The eleven questions in Part II speak to some of the fundamental challenges currently facing science and society. Given the extent and magnitude of the geographical transformations unfolding in the early 21st century, it is imperative to understand what is happening where, why changes are happening in particular places, and how the geographical sciences can best respond. The geographical sciences have had a growing impact across the sciences in recent years, and public awareness of the importance of geographical inquiry is growing. Nonetheless, moving forward requires a major effort to expand what the geographical sciences can do. This concluding section of the report outlines the key support systems that need to be enhanced as part of such an effort: research infrastructure, training, and outreach.
To date, most progress in the geographical sciences has been made through small, independent research initiatives that may be loosely coordinated, but often are not. Professional society meetings serve to bring researchers and research ideas together, but they do not have the resources to promote large-scale collaborations, nor is that their mandate. Yet as this report suggests, large-scale collaborations are important to address many geographical problems—collaborations that involve investments in technology and infrastructure and that draw on diverse perspectives and different types of data. The payoffs to such collaborations can be large, but so are the obstacles to making them happen. Those obstacles include gaps in available data on which large-scale collaborations can be based, and insufficient tools and mechanisms for bridging different monitoring and analysis initiatives. It follows that enhancements in research infrastructure should focus on data development, storage, and sharing, and the development of formal institutions and arrangements designed to facilitate meaningful collaborations.
The Human Genome Project provides a model for what can be achieved through large-scale, technologically supported collaboration. A first step to making similar strides in the geographical sciences would be to hold workshops and conferences focused on specific strategic directions, with the goal of identifying ways of moving them forward. These workshops could help clarify the costs, value, stakeholders, and viability of collaborations and suggest concrete steps that could be taken to build forward-looking research programs.
In terms of infrastructure, much of today’s science focuses on complex issues such as global climate change, species extinction, economic modeling, or urban crime—problems that often involve the analysis of massive amounts of data using tools that are capable of exploring the behavior of complex systems through rapid and increasingly realistic simulations. Many of the tools used by the geographical sciences are of this nature; yet, in some important respects, they are not adequate to the task. To move the geographical science enterprise forward, at least two distinct infrastructure requirements need to be addressed: (1) sensors and data storage and retrieval and (2) cyberinfrastructure and tools.
Sensors and Data Storage and Retrieval
A key component of geographical analysis is the focus on spatial variations, or the tracking of phenomena as they vary across the surface of Earth. Many geographical scientists rely on remote sensing from satellites, a technology with high initial costs (billions of dollars have been invested in the “big iron” of NASA’s Earth Observing System program over the past two decades), but one that has yielded astonishingly productive results in the form of massive amounts of fine-resolution data that can be used to map and analyze ocean temperatures, land cover, urban growth, and a host of other phenomena. Sizeable investments have also been made in the technologies that allow for the processing, storage, and dissemination of information, allowing thousands of scientists worldwide to benefit from the power of space-based sensors. It is important for these investments to continue, with commitments to develop new sensors as the science of sensing progresses; to replace aging satellites as they fail, thus ensuring reliable longitudinal series; and to explore the capabilities of each new sensor once it is in orbit. The geographical sciences can contribute to, and benefit from, all of these areas; indeed they have a vested interest in doing so, given the importance of this source of data to many of the questions posed in Part II.
Recently, the scientific community has begun to understand the potential of ground-based remote sensing. Ground-based sensor networks are often envisioned as arrays of fixed, inert sensors distributed across the landscape, each one capable of measuring useful properties of its immediate environment, determining its own location, and transmitting these measurements and locations to a central service where data can be integrated and disseminated to the scientific community. Large projects to install networks of value to the geographical sciences have been proposed by ecologists (National Ecological Observatory Network), oceanographers (National Science Foundation’s [NSF’s] Ocean Observatories Initiative), hydrologists (the WATERS network), and others.
As discussed in Chapter 10, however, there are limits to what can be sensed remotely, whether from space or from land, creating an imbalance in the data supply for studies such as those in the geographical sciences that deal with social and environmental systems. Traffic sensors on highways can provide useful information, but more generally there is little prospect of providing the kinds of data required to support the geographical perspective on social systems or on the social dimensions of coupled natural–human systems. The U.S. Census, which used to provide highly detailed decennial snapshots of the spatial differentiation of the population, will in the future provide only the most basic demographic data; the more detailed socioeconomic questions will now be covered by the American Community Survey, a rolling monthly sample that will provide finer temporal resolution but much coarser spatial resolution.
There is a growing imbalance between environmental and social data infrastructures. It is important to understand environmental systems, of course, but solving many of society’s pressing problems requires an equivalent level of understanding of social systems and of interactions between the environmental and the social. Indeed, human activity is both the cause of much environmental change and the recipient of many of its impacts. A possible source of social data has already been discussed in Chapter 11: the potential of humans to act as sensors of important social variables through a form of citizen science. Although this approach has already proved valuable in many areas, systematic research is needed into quality assurance, techniques for integration and dissemination, and organizational structures if it is ever to achieve its apparent promise. Other options, such as facilitating access to the administrative and commercial records that are largely off-limits to scientists, hold promise only if the obvious difficulties of ownership and confidentiality can be addressed.
One approach to resolving issues of access might be to create tightly controlled environments in which scientists could work with sensitive data but leave only with results that protected the confidentiality of the original records. This approach has been tried with some success by the U.S. Census Bureau, which has established firewalled data centers at selected universities where researchers can make custom requests of individual census records. An NRC report (NRC, 2007b) argues that this approach could be implemented through appropriately designed software, allowing researchers to access a range of confidential databases remotely through the Internet, thus avoiding the
necessity for physical presence at a center. Implementing such a system could help researchers in the geographical sciences gain access to, and use, the social data they need to address key questions about the changing human geography of the planet.
Cyberinfrastructure and Tools
An NSF report (2003) argued that in the future, science will require a new kind of infrastructure—a cyberinfrastructure—to respond effectively to emerging challenges. Cyberinfrastructure encompasses the computers, networks, and storage devices of scientific computing; the sensors, software, tools, and communications of a networked scientific world; and the virtual communities that have to collaborate to make substantial progress. All of the foregoing require massive investment. Substantial investments have already been made by the NSF in building cyberinfrastructure through awards for the acquisition of high-performance computing systems and for the building of virtual communities of networked scholars. The 2003 NSF report has also been followed by others offering more specialized perspectives on the role of cyberinfrastructure in the social sciences (Berman and Brady, 2005), the humanities (American Council of Learned Societies, 2006), and several individual disciplines.1 Yet to date little of the cyberinfrastructure discussion or investment has focused on the geographical sciences.
Because the geographical world is infinitely complex, any attempt to represent it, whether in the form of a paper map or a digital database, requires making difficult decisions about what to include and what to leave out. One strategy is to ignore spatial detail, rejecting information about variation that occurs over distances smaller than some declared spatial resolution. A related approach is to lump together approximately homogeneous areas or regions and ignore all variation within them. Other types of variation can be adequately captured by taking samples at appropriately spaced measurement points. Numerous commercial firms have adopted their own proprietary formats in the past (e.g., ESRI), and several national and international organizations have promulgated standards (e.g., Open Geospatial Consortium and the Federal Geographic Data Committee). As a result, many hundreds of geographical data formats now exist, creating headaches for anyone wanting to share data or integrate data from multiple sources (Goodchild et al., 1999).
Nonetheless much progress has been made in achieving a greater degree of interoperability. The Open Geospatial Consortium was formed in the 1990s to address interoperability issues, and most high-income countries are now actively engaged in developing their spatial data infrastructures, following the guidance provided by a report under the aegis of the NRC’s Mapping Science Committee (NRC, 1993). In this regard, the geographical sciences are at a distinct advantage relative to many sciences, because not only researchers but also government agencies, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations are willing to support and invest in steps to improve the sharing of geographical data. The creation of mashups by combining geographically referenced information from different Web sites is one demonstration of the power of this new level of interoperability (Chapter 10).
In other respects, however, the research community is unable to benefit by hitching its wagon to broader efforts. Although great progress has been made in the sharing of data, there has been little comparable progress in the infrastructure needed to share the tools of analysis or the software of simulation modeling. The computer codes being created to model complex geographical systems are largely developed in low-level languages and are unlikely to be reusable by others. There are no digital libraries of tools and software, and no standards for their documentation and description. There are no GIS software environments designed specifically for the needs of K-12 education (NRC, 2006), and the products on which most of our students are trained were too often developed to support inventory and management rather than scientific research. By and large, these tools have not received the kinds of funding needed to ensure that they are rigorously engineered, robust, well documented, and widely disseminated.
By its very nature, geographical information is distinct from the kinds of information acquired and analyzed in those disciplines that proceed by controlled experiment. The foundations of statistical analysis were developed in disciplines such as psychology, where it was reasonable to believe that the members of a sample of subjects had been randomly and independently
For a complete listing, see www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/ci-team/ (accessed December 15, 2009).
chosen from some larger population and that results obtained from the sample could then be generalized, with appropriate caveats, to statements about the population. The geographical sciences are dominated by so-called natural experiments, where researchers have little if any control over the sampling process. Thus it is unreasonable to make the assumptions of a controlled experiment when dealing, for example, with a study of Los Angeles using data about its census tracts. Conditions in adjacent tracts are not independent, and there is no larger population from which the tracts have been randomly drawn and about which more general statements can be made.
Instead, the analysis of geographical data requires a set of highly distinct and specialized techniques known collectively as spatial data analysis. The assumptions, data structures, and techniques of spatial data analysis are very different from those of standard statistical analysis and require specially designed software packages commonly known as GIS. Their effective use may even require the unlearning of much standard statistics and replacing them with an alternative paradigm that places more emphasis on visualization and on analyses that are not easily generalizable because they are shaped by place-based differences.
All of this argues, then, for a specialized infrastructure for the geographical sciences with its own distinct mechanisms for acquiring, documenting, sharing, analyzing, and modeling. Much of that infrastructure has already been built, thanks primarily to the importance of geographical information in many areas of human activity well outside the scientific realm. Other parts of the infrastructure, however, have not yet received the kinds of investments or attention that geographical inquiry requires. The supply of data is important, but the supply of tools, in the form of software, is at least as important.
Recently, efforts have been made to envision the next generation of spatial analytical tools by thinking not only of the future of GIS, which is often presented as the key technology for spatial analysis, but also of the future of virtual globes (Chapter 10). Because the commercial sector is unlikely to see profit in investments of this nature, given their orientation to a comparatively small market of researchers, research funding agencies, particularly the NSF, will have to stimulate advances in this particular area of infrastructure.
Addressing Infrastructure Challenges
When combined, the arguments made in the previous two subsections point to the need for a comprehensive approach to the growing gap in data for the geographical sciences and to the need to develop and disseminate a new generation of more powerful tools. One way to confront this need is to develop a virtual center, implemented as a set of Internet services, that would give researchers limited access to unconventional and frequently sensitive data sources, together with the tools needed for analysis. Such a center would establish the necessary protocols and implement them in software. It could also negotiate with individuals, commercial providers, government agencies, and the custodians of sensor networks to provide the necessary assurances that confidentiality and other concerns would not be compromised. It could develop the techniques needed to integrate diverse data sources, with themes spanning the social-environmental divide, and it could offer them in a reliable, robust, and easy-to-use fashion to researchers from a range of disciplines. It would have procedures for long-term data preservation, the lack of which is a growing across-the-board problem in science. The interface presented to the researcher would be easy to use but would embody the best scientific principles in documentation and metadata structure. In essence, this center could resolve a growing problem by providing a brokering service between the researcher and the potential supplier of useful data.
A suitable next step, then, would be to launch a series of workshops focused on identifying the kinds of infrastructure investments needed to support research in the geographical sciences, as well as research more broadly that makes use of a geographical perspective. This committee believes that this specific kind of infrastructure investment could play a significant role in addressing the types of strategic directions for the geographical sciences identified in Part II of this report.
It is ironic that, at a time when the importance of the approaches and tools of the geographical sciences is increasingly recognized, the need to improve training in the geographical sciences remains critical. Without curricular changes aimed at promoting geographical
understanding, spatial thinking, and geographical research skills, however, the graduates of our educational institutions will not possess the insights and tools needed to address the complex problems identified in this report. Therefore a new, dedicated, and proactive approach to formal geographical education is essential to support the strategic directions for the geographical sciences identified and discussed in this report.
After a period of neglect, geographical concepts and ideas have been carving out more of a role in the curriculum in recent years (Bednarz et al., 2006; Murphy, 2007).2 Yet pedagogic programs with a significant geographical component are weak or nonexistent at the many schools, colleges, and universities. Moreover, even where significant training opportunities exist, consideration needs to be given as to whether programs are providing students with the background and skills needed to tackle the types of strategic questions enunciated in this report. Such programs need to provide students with the tools to address large-scale, multidisciplinary problems and ensure that instruction in skills and techniques is accompanied by training in the nature of a geographical perspective and the characteristics of geographical analysis. Strengthening and deepening geographical education is vital both to building a substantial coterie of geographical scientists who can pursue the kind of work outlined in this report and to promoting the informed, ethical, and sensitive use of geographical technologies in the broader community.
Addressing the training challenge requires finding ways to broaden and deepen student understanding of key geographical patterns and processes, enhancing critical spatial thinking skills, and deepening student grasp of the structure and functions of geographical technologies, including their awareness of the appropriate contexts in which those technologies should and should not be used. The Learning to Think Spatially report (NRC, 2006) provides a starting point on the spatial-learning front, but much work remains to be done. What is needed is the implementation and expansion of programs focused on teacher training and support in geographical concepts and techniques, the development of new curricular materials, the seizing of opportunities to create courses and programs of study with a significant geographical component, and the infusion of the ideas and approaches of the geographical sciences across the curriculum.
The latter issue is of particular importance in institutions that lack formal geography or geographical science programs. Efforts need to be made to strengthen the geographical component of existing science, earth science, and social science courses. Promising new curriculum projects demonstrate the potential of this approach. These include projects sponsored by professional organizations such as the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and the National Council for Geographic Education. Project GeoSTART is a NASA-funded project linking spatial thinking skills, geographical technologies, and geoscience topics (specifically as they relate to hurricanes). The Teacher’s Guide to Modern Geography is a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education that links spatial thinking skills across the curriculum in subjects such as mathematics, history, and science. And the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science has developed a model curriculum focused on the technological aspects of the geographical sciences (DiBiase et al., 2006).
There are growing opportunities for bringing geographical science perspectives into funded educational and research programs. The Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science (CSISS) is an NSF-funded program that “recognizes the growing significance of space, spatiality, location, and place in social science research [and] seeks to develop unrestricted access to tools and perspectives that will advance the spatial analytic capabilities of researchers throughout the social sciences.”3 By providing online tutorials, text and online reference materials, and workshops, CSISS offers a model for the diffusion of the geographical science approach to all disciplines, not just the social sciences. In addition, the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, funded through the NSF’s Sciences of Learning Centers program, “brings together scientists and educators … to pursue the overarching goals of: (a) understanding spatial learning and (b) using this knowledge to develop
At the K-12 levels, several initiatives help explain the growing profile of geographical perspectives in education, including the National Geographic Society’s “Geographic Alliance” program (Dulli, 1994), the development of widely acclaimed state standards for geography education (Boehm and Bednarz, 1994), and the highly successful addition of Human Geography to the College Board’s Advanced Placement program (Murphy, 2007).
See www.csiss.org/ (accessed December 15, 2009).
Key Questions for Training Programs in Geography/Geographical Sciences
programs and technologies that will transform educational practice, helping learners to develop the skills required to compete in a global economy.”4 The emphasis on the development of human capital is clear, as is the explicit focus on the transfer of research to education in a domain central to the geographical sciences.
Institutions offering advanced degrees in geography or geographical science are on the front line of producing the next generation of specialists. They face a set of programmatic questions that arise directly from the strategic questions in Part II (see Box 1). Addressing these questions can help build student interest in the geographical sciences, give advanced students the conceptual and technical skills needed to address many of the strategic questions raised in this report, and promote an expanding community of researchers and scholars who can push the research frontiers highlighted in Part II.
Enhancing training opportunities for graduate students and early career faculty will likely advance the next generation of specialists. The NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program provides opportunities to build competence across the breadth of the geographical sciences by linking them with other disciplines. There are, for example, affinities between the geographical sciences and epidemiology, engineering, archaeology, sociology, psychology, and the geosciences. Exploiting those affinities would meet the IGERT intent “to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.”5 Other avenues that might be pursued include interdisciplinary summer workshops focused on the applicability of geographical approaches to research on particular topics and the development of research centers focused on particular strategic questions.
The challenge of developing and training a sizeable cadre of specialists who can advance work on the types of questions outlined in Part II is substantial. Ways need to be found to expose more students to geographical ideas and tools and to enhance the research skills of those with particular aptitude and interest in the geographical sciences. Addressing this challenge will require building on the promising recent initiatives outlined above and looking for new ways of infusing the concepts, techniques, and research approaches of the geographical sciences across the curriculum.
Policy makers, administrators, media figures, and other influential individuals are in a position to use, or ignore, what the geographical sciences have to offer, but they can only make informed choices if they are aware of
what the geographical sciences can contribute. Many are not in this position because only recently have the geographical sciences begun to play a more significant role in public debate (Murphy, 2006). It follows that efforts are needed to promote outreach and informal education about the nature and potential contributions of the geographical sciences.
Improving external communication is a challenge faced across the sciences, but the relevance of geographical understanding to many policy choices and to everyday life renders external communication a particular imperative (Moseley, 2010). Consider, for example, the growing pervasiveness of geographical technologies. Countless people are using the Global Positioning System, virtual maps, and location-based services in their daily lives, and decision makers are constantly being presented with maps and information derived from them. Yet whether these technologies are being used in productive and informed ways is a matter of considerable concern, given the lack of general understanding of how they work and how the choices that are made about data, spatial range, and scale influence the visualizations they produce and the options they suggest (Harvey et al., 2005). Only by expanding familiarity with such matters can we hope to bridge the knowledge gap that currently exists between those who develop these technologies and those who use them.
Identifying opportunities for informal education is essential to promote outreach, develop the skills to translate complex ideas into language and evocative visualizations that can be broadly grasped (Figure 1), and build bridges between the geographical science community and those involved in developing and influencing policy. The informal education challenge is significant, but critical, given that education is no longer seen as the exclusive responsibility of a formal system based on physical presence in schools. Many of the perspectives and tools of the geographical sciences lend themselves to online distance education, virtual networking through affinity groups, and participation in activities, such as orienteering, that have a locational component. There are already rapidly growing efforts to develop online educational resources with a geographical component, such as the AAG’s Center for Global
Policy and Media Fellowships in Other Research Communities
If programs similar to the ones listed below were designed and implemented for the geographical sciences, students could work with policy and media organizations to apply the latest research and analytical tools to everything from political to environmental to health-related reporting.
John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship: Cosponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Sea Grant College Program, this federal program, provides an opportunity for students with an interest in oceanic, coastal, and Great Lakes issues to gain valuable experience by working in either the legislative or executive branch of the federal government. Past fellows have held positions in the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as in NOAA, the Department of State, and the Department of the Interior.
Jefferson Science Fellows: Recognizing the importance of science, technology, and engineering (STE) in advancing government policy, specifically U.S. foreign policy, this program is administered by the National Academies and supported by numerous organizations, including scientific societies and the U.S. Department of State. The program is seen as providing “a new model for engaging American academic STE communities in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy.”
Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program: Sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this program places graduate and postgraduate students in various roles in media organizations.
Aldo Leopold Leadership Program: The program’s goal is to advance environmental decision making through the development of academic scientists as effective leaders and communicators. The program provides intensive interactive training sessions where fellows are taught methods to engage with and communicate to a variety of nonscientific audiences.
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program: This program promotes links between federal decision makers and scientific professionals concerned with social and environmental issues. The fellowships educate scientists about the federal policy-making process and put policy makers in contact with scientists who can advise them about scientific and technical issues bearing on policy decisions.
Geography Education,6 which provides open Internet access to course modules focused on social, economic, and environmental issues. Other initiatives of this sort, including ones targeted at the types of strategic questions raised in this report, could help widen the reach of the geographical sciences.
The task of facilitating the translation of complex ideas into language and visualizations that can be broadly grasped is inextricably tied to the challenge of building bridges with the media and policy makers (de Blij, 2005). A coherent set of activities designed to promote communication skills and facilitate external connections could range from workshops, conferences, and professional opportunities bringing geographical scientists and journalists together to learn how to communicate important scientific findings more effectively to opportunities for geographical scientists to serve as staff members in congressional offices or within the executive branch; to fellowships that would allow geographical scientists to become more effective communicators and informal educators (see Box 2).
A strategy of coherent public outreach can build on the success of existing models designed to improve linkages across the geographical science community, the public policy and private sectors, nongovernmental organizations, and the media and general public. The AAG, for example, has held two successful “Mapping the News” conferences that brought together geographers and journalists to share ideas and information. That organization has also appointed a media officer and regularly hosts media sessions at its annual meetings that educate geographers about how to communicate their research findings to the public. The American Geographical Society has launched an increasingly successful program aimed at promoting the writing and placement of opinion pieces (op-eds) by geographers and also maintains a Media Center that provides media representatives with geographers to speak on issues of
See www.aag.org/Education/center/cgge-aag%20site/index.html (accessed December 15, 2009).
geographical relevance. These types of outreach efforts could be incorporated into geography and geographical science graduate programs to make communication with the public and policy makers more central to graduate education rather than a skill acquired later in a research career, if at all.
The entire geographical sciences community—federal program leaders, academic institutions, professional societies, nonprofits—has an important role to play in maximizing the community’s reach and impact. If organized, the community could actively identify opportunities for the dissemination of geographical ideas, information, and research results to specific audiences, including the policy sector. The community could also create a mechanism through which geographical scientists could be put into contact with various foundations and think tanks—enhancing the prospects that partnerships would emerge that would promote understanding of such topics as disease hotspots, human vulnerability to famine or natural disasters, or trends in inequality at the subnational scale. The community could also pursue efforts to make better connections with the media and other key audiences by hosting annual seminars and policy forums.
The coming decade will almost certainly be one in which concerns about resource use and availability, environmental change, socioeconomic divisions, human security, and technological change will figure prominently on scientific and social agendas. The geographical sciences have a critical role to play in elucidating those concerns. A well-developed and well-connected geographical science enterprise is in a position to provide insights of scientific and policy relevance on a range of demographic and consumption issues, the changing character of Earth’s land surface and environmental systems, globalization, the nature and significance of shifting social and political arrangements, and the potential and limitations of geographical technologies. The geographical sciences cannot tackle these matters alone, but without their perspectives and tools, our collective understanding of the changes that are remaking the world will be impoverished.
The time is ripe, then, to forge an increasingly sophisticated, well-organized, and powerful geographical science that is embedded in a progressively more geographically enabled world. A geographically enabled world is one in which a substantial body of scientists has the training and infrastructure needed to advance the frontiers of geographical science. It is one in which the larger community of scientists is aware of, and can build on, the contributions of the geographical sciences. It is one in which policy is informed by the approaches and representations of the geographical sciences, and in which members of the general public have a sufficient grasp of geographical ideas, concepts, and techniques to be able to make intelligent use of the geographical representations and tools that are increasingly a part of modern life. Realizing the vision of a geographically enabled world offers the prospect of new and important insights into the health of the planet and the well-being of the people who occupy it.