planet, but concepts and tools of the geographical sciences are essential components of the multidisciplinary task of unraveling the complexities of the changes Earth is confronting.
Geographical inquiry encompasses approaches ranging from the scientific to the humanistic, and this report’s concern with the former end of the spectrum should not be seen as an effort to devalue nonscientific approaches, for the latter have fostered valuable insights into the geographical diversity of the planet and the human–environment dynamic. Rather, the focus on the geographical sciences comes in response to the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies’ charge to assess the ways in which the community of geographically oriented scientists can effectively contribute to an understanding of the changes that are remaking the planet. In approaching its work, the committee that produced this report did not adopt a narrow definition of science, however. Instead, the committee evaluated various research endeavors that seek to advance applied and theoretical understanding based on the systematic analysis or assessment of empirical data and information.
This report is substantially different from previous NRC assessments focused on geographical research. Earlier studies focused on the character and perspectives of the discipline of geography (NRC, 1965; Taffe et al., 1970). More recently, Rediscovering Geography (NRC, 1997) sought to highlight what the discipline of geography had to offer at a time of rapidly rising interest in geographical ideas and to consider how geography might respond to that interest. That report was written principally “for the broad audience that is curious about geography’s new place in a national spotlight” (NRC, 1997: 15).
This report, in contrast, is written against the backdrop of the emergence of a rapidly growing, interdisciplinary community of scientists that is drawing on a variety of geographical perspectives and techniques. The approaches that these geographical scientists employ include spatial analysis (often making use of GIS and related technologies), remote sensing, geographical visualization, numerical and analytical modeling, and deductive analysis based on spatial data and assessments of linkages among and between places. The central concern of this report is to assess how the array of approaches and techniques of the geographical sciences might be most effectively deployed in the effort to address major social and environmental questions. It is important to emphasize that the goal of the report is not to provide an overview of the geographical sciences or to offer an analysis of successes and challenges. Instead the goal is to elucidate key contributions the geographical sciences can make to the task of confronting some of the most pressing, contemporary large-scale scientific questions of the day.
The audience for the report, then, is twofold. On the one hand, it is written for researchers and scholars in a position to develop and advance the geographical science enterprise over the coming decade. On the other hand, it is aimed at scientifically literate people, including policy makers, who can benefit from an understanding of what the geographical sciences have to offer and who can help sustain and promote geographically grounded efforts to understand life on Earth in the 21st century.
In developing this report, the committee relied on NRC studies, other published reports and literature, and the experience and expertise of its members. The committee also solicited input from the broader community in three ways: first, in the form of presentations at the committee’s open meetings; second, in a public panel session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG); and third, from a Web-based questionnaire written by the committee, designed to gather community input on the committee charge. The committee used the community input to shape its discussion of potential research questions, and the research questions that resulted reflect the themes of the input.
The committee held three open meetings. The first was in Washington, D.C., at the National Academy of Sciences, where the committee heard from the sponsoring agencies and organizations, reviewed its task, and charted a course for the study. The second meeting was in Irvine, California, at the Beckman Center, where the committee heard presentations from invited guests and reviewed the community input it had received. Between the first and second meetings, the committee held its public panel session at the AAG meeting, which consisted of seven invited presentations (see Appendix C) and a question-and-answer session with the audience. The public panel session speakers spanned the range of the geographical sciences and were invited for their