quantities of global data and to simulate and explain earth processes by modeling experiments. New instruments are poised for development and use in monitoring the whole Earth from space, in deducing its inner structure and workings by seismology, and in exploring the composition of its smallest particles with high-resolution analytical probes.
Distinct intellectual paths wind through the structure of the solid-earth sciences, from theoretical research to the applications that flow from it. Boundaries between theoretical and applied earth sciences are artificial. Although theoretical research may be defined as speculative inquiry having no practical value, all engineering programs apply pure theory as an integral foundation for design and production. Research programs designed to improve the human condition—whether they are related to resource problems with water, energy, and minerals, to hazards presented by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and floods, or to environmental issues of global warming, desertification, and waste contamination—are crippled without basic research aimed at understanding earth processes.
The variety of research opportunities in the earth sciences can be categorized under priority themes. Deliberate consideration can then be given to how these themes might best be supported and developed during the next decade. This brings in the difficult issue of setting priorities among first-class research opportunities and pressing societal needs, within and across scientific fields. The way in which science priorities are established will surely be influenced by the 1991 report Federally Funded Research by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
This chapter begins with a discussion of the problems of establishing criteria for setting science priorities. Following a summary of research initiatives and recommendations made over the past decade, the goals and objectives of the solid-earth sciences, as viewed by the committee, are presented as the Research Framework used throughout this report. Selected groups of research opportunities from the wide research areas covered in Chapters 2 through 5 represent the first stage of prioritization. For each of the eight priority themes that arise from the Research Framework, a single top-priority research selection was chosen with a remarkable degree of consensus. These eight top-priority research selections are discussed along with their supporting research programs and infrastructure; in addition, two high-priority selections for each theme are presented. The last section reviews the facilities needed to implement these major programs, which leads to the research recommendations. Comments about present and future research funding are then followed by a set of general recommendations.
Funding scientific research and technology is an expensive enterprise. Growing numbers of individual scientists require increasing support, and the megaprojects of big scientific collaborations consume vast amounts of money. These sometimes conflicting pressures emphasize the need for development of a national science agenda. That agenda should implement a system for setting priorities within each discipline and among all the sciences.
In the earth sciences new research initiatives usually develop within subdisciplines and reflect the interests of individual scientists. Initiatives spawned by independent scientists or groups of scientists inevitably become involved with funding agencies at an early stage. Scientists commonly establish a consensus about research directions and priorities by active participation in national and international workshops and conferences, by communication with colleagues, and by interaction with representatives from funding agencies. Scientists with common goals form working groups that determine implementation strategies, facility requirements, and needs for technology developments. Advisory committees can provide evaluations and recommendations on the long-range objectives and priorities in their field as well as the specific needs for funding, manpower, instrumentation, and facilities.
Supporters of each new initiative make the case for their project's funding. They attempt to persuade funding agencies and government of the paramount importance of investment in what they have concluded is a key area of research. If the funding organizations are to receive the critical advice that they need to make sensible allocation decisions, it is essential that the subdisciplines remain active and responsible in developing a consensus about directions and priorities.
The selection of priority research opportunities within a subdiscipline is relatively easy compared with the next step of ranking programs, or selecting priorities, among several subdisciplines. There is an additional problem of rational evaluation when support of a particular subdiscipline is shared by more than one agency. Similar oversight evaluations and comparisons are required before the relative merits