The central purpose of all research is to create new knowledge. In the geographical sciences, this aim is driven by a desire to generate new knowledge about the relationships among space, place, and the anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic features and processes of the Earth. Some research goes beyond these modest aims and creates new opportunities for further research, affects the process of knowledge acquisition more broadly, or changes the way other researchers in a domain think about the world. In such instances, research is capable of transforming an entire field. Because of its positive impact, transformative research can be regarded as inherently having greater value than more conventional research, and funding agencies clearly regard transformative research as something to be encouraged and funded through special programs. Assessments of transformative research funding initiatives are few and provide a mixed picture of their effectiveness. The challenge—and central question posed to the committee that authored this report—is whether transformative research can be identified at the time it is proposed rather than after it has been conducted, communicated, and its influence on the discipline has become clear.
Complicating this question is the fact that no single definition of transformative or “high-risk, high-reward” research exists or is likely to emerge in the near future. The definition most relevant to this study is perhaps the National Science Board definition:
Transformative research involves ideas, discoveries, or tools that radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or educational practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering, or education. Such research challenges current understanding or provides pathways to new frontiers. (NSB, 2007, p. v)
The language of the definition includes references not only to the results of transformative research (e.g., discoveries, creation of a new paradigm or field of science), but also to the inputs to such research, such as the tools used. What is transformed can include current understanding, an existing concept, or an established practice.
At the request of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Research Council established a committee to provide insight into how transformative research in the geographical sciences evolved in the past so that it can be encouraged in the future. The charge asks the committee to take a historic approach by reviewing how transformative research has emerged in the past, what its early markers were, and how it can be nurtured in the future (see Box 1.1 for the complete Statement of Task). To carry out its charge, the committee gathered informa-
tion from a broad cross-section of the geographical sciences and affiliated disciplines, as well as from experts in assessing research outcomes via a workshop, an online questionnaire, and a review of relevant literature (see Appendix B for a complete list of contributors).
Because the primary instigator of the study was NSF, and because NSF’s primary program for funding research in the geographical sciences is the Geography and Spatial Sciences (GSS) program of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences, the committee chose to express many of its conclusions in the form of recommendations to the GSS program. Nevertheless, many of the findings and recommendations will be relevant to the work of other agencies, institutions, and individuals.
The committee took a three-part approach in developing its recommendations for fostering transformative research. First, the committee explored the concept of transformative research in detail, examining some of the definitions that have been advanced, some related terms, and the funding programs that have been aimed at stimulating, encouraging, and fostering transformative research. Second, it examined the history of new research directions that have emerged in the geographical sciences over the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a result of a variety of transformative stimuli; these were considered in the context of a general model of innovation diffusion and the general lessons they might provide on research innovators and the successful diffusion of ideas. Lastly, to translate its findings from the historical review into a modern context, the committee examined the current climate for research within the United States, especially with respect to funding, and compared it with the situation in the past and in other countries.
RECENT TRANSFORMATIVE INNOVATIONS IN THE GEOGRAPHICAL SCIENCES
To examine the development and diffusion of transformative ideas in the geographical sciences, the committee reviewed five areas of geographical research that can be considered transformative over the past 50 years. These five examples are identified under the broad rubrics of political ecology, spatial social theory (i.e., social theory that is directly informed by and related to geography), remote sensing of the environment, geographic information system (GIS) and sciences, and global climate change. The inventors and early innovators, sources of ideas, and stimuli responsible for the development and widespread diffusion of these transformative research areas within and beyond the geographical sciences were considered in the context of the general innovation-diffusion concepts.
In all five case studies, the subsequent diffusion and further development were parallel and complementary processes that were facilitated by a number of mechanisms. Face-to-face meetings and direct communication between developers and early adopters through a series of workshops, symposia, and formal research groups were a feature of the diffusion of spatial social theory and political ecology, while large official steering committees and semi-permanent governmental agencies were not. In remote sensing of the environment and GIS, early symposia were also important, and some of these have become institutionalized as regular formal events of considerable size. They also benefited from the establishment of large national programs for research funding and knowledge diffusion. In the early 1990s, vigorous debate over whether GIS was merely a tool or technique versus a set of principles, knowledge, and theory helped raise the profile of GIS and establish it as a substantial intellectual domain. Global climate change research has been disseminated through a wide variety of disciplinary and multidisciplinary journals and books, as well as regular high-profile reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Many of these publications garner large amounts
of attention in the popular press, which increases public awareness and attracts young people to the research community through this exposure. Similar to GIS, global climate change research has diffused broadly through high-profile debates.
In addition to these observations, the committee developed several overarching findings during its case-study reviews:
Finding 1: Transformative innovations can arise from a wide variety of individuals and groups, from a wide variety of intellectual sources, including older and long-ignored ideas, and through revolutionary and evolutionary paths.
Finding 2: An open innovation system in academic sciences and research can encourage the exchange of information, even among competing groups, and helps to achieve the desire of the nation, funding agency, or foundation for the most rapid, productive, and efficient academic research sector.
Finding 3: The promotion of rapid communication among innovators and adopters is critical for development as well as for the diffusion of transformative innovations.
Finding 4: There are no established indicators that would identify specific individuals or concepts as sources of transformative innovation prior to the conduct of research.
The committee also observed that research initiatives often did not originate in the geographical sciences, yet the geographical sciences have come to play a key role and, in some cases, to assume a lead position in research. For example, the priming agents in the rise of political ecology spanned the realms of ideas, technology, and societal need and were influential in several disciplines outside the geographical sciences.
THE CURRENT CONTEXT
The committee emphasizes that the source of innovation is often immaterial, but context is everything. If context is everything, then the potential for future transformations in the geographical sciences must be placed in a contemporary context. As such, the committee sees the U.S. research enterprise as currently facing four challenges, to which a new emphasis on transformative research may be a logical response:
- Federal research and development (R&D) funding levels are likely to decline, or at least remain stable, in the near term. Competition for scarce resources will pit existing programs and institutions against revolutionary developments.
- After three decades of growth, state-level funding for R&D has stabilized and is in decline in many states.
- In the near term, demographics point to a proportionately smaller cohort of individuals available to pursue undergraduate education. Pursuit of graduate education is responsive to levels of undergraduate debt, stagnant wages, and uncertainty over future investments in further education.
- Developing countries are building educational systems capable of supplying the skilled labor that is required to attract R&D investments. The U.S. system of R&D and higher education now has rivals.
FOSTERING TRANSFORMATIVE RESEARCH TODAY
This report employs five case studies to trace the history of transformation in the geographical sciences and discusses the critical importance of transformative research to the U.S. economy at a time when research funding and higher education face severe and largely unprecedented challenges. The committee also presents ideas and recommendations for fostering transformative research in the geographical sciences, with specific reference to the GSS program of NSF (see Chapter 4). These recommendations are discussed below.
Initiatives in Education
Recommendation 1: The Geography and Spatial Sciences (GSS) program should examine the degree to which its awards, especially those in support of geographic education, foster the potential for transformative research among the students who benefit from these awards, and encourage principal investigators (PIs) to give attention to such potential in their proposals.
For funding agencies such as NSF, awards might be seen as opportunities for fostering transformative research by engendering the critical, creative, and independent thinking that such research requires. PIs might be encouraged to address and even emphasize relevant characteristics in their proposals, including
- How and to what degree will students supported by the proposal be exposed to the concept of transformative research?
- How and to what degree will students supported by the proposed award be encouraged to think critically, creatively, and independently?
- How and to what degree will students be exposed to the nature and impact of prior transformative research in the geographical sciences?
- How and to what degree will students with backgrounds in other disciplines be encouraged to learn and apply the perspectives of the geographical sciences to problems?
- How and to what degree will students with backgrounds in the geographical sciences be encouraged to learn and apply the perspectives of other disciplines to problems?
- How and to what degree will students with backgrounds in the geographical sciences be encouraged to apply the perspectives of geographical research to problems in other disciplines?
The Research Culture
Recommendation 2: The Geography and Spatial Sciences (GSS) program should continue to emphasize the National Science Foundation policies and programs that are designed to increase ethnic, age, and gender diversity among its awardees.
The geographical sciences are already a multidisciplinary culture, in which collaboration across the boundaries of the traditional disciplines is not only common but encouraged, and in which transformative ideas have often stemmed from such collaboration. However, the community of researchers in the geographical sciences falls a long way short of “looking like America,” despite NSF’s strenuous and longstanding efforts in this direction. The representation of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT), and ethnic minorities still varies across
the different areas of the geographical sciences, despite the potential for such groups to bring new transformative ideas to the research table. NSF might do more to encourage collaboration across differences of ethnicity and gender and between experienced researchers and early-career faculty.
Recommendation 3: In the interest of fostering transformative research, the Geography and Spatial Sciences (GSS) program should recognize the importance of research collaboration among nations, among disciplines, and among academics, industry, government, and the military and intelligence communities.
While collaboration between U.S. and European researchers is common and such efforts are increasing with researchers in China, collaboration with other parts of the world remains adversely impacted by differences in language and research culture, problems with travel and communication, personal security, and the lack of bilateral or multilateral funding programs. Yet, such collaborations could be enormously stimulating and bring a host of new ideas and perspectives. Much could also be done to foster increased interaction with industry, the military, and the intelligence community. Exchange and internship programs could provide increased opportunities for exposure to new and potentially transformative ideas. NSF could also encourage principal investigators (PIs) to increase interaction internationally beyond Europe and China and to include representatives of these communities on advisory boards, at workshops, and in webinars.
The traditional methods of evaluating candidates for academic appointments and for career advancement may not provide the best indicators of potential for transformative research. Recently, the process of research evaluation has become even more quantitative through the use of readily available bibliometrics and less dependent on the independent, detailed, and qualitative evaluation by a candidate’s immediate peers. Evaluation based on bibliometrics may encourage a candidate to partition contributions into least-publishable units, to increase the number of co-authors wherever possible, and to place emphasis on journals with high-impact factors instead of those most likely to communicate results to the most interested colleagues. Referring to one of the most important advances in computer sciences in recent years, as measured by its impact on society, the National Research Council report Furthering America’s Research Enterprise (NRC, 2014, p. 69) noted: “Bibliometrics, for example, would not have flagged the supporting citations in the patent application for [Larry] Page’s Google search algorithm as particularly high impact during the years surrounding the initial appearance of those publications.”
Furthermore, career-advancement practices may emphasize individual activity at the expense of collaboration. Junior faculty who build collaborations with other disciplines and benefit from the stimulus and cross-fertilization that result may in the end be penalized in a discipline-centric system. Organizing workshops, building networks of colleagues, and pursuing large awards of external funding are all significant contributions that can foster transformative research; yet, all are discouraged at early-career stages when the potential for truly original ideas and discoveries can be highest.
As noted in Finding 4, research to date has not been able to discover characteristics capable of predicting the likelihood that an individual will produce transformative research. At this time, therefore, the committee chooses not to make a recommendation on the individual characteristics GSS might look for should it wish to encourage transformative research. Nevertheless, and despite the current lack of solid supporting research, the committee’s consensus view on the individual characteristics likely to be conducive to transformative research is discussed in Chapter 2.
Recommendation 4: In the interest of being more supportive of transformative research, the Geography and Spatial Sciences (GSS) program should work with other groups within and beyond the National Science Foundation to explore and evaluate novel approaches to research funding and proposal review.
The committee suggests that some of the pressure for increased emphasis on transformative research stems from a belief that the processes of proposal review are essentially conservative, working against projects that might involve high risk, but might offer the potential for high return. Thus, one way to encourage transformative research might lie in a review and perhaps a revision of the proposal process.
Although there is no single, succinct, and all-encompassing definition of transformative research, two distinct themes emerged from the committee’s information gathering. First, transformative research has unusually high value or return that may be reflected in a variety of ways: the widespread redirection of research in an existing research community, the formation of a new research community or discipline, or the emergence of a new industry. The five case studies discussed in this report (see Chapter 2) provide ample evidence of this high value or return in the case of the geographical sciences. Second, transformative research carries unusually high risk to a funding agency, because its groundbreaking nature is difficult for PIs to visualize and for reviewers to evaluate.
The rational response to this duality is to maximize the return while minimizing the risk. The committee used a model of innovation diffusion to frame a discussion of the factors that may be helpful in maximizing return: open sharing of ideas, rapid dissemination, and the breaking down of institutional barriers that include the disciplinary silos of academia. The committee extended these ideas in the specific context of the geographical sciences and NSF’s GSS program, and also made recommendations designed to minimize risk. These include finding better ways of preparing young geographical scientists for transformative research, identifying ways in which the research culture of the geographical sciences can be made more conducive to transformative research, addressing aspects of the process of career advancement that inhibit transformative research, and exploring novel approaches to the development and review of proposals for funding transformative research.
None of these recommendations can directly address the concerns raised in this report on the current context and the overall state of national science policy and performance. The geographical sciences are a tiny part of the broader U.S. research enterprise, and although strides have been made in recent decades in achieving greater prominence for the discipline’s central ideas, these ideas will almost certainly remain close to invisible in the national debates over the four challenges mentioned earlier and further discussed in this report. Nevertheless, within the context of the geographical sciences, the four recommendations herein do specifically address these four national research challenges.
The declining levels of national and state research funding (Challenges 1 and 2) can partially be offset through the development of additional linkages and programs with the private sector and research partnerships with governmental agencies (Recommendation 3). This has been effective in the past growth of GIS and remote sensing of the environment as transformative sciences and will likely be just as effective and even more necessary in the future. The fostering of an open and collaborative system of innovation development and diffusion (Recommendation 3) will serve to help counteract the potentially stifling impact of competition for scarce research dollars (Challenges 1 and 2). Encouraging transformative research and targeted funding at the late inception/early-diffu-
sion stage can help to maximize governmental investment success and to offset overall reduction in funds. Specifically targeting the training of students in the nature and achievement of transformative research (Recommendations 1 and 2) will help to ensure a larger proportion of highly educated individuals has the capacity to advance the geographical sciences and to offset both the potential declines in the absolute numbers of such highly trained individuals and the increasing competition by such students trained in other countries (Challenges 3 and 4). Increasing the diversity of the research community (Recommendation 2) serves not only to bring the wider range of perspectives that is important for the recognition of transformative research opportunities, but also serves to increase the pool of students for higher education (Challenge 3). In addition, greater diversity can promote increased engagement with the international research community and the exchange of ideas at the innovation and early-diffusion stage. Finally, novel approaches to proposal review (Recommendation 4) have the potential to foster transformative research and thus to ultimately address Challenges 1, 2, and 4.