2006 GSA Presidential Address
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The Landscape of the Geosciences
Stephen G. Wells
Should a society that is 118 years old and the first enduring geosciences professional association in America continue along a path whose boundaries have not changed significantly for decades? This question is posed in the context of dramatic worldwide social, economic, environmental, and political change. Our Society's viability requires that we step back to examine the landscape of our profession in the context of dynamic global change. In 2005, T. L. Freidman recognized that the world is "flattening," that the global competitive playing field is leveling at a remarkable rate. How does this relate to GSA? As geoscientists, we have the ability to think in significantly different time and spatial scales. How might we use that ability to advance our profession and Society? Institutions, businesses, and nations face changes that are occurring at such high rates that some entities may not be able to survive. In light of this, perhaps the key challenge for GSA is whether to restructure in a manner that capitalizes on geoscientists' unique knowledge base, promotes and supports the highest level of creativity, and ensures flexibility to absorb these changes. To initiate our dialogue, I offer some key questions.
First, are we appropriately organized to address emerging domains of interdisciplinary research and integrative sciences? Numerous driving forces are leading to rapid integration of scientific disciplines. As an example, complex sets of geologic, hydrologic, and biologic conditions and interactions give rise to Earth system services1 that sustain terrestrial landscapes and support human lives. Our Society should foster this integrated research.
Second, will traditional research areas in the geosciences continue to be relevant to society, or will geosciences be marginalized as other scientific disciplines integrate to address global issues? Questions related to clean water and air, storage and disposal of human waste, and protection of diverse species are primary. How do increasing human demands on Earth system services impact the magnitude, frequency, and extent of processes operating on the Earth's surface? Whether these effects constitute a "State of Fear" or an "Inconvenient Truth," our understanding of geologic time and Earth history are critical to addressing the role of human activity within a naturally varying system. To remain relevant, GSA must encourage research that focuses on distinguishing natural from human-induced changes and share these results with the public in responsible forums.
Third, in a flattening world, how will the geosciences maintain leadership in the elegant and complex process of applying spatial thinking to problem solving and educating the next generation? In a world of rapid transformation, the spatial thinking and problem solving of geologic field training are critical to successful and realistic modeling, advanced computation, and visualization within the geosciences. Our support for educational training and problem solving in the field must not waiver, however, and our Society also must move forward to implement the new and exciting technologies of visualization at professional meetings in support of creative presentations. Like the field of geography, geologists should work to promote spatial thinking through the geosciences as a requirement for educational systems in the U.S. GSA's capacity to lead in advancing the geosciences, fulfill our membership's professional growth needs, and serve humankind during the next 100 years requires all of us to expand and continue this dialogue on structuring the Society for future generations.
1 Earth system services is defined by the National Academy of Sciences Board of Earth Sciences and Resources as biogeochemical and hydrogeologic states and flows that give rise to and sustain the biosphere — the thin layer of the Earth system in which life can exist (2004, unpublished).