EarthScope project underwent construction of facilities from 2003 to 2008 and is presently halfway through the first of at least two planned five-year operational stages (Williams et al., 2010).
EarthScope was novel for the MREFC program in creating a highly distributed facility with many data collection nodes dispersed across the United States (in contrast to typical localized facilities such as an astronomical telescope or a physics accelerator) that includes three key facilities that provide unprecedented observations of the North American continent; the Plate Boundary Observatory, USArray, and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth. The EarthScope facility construction completed the five-year MREFC phase on time and on budget, a rarity in the history of large facilities’ development supported by federal agencies. Scientific results from all elements of the EarthScope project are emerging rapidly, as noted later in this report, and the project is a tremendous success for EAR and GEO.
This success presents a clear opportunity for EAR to gain recognition as a sponsor of major research activity on a par with the many large efforts in physics, astronomy, and biology. Not only will the Earth sciences play a critical role in the 21st century, but the discipline has now demonstrated the internal organizational capability to rise to the tasks and funding levels for major initiatives that will be needed for the field to meet future challenges. Emerging research opportunities defined later in this report will require comparable efforts to achieve their objectives; EarthScope has demonstrated that the Earth science community and EAR can successfully meet these challenges, and NSF will need to recognize the importance and viability of enhancing investment in basic research in this discipline. Earth sciences in the 21st century must join the ranks of big science efforts pursued in the United States; it cannot remain a modest activity if new opportunities to expand basic understanding are to be pursued as a foundation for tackling the societal challenges of the upcoming century.
This report is released against a background of declining federal funding for basic and applied Earth science research and reinforces the importance of pursuing targeted new research opportunities that provide the greatest return on research investments. Among the several federal departments and agencies that support research in the Earth sciences, NSF is the sole agency whose primary mission is basic research and education. Only NSF, through its EAR division, provides significant funding for investigator-driven, fundamental research in all of the core disciplines of the Earth sciences. While substantial Earth science research is pursued by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the emphasis of those programs is largely strategically focused and mission oriented. For example, the President’s FY2011 budgets for Earth science activities in these programs emphasize climate change and renewable energy resources research. Funding for carbon capture and sequestration, climate change, and geothermal research and development is slated to increase for DOE and the USGS. NASA is set to have increased funding for Earth-observing satellites. NSF’s GEO, which provides about 63 percent of all federal funding for the geosciences would receive a budget of about double the EAR funding level at the time of the 2001 BROES report.
The trend in federal funding of geosciences research is of significant concern. Figure 1.1 displays trends in funding across all agencies and depicts a decline in funding as a percentage of total research funding for basic and applied research. This drop in overall percentage of research funding has been accompanied by a relative increase in the percentage of geosciences funding for universities, which is the domain where NSF and EAR play a predominant role.
In this report the Committee on New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences (NROES) identifies new research opportunities in the Earth sciences as they relate to the responsibilities of NSF’s EAR division. In particular, the committee undertook four tasks:
1. Identify high-priority new and emerging research opportunities in the Earth sciences over the next decade, including surface and