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Prof. Dawn Wright Discusses the National Research Council Report “Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences”

December 21, 2010

I recently interviewed Dawn Wright, professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University, who served on the National Research Council’s Committee on Strategic Direction for the Geographic Sciences in the Next Decade.   The Committee produced the report “Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences“, which identifies the need to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment.

Matt Artz: How did you first get involved with the Committee on Strategic Direction for the Geographic Sciences in the Next Decade?

Dawn Wright: There is a great article in the fall issue of ArcNews by Keith Clarke of University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) that explains the whole National Academy of Sciences (NAS) process very nicely.  As with other committee members, I was contacted by the NAS to see if I would be willing to serve on the committee. Committee members are nominated by the scientific community based on their expertise, experience, and expected ability to contribute to the completion of the statement of task. And then willing nominees are reviewed and approved at several levels within the NAS, including at several times for conflict of interest. The NAS seeks committee members with a broad range of expertise and perspectives so that points of view are reasonably balanced and the committee can thus carry out its charge in an objective and credible way. I was very honored to have been asked to bring my physical geography and GIScience expertise to bear along with the other committee members, whose expertise ranged from cultural and political geography, to satellite remote sensing education, urban geography,  global economic restructuring, feminist geography, biogeography, fluvial geomorphology, political ecology, climate change adaptation, land use change, geography of Africa, China, and more. It was a wonderful experience working with and learning from these top-notch geographers.

Artz: What the process of developing the report like?  With so many bright people on the committee, and even more consulted for input, was it a difficult process to reach a consensus and finalize the report?

Wright: It was difficult from the standpoint of having so much input to consider and sift through, but I did not find the process of reaching consensus and finalizing the report to be difficult, due to the professionalism and collegiality of the committee and the NAS staff. It was a long process to be sure and included several meetings where a large number of prominent speakers gave us a plethora of information and perspectives, the community submitted public comments over the web, and we poured into the scientific literature, including past NAS report and other materials. The committee also invited seven prominent geographers representing many parts of the geographical sciences to present their ideas on the committee’s charge at a panel session at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the AAG. We held several closed meetings where we brainstormed, deliberated, reached consensus, and continued discussions over the Internet.

Prof. Dawn Wright.

Artz: Who was the intended audience for the report, and how did you expect them to use the report?

Wright: As with other NAS reports, this one was sponsored by several agencies who thought this an opportune time to map out a direction for the geographical sciences. It’s important to keep in mind though that although agencies and organizations request and sponsor a report, they have absolutely no control over how the study is conducted once our committee charge (statement of task) and our budget are finalized. As with the prior question, we gather information from many sources and many public meetings, but also deliberate in many private meetings so as to avoid the influence of sponsors or special interest groups.

Our report was sponsored by:

  • The National Geographic Society (NGS)* is hoping to use the report to help them communicate to policymakers, business, and civic leaders what geography is and why it is important. Geographic education and public understanding of geography are particularly important to them.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF)* sees this report as an opportunity for the geographical sciences to do some strategic planning.  They want to use the report as useful guidance and direction on how geographers, working with people in other fields, can help to answer societally relevant questions where the geographical sciences can make the most significant contributions, with appeal to both the broader geographical sciences community and the broader academic research community.  They also want to use the report to determine the best funding investments, influence contributions in other fields, and to communicate the geographical perspective, tools, and methods to other parts of NSF.
  • The US Geological Survey* would like to use the report clearly identify the role of geographical sciences in the midst of pressing interdisciplinary issues, particularly given the seven science areas of the USGS’ new Science Strategy (ecosystems, water census, hazards and risk assessment, energy and minerals, climate, environment and human health, and new methods of investigation and discovery). They would like to use the report to help the Geography Discipline at USGS modify its own strategic directions and to help address the seven science areas in their science plan. They would also like to use the report to help interface between USGS scientists and their stakeholders.
  • The Association of American Geographers (AAG) would like to use the report to document the advances of geographical sciences in the last ten years in order to provide ammunition when they are asked to help identify what geography does. At the same time they want to use the report as a roadmap (pardon the pun) to the future, using the important issues identified in the report to increase the recently-renewed interest in geography nationwide, and worldwide. For example, Professor Carol Harden of the University of Tennessee, while president of the AAG at the time the report came out wrote to the AAG membership: “This report is intended for geographers, and also for policymakers, journalists, scholars and citizens beyond geography. I would add deans, provosts, parents, students, and employers to the list.”

We are indeed trying to get these into the hands of department chairs and graduate students in geography and allied disciplines who will be proposing and doing the next big research projects in the geographical sciences. This report is strategic for them in that it provides some tractable research questions where using the geographical perspective in answering the questions will bring the most effective and powerful solutions. In other words, many of the questions in the report will make great dissertation topics! For industry, I think this is important as well because their research groups or “think tanks” can use the report in the same way.

Artz: The need to better understand and respond to environmental change is a big theme in the report.  Are there some simple, practical things the geospatial community can do in the short term to move this agenda forward?

Wright: I think in the short term just knowing about the report and getting it in the hands of people is one big way. Obtain the entire report. You can read it online or order your own copy. Many people also find the executive summary and “report in brief” to be more helpful. Both of these list the main research questions and are available for free. And below I mention some teaching resources in the works.

Artz: Sustainability is another big theme in the report.  Are we doing a good job getting the word out about the importance of sustainability?  Do you think the average person now understands what the word “sustainability” means?

Wright: Yes on both counts. I think we are doing a fairly good job right now about communicating what sustainability means. For example, many of our college campuses are winning awards for “sustainability” which is great to see. Students are getting involved with all manner of recycling projects and voting to use their student fees to purchase renewable energy for their campuses (and at our university, students actually generate and return electricity to the campus grid by riding specially-equipped exercise bicycles in our recreation center!). We hear more and more about green building practices, administrative policies, transportation policies, campus operations, and investment priorities that are helping us to conserve, restore, and be efficient.

But the continuing challenge will be to show the way toward achieving sustainability and to analyze and manage our lives in the face of population pressures, growing socio-economic disparities, and human-induced environmental degradation. As such many are concerned with solidifying the concept of sustainability into a sustainability science that will indeed help to show the way. So this is why so many of our strategic questions in the report are “hows:”

  • How (and where) will 10 billion people live?
  • How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
  • How does where we live affect our health?

Artz: The report identifies the need to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment.  It seems to me that the geospatial community, although certainly not perfect, has already made some significant progress here.  What can advocates of other technologies learn from the geospatial community?

Wright: I think our geographical community’s willingness to work outside of our own disciplinary boxes, which seems to comes naturally to us, is a major teaching point. For instance, we are willing to work with computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, and policy makers. I think we have a very collegial, inclusive community with a passion for making a societal contributions, and ultimately for helping people. This includes academics who are not just concerned with publishing ultra-specialized articles that a small group of like-minded scholars will read, but publishing articles, and also decision-support tools and datasets that have a broader societal impact that can be leveraged beyond what the original research project called for. For example, a research project may identify rates of surface water discharge in a basic research project that is just trying to understand how the Earth works in that location. But a local watershed council can take those results to understand how their watershed is impacted by a municipal landfill or by various other land use practices.

Artz: What has been the impact of the report, both in general, and in the geographical sciences community?

Wright: Thus far the report appears to have garnered the biggest response from the AAG, which is excellent news. There will be a special forum issue published in the journal the Professional Geographer, where various geographers have been chosen to write reactions pieces to it. In addition, the AAG put out a call this summer for authors and developers to create a multimedia educational Web site as a companion to the report to help broaden the report’s impact. The Web site will include educational resources and teaching strategies for each of the 11 strategic directions in the report. Learn more.

The chairman of our committee, Alec Murphy of the University of Oregon, has also given a presentation about the report in China, which we’ve heard was extremely well-received. I think there are other means of outreach being planned by the NAS and the National Geographic, and we certainly appreciate Esri’s interest by way of this interview and prior to that Michael Gould’s Fall 2010 ArcUser article (http://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/1010/geochallenges.html) and your GISandScience.com blog post earlier in the year (http://bit.ly/d4uaVJ).

Sometimes it takes a while for these NRC reports to gain momentum for maximum impact, especially if the full release occurs in the summer while people are away. But given that this report is forward looking, 20 years into the future, there is plenty of time, and it looks as though there are some terrific efforts underway.

Artz: Are any plans by the Committee to periodically review the status of the strategic directions identified in the report the report?

Wright: There I would have to defer to the NRC staff who helped commission the committee and it’s work. Our committee for this report is not a long-term standing committee such as the Mapping Sciences Committee described by Keith last month.  We were convened expressly for the purpose of completing our statement of task over a short 2-year span and producing this report, and our work is finished now.  So as just a member of the committee I do not know of any plans to periodically review the strategic directions that we outlined. It has been said that the NRC committee that produced the book “Rediscovering Geography,” which came out in 1997, was a forerunner of sorts to our committee in many ways.

Dawn Wright is a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University. She holds an M.S. in Oceanography from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in physical geography and marine geology from UCSB. She joined the faculty of Oregon State in 1995. Wright’s most recent research geographic information science, marine geography, benthic terrain and habitat characterization, and the processing and interpretation of high-resolution bathymetry, and ocean informatics. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is beginning her second term as a member of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council within the National Academy of Sciences.

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