Federally Funding Geoscience

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Washington, D.C. – Geoscientists working in academia and industry shared their research with policy makers in an effort to highlight the societal and economic benefits of federal investment in geoscience research.

Representative Mike Honda, a Democrat from Northern California who is the ranking member of the subcommittee that funds many science agencies, hosted the briefing on Capitol Hill on September 17, and American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America and American Geosciences Institute, sponsored the reception, which included various geoscience societies and agencies. NASA, NSF, USGS and NOAA hosted booths illustrating the diversity of federal geoscience programs. Guest speakers included an engineer, a Google employee and two professors.

Honda quickly reminded his audience of his former life as a science teacher when he paused after introducing himself, expecting a chorus of, “Good morning, Mr. Honda,” in return. Having got the civilities out of the way, he bemoaned some of his fellow congressional members’ lack of financial support for geoscience and spoke of the importance of including geoscientists in the process of drafting policies. He pointed to “draconian” cuts to geoscience research at NSF and NASA in the House Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill.

Honda thanked his staffers, including geoscientists on congressional fellowships, for pushing legislation focused on reducing land-based marine debris. He cited numerous environmental issues, including fire storms, droughts and floods, and evoked the drama of the movie, “San Andreas,” (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015) quipping, “It’s true, man.”

Honda asked geoscientists to take a more proactive role in reaching out to the public about their research, and emphasized the need to expose young students to science. “I want them to grow up with it,” Honda said.

Representative Honda addressing the briefing attendees. Credit: Kasey White.

Representative Honda addressing the briefing attendees. Credit: Kasey White.

Jenifer Austin, manager of the Google Oceans Program, shared “Google Cardboard,” a goggle-like contraption that can turn a smartphone into an underwater telescope, and spoke of its warm reception in classrooms. Students peering into the 3-D lenses of the cardboard could take a virtual tour of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, all while sitting at a desk, she said.

The Google Oceans Program relied on the federally-funded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for oceanic data, Austin said. In addition to education, the program also aids maritime activity, fisheries management, law enforcement and research. For instance, Google’s immense capacity for cloud storage allows the program to support ocean research by recording sea surface temperatures over time to pinpoint long-term changes.

Noah Diffenbaugh, an earth science professor at Stanford University, spoke about the California drought and its connection to climate change. Diffenbaugh shared data showing an upward trend in global temperatures and said that droughts are twice as likely to occur in warmer years with low precipitation as colder years with low precipitation.

Diffenbaugh recalled a 27-year-old cover of Discover Magazine, which predicted that California’s snowpack would diminish in response to global warming, and that is exactly what has happened, he said.

Joseph Dwyer, a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire, talked about science that is still nascent. Atmospheric science, in particular, may take place relatively close to Earth, but is mostly a mystery, he said. Researchers discovered that sprites, or massive lightning flashes above thunderstorm clouds, can extend over a distance equivalent to around 10 Earth moons in the 1990s, and are actively working to better understand smaller scale everyday events, like how lightning builds up in thunderstorms, Dwyer said.

Funding academic research not only helps answer pressing scientific questions, it can largely affect higher scientific education. Cynthia Dinwiddie, a principle engineer at Southwest Research Institute, talked about the importance of funding geoscience education to prepare people for the workforce.

Dinwiddie works on safe ways to dispose nuclear waste, as well more esoteric projects like determining geophysical analogues to Mars and researching cold regions. She credited federal funding for helping her achieve her education and career goals.

Despite looming cuts to the geoscience budget, the reception and briefing maintained a lively atmosphere, likely enhanced by the vibrant images of vast oceans, towering mountains and endless stars posted to booth walls.

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