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Basic Research Opportunities in Earth Science
planetary science using extraterrestrial materials, as well as astronomical, space-based, and laboratory observations, to investigate the origin, evolution, and present structure of planetary bodies, including the Earth.
This chapter presents the findings and recommendations that have been drawn by the committee from its overview of the science opportunities and societal needs. In constructing its recommendations, the committee was cognizant that the National Science Foundation (NSF) must continually strive to balance its funding of basic research among (1) core programs that support investigator-driven, disciplinary activities; (2) problem-focused programs of multidisciplinary research; and (3) equipment-oriented programs for developing new instrumentation and facilities. It is the committee’s conclusion that the Earth Science Division (EAR) has done an excellent job at maintaining such a balance in the past. The committee therefore offers recommendations relevant to all three programmatic areas that, if implemented, will address the science requirements for the next decade. It also comments on opportunities for coordinating EAR-sponsored research with programmatic activities in other NSF divisions and with other agencies.
LONG-TERM SUPPORT OF INVESTIGATOR-DRIVEN SCIENCE
It is commonly believed that many of the most significant conceptual breakthroughs in science come at the hands of individual investigators or small groups of researchers, rather than through structured collaborations. As indicated by the workshop reports, letters to the committee, and the 1998 report of the EAR visiting committee, the Earth science community supports the notion that individual investigators should be free to pursue their own research directions. One letter from an Earth scientist put it succinctly: “Too much emphasis on ‘large’ science at the expense of ‘small’ science will, over time, stifle creativity.” It is particularly important that creative young scientists be allowed to conduct scientific research of their own conception, rather than projects conforming to the current scientific consensus, which is often articulated by established groups (such as National Research Council [NRC] committees). The committee strongly endorses this point of view.
Finding: EAR funding of research projects initiated and conducted by individual investigators and small groups of investigators is the single most important mechanism for maintaining and enhancing disciplinary strength in Earth science.