the role of the USGS in these broad geography-associated areas is in maximizing the Survey’s potential to serve the nation’s needs. The nation is entering a digital era when business activities, policy decisions at all levels, and citizens’ individual choices rely on accurate data and clear understanding of the dynamics of the nation’s geography. The location and distribution of resources and the people who depend upon them, the patterns of the natural and built landscapes, and the processes at the interface of nature and society are essential geographic issues that face the United States and the USGS. THE USGS AND GEOGRAPHY Geography has a venerable past at the USGS, a transitional present status, and a promising future. Before 1900, geography was a central part of the Survey’s activities and it spent half its annual budget on items related to geography and mapping. By the twentieth century, however, geology and hydrology had become the foci of Survey research, and geography lapsed into the supporting function of map production. At the end of the twentieth century, biology was assigned a strong research role. Outside the Survey, geography has become a quantitative spatial science, a discipline concerned with the interface between nature and society. Inside the USGS, however, geography is almost solely a technical function, producing maps and imagery, rather than acting as an engine for research. The USGS’s scientific composition—geography, geology, hydrology, and biology—is comprised of personnel who operate within a distinctly regional framework in Reston, Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and Menlo Park, California. Yet, with 1,274 government employees, more than 369 contract employees, and an annual budget of about $133 million the Geography Discipline continues primarily as an organization devoted to mapping and imagery
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey support. The presence of significant numbers of researchers in USGS disciplines is essential for the fulfillment of their mission, which emphasizes science. Disciplines with strong research and large numbers of Ph.D.-trained investigators in the specialty of the discipline create an atmosphere of creative inquiry where there is a culture of challenging questions, rigorous analysis, and thoughtful agendas. At present the Geology Discipline includes about 500 Earth science Ph.D. holders; the Biology Discipline has about 400 Ph.D. bioscientists; and the Water Discipline has about 200 Ph.D. hydroscientists. There are 10 Ph.D. geographers in the Geography Discipline. A small number of geography Ph.D. holders work in USGS disciplines other than the Geography Discipline. Four themes run through the vision of this committee for the future of geography at the Survey: The Geography Discipline should engage in scientific research. The geographic research throughout the USGS should provide integrative science for investigations of the Critical Zone [i.e., the earth’s surface and near-surface environment that sustains nearly all terrestrial life (NRC, 2001a, p. 35); see Sidebar 1–1]. The Geography Discipline should develop partnerships within the Survey and with the field of geography outside the Survey. Geography should develop a long-term core research agenda that includes several projects of the magnitude of The National Map. After assessing the geographic initiatives undertaken by several other agencies, the committee considers that the research agenda for geography presented in this report is appropriate for a federal natural science agency and complements the work undertaken by other federal natural science agencies. The need to generate new knowledge, tools, and methods through research in geography is most easily seen by comparison with the other disciplines at the Survey. In the Geology Discipline personnel and their clients expect not only outstanding geologic maps but also scientific analysis and explanations of geologic processes. In the Water Discipline members and clients expect accurate data regarding water resources, as well as insightful analysis of surface water and groundwater processes. In the Biology Discipline members and clients expect census data concerning endangered species, in addition to new understandings of the dynamics of ecosystems supporting those species. In the same way, agency members and their clients should expect the world’s best spatial databases from the USGS, plus explanations and predictions for the spatial processes that those databases depict. Closer collaboration among the Survey’s four disciplines will improve the quality of science research at the USGS.
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Towards a productive, useful future for the Geography Discipline, the NRC committee makes the following conclusions and recommendations, organized according to the charge. The General State of Geographic Knowledge The role of the USGS in advancing the state of knowledge of geography is to take a leadership position in a few critical areas of the field. The Survey is uniquely suited to provide leadership in GIScience (i.e., the research necessary to develop and sustain investigations into spatial phenomena, including the computer science behind geographic information systems, the physical science behind remote sensing, and the spatial statistics behind geographic analysis. It can also contribute in other primary areas by development of a suite of general geographic applications that focus on nature-society interactions. Conclusion: Currently the USGS’s influence is weak in advancing the state of knowledge in general geography (i.e., geographic research other than GIScience) because Survey personnel conducting such research are not sufficiently engaged with geographers outside of the Survey. Recommendation: To advance the state of knowledge in geography in general the USGS should strengthen its connections to the scientific community outside the Survey. These connections will be improved if Survey personnel participate in national geographic organizations and present USGS geographic research at professional geography meetings and in professional journals. Conclusion: The USGS’s influence is weak in advancing the state of knowledge in general geography because geographers at the Survey are limited to cartographic, geographic information systems (GIS), and remote sensing specialties, largely at the technical level. Recommendation: The USGS should expand its capabilities in geography beyond the activities of cartographic technicians to include leading-edge geographic research in GIScience, spatial analysis, and nature-society interactions.
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey The Dynamics of the Land Surface-Human Activities Connection The USGS, in advancing the state of knowledge in geography as a general discipline, specifically contributes information related to the Critical Zone, that part of the earth system that is at or near the surface and that is the home of humanity. The Survey’s mission statement recognizes special responsibilities in natural disasters that result from the interaction of society with nature. It is appropriate for a federal natural science and information agency to take a national leadership role in research aimed at improving the understanding of this interaction as it relates to hazards. Conclusion: The USGS manages large amounts of data to assess processes at the nature-society interface and provides a supporting mechanism for responses to natural disasters. Even though the fact that the academic field of geography is a significant contributor to the understanding of environmental processes and natural hazards, the Survey does not contribute greatly to the understanding of the vital connection between nature and society through scientific research focused on hazards. Recommendation: The USGS should continue to exercise national leadership in applied hazards research (including natural, technical, and security hazards) to improve the nation’s explanatory, predictive, and response capabilities. To meet national needs, however, it is incumbent on the Survey to undertake basic research on environmental processes, hazards, and vulnerability, and to include the expertise of geographers and social scientists from within the Survey or through cooperative agreements. Conclusion: The USGS manages and provides a variety of basic data for the nation’s responses to natural and technical hazards. These data and methods of analysis are also applicable to issues related to homeland security, a subject that has many data and research similarities to investigations of natural and technical hazards. Recommendation: The USGS should implement a homeland security support system founded on the general principles used by the Survey for dealing with natural hazards.
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Techniques Traditionally the USGS has maintained and enhanced tools and methods in geography to fulfill the Survey’s role as one of the nation’s primary sources of spatial data. The committee sees great potential in the Geography Discipline for an expanded role in the areas of research related to spatial data, as well as research to support cutting-edge geographic products and an information base such as The National Map. The National Map as a database product and an information base is an attainable goal by 2010, but some of the basic knowledge needed to create it (and other spatial data products) is not yet available. In assessing the role of the USGS in maintaining and enhancing tools and methods, the committee distinguishes between issues related to data from a more general consideration of GIScience. Data Research Conclusion: The USGS manages a national treasure of historic data ranging from maps and remotely-sensed imagery to long-term data collected from biologic, hydrologic, and geologic systems. These historic data are not artifacts valuable only for their curiosity. Rather, they indicate long-term trends in natural systems and baseline measures to assess human influences. Historic data allow the interpretation of present data, but use of the historic information is restricted by several unsolved problems related to access, processing, and analysis. Recommendation: The USGS should develop projects focused on historic data to address basic geographic research questions related to the accuracy, availability, quality, and scale issues for historical spatial data. Conclusion: The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, raise issues regarding data security, especially for data the USGS manages, including imagery, maps, and water supply data. The Survey’s data management responsibilities are conflicting. On one hand, one of the Survey’s purposes is to make these data widely available; on the other, the federal government has a responsibility to protect data that might be used against the nation. At the USGS four associate directors determine which data to make available within their own Discipline. Because only general guidelines are available, the four associate directors’ restrictions could be inconsistent. Recommendation: A uniform security policy for spatial data should be developed, and the associate directors should serve as advisors to a single
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey USGS decision maker. To make as much data available as possible the policy should clearly outline how the mission of the Survey and the security of the nation should be balanced in making decisions for data management. Conclusion: Although Congress has designated the USGS as the clearing-house agency for spatial data, other Department of the Interior (DOI) bureaus and federal agencies create and use spatial data. The underlying problem is a lack of integration among these geospatial databases (those databases with locational identifiers attached to data entries), which does not serve the scientific and public good. Addressing this problem requires research, standards, and the application of integrating methods. Recommendation: The USGS is ideally suited to be the lead agency in providing and managing spatial data, and the federal government should make available resources commensurate with the level of the task. The USGS should play a leading and facilitating role in shaping national policy on geospatial data and developing an interoperable capability that will make it a primary access point for integrated geospatial data in the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies. GIScience Research Conclusion: The National Map is a bold vision for the future of the Geography Discipline, with the spatial database of the same name being its most prominent product. Without question the digital era has made the paper topographic map series obsolete for many applications, but The National Map will not become a reality with our present level of knowledge about the tools and methods needed to create the product. Recommendation: Given the importance of The National Map to the information economy of the future, and the need for further supportive research to accomplish The National Map, the Geography Discipline’s programs—Cooperative Topographic Mapping, Land Remote Sensing, and Geographic Analysis and Monitoring—should receive a level of funding commensurate with the task. Conclusion: Construction and maintenance of The National Map will require a variety of databases, but some databases are of exceptional priority if The National Map is to succeed. These high-priority datasets will require emphasis in funding and support.
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey Recommendation: Because of their importance in supporting The National Map, the following datasets should be assigned the highest priority in distribution of resources and in establishing and improving interagency exchanges: orthorectified imagery; digital elevation data; land cover data; biogeographic data; hydrographic data; transportation feature data; and geographic place names. Conclusion: The USGS is effective in creating and managing spatial data, but its role in GIScience is limited and does not include cutting-edge research in geographic information systems or the analysis of the data that the Survey provides to others. The Survey has a weak research program in geographic science related to the discipline’s tools and methods. Recommendation: To achieve the vision and mission of the USGS the Survey should improve its contributions to geographic knowledge, tools, and techniques by developing the internal capability to address the high-priority subjects of: resolution and scale; delivery of vector data to users; standards for spatial data; and spatial statistics and analysis. Bridging the Gap Between Science, Policy, and Management USGS mission statements include components that cross the boundary between nature and society, enhance and protect the quality of life, and contribute to wise development. To improve the nation’s abilities to deliver a high quality of life and wise decision making, the committee urges the USGS to conduct supporting geographic research at the nature-society interface, in the Critical Zone. The Survey already provides valuable services to its partners and clients by supplying the spatial data they commonly use, but the appropriate role of the Survey in general and the Geography Discipline in particular includes fundamental research. The integrative power of geographic analysis and the communications power of geographic data could be
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey substantially enhanced through research conducted nationally and internationally by the Geography Discipline. Conclusion: The USGS is regionalizing its activities. This development positions the Survey to contribute to regional research and policy activities. To capitalize on this transformation the USGS should conduct substantive research that is explicitly regional, integrated, and place-based, in addition to its discipline-based research in geology, hydrology, and biology. Recommendation: The USGS should strengthen its regional and place-based research (as opposed to topically divided investigations in geology, hydrology, and biology), including extensive involvement with regional research outside the Survey. The USGS should develop the ability to provide integrative regional experts for the nation. Conclusion: The USGS cannot address all problems associated with bridging science, policy, and decision making, but its Geography Discipline can lead research activities in a few priority areas likely to draw upon existing expertise in the field of geography and improve the bridging function. GIS and remotely-sensed products promote citizen involvement at public meetings by providing a mode of communication between specialist and layperson based on data, while place-based frameworks and decision-support systems allow for experimentation to assist decision makers. Currently, the Survey lacks substantial research capability in these priority areas. Recommendation: The USGS should assign high priority and substantial resources to fundamental research directed toward: improving citizen involvement in decision making for issues related to natural sciences by creating citizen-friendly geographic interfaces with all the Survey’s primary spatial datasets; expanding the utility and application of place-based science by conducting integrative place-specific research in addition to topical research in individual disciplines; and enhancing the effectiveness of decision-support systems with increased geographic input and more effective map-like products as output. SUMMARY The USGS is reforming and incorporating missions that emphasize its role as one of the nation’s most important natural science research agencies.
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Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey The Geography Discipline produces valuable spatial data for users ranging from private citizens and corporations to governmental agencies at all levels. The Geography Discipline should now expand its activities to assume its proper role among the other disciplines at the USGS by engaging in fundamental geographic research, investigating the processes and forms that explain the dynamics of location, space, and place. The investment in such research will change the Geography Discipline, but it will pay enormous dividends for the nation by improving the science done in other disciplines, integrating new knowledge and data generated by the USGS and others, reducing losses from hazards, improving management of natural resources, enhancing the quality of life, and aiding in wise development. A strong Geography Discipline with a productive research component will ensure recognition of the USGS as scientifically credible, objective, and relevant to society’s needs.
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