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Photo of Dr. France A. Córdova

Photo by NSF/
Stephen Voss

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


"Union Agency Lecture"
Before the
American Geophysical Union
San Francisco, CA

December 15, 2015

[Slide #1: Title slide: Investing in Earth Sciences -- Impacting Humanity]

Thank you, Margaret (AGU President Margaret Leinen), for that warm introduction. It is a great honor to be here and have this opportunity to give the "Union Agency Lecture" before the American Geophysical Union, which is a critically important part of our nation's scientific community.

Let me also say it is an honor and a challenge to follow Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk, our previous speakers. Their contributions to innovation in the last few years have been revolutionary and impactful. With different approaches, the National Science Foundation's investments have had similar impacts on our economy and quality of life. For more than six decades, NSF has helped scientists chase the dreams and visions that have led to today's discoveries and innovations. What is it that NSF brings to the discipline of geo-sciences?

And to be clear, within that term, I include atmospheric sciences, earth sciences, ocean sciences and polar programs.

NSF accounts for nearly two-thirds of the total federal funding for basic geoscience research conducted at U.S. academic institutions.

In a typical year, we fund about 1,700 awards in support of geoscience research and support nearly 17,300 geoscience researchers as well as 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

These geoscientists work in sometimes unpredictable environments to evaluate how the atmosphere, poles, oceans, land, water and ice cover respond to and influence changes in the Earth's eco-systems, as well as how the sun and other space-based phenomena affect the environment.

We need to continue to build the knowledge base that really allows us to understand what makes our planet "tick."

Change is the one constant in the lives of geoscientists, who are trying to help us understand the dynamics of the planet that supports us. But we also have to understand that the change is not linear and it's not monolithic. There are frequent disruptive "surprises."

For geoscientists, there are breakthrough discoveries that inspire us and illuminate our human condition, and there are also practical applications that help improve the lives of millions, if not billions, of the world's people.

[Slide #2: NSF investments in geosciences have led to far-reaching discoveries and worldwide impacts]

One great advantage geoscientists have today over those of just a few decades ago is that they have extraordinary new instruments to aid their research.

NSF offers new facilities, platforms, capabilities, networks, and deployed assets literally around the world that provide a deeper understanding of how and why the planet functions as it does.

Pictured above are a few of those capabilities -- the National IceCore Laboratory supports research in understanding ice sheets and glaciers.

EarthScope is a continental-scale geophysical instrument array that provides 3-D images of the lithosphere and monitors plate movements with GPS stations.

Research at our Critical Zone Observatories will improve our understanding of the thin veneer of Earth that extends from the top of the vegetation to the base of weathered bedrock, which provides most of the ecosystem services upon which human societies depend.

The NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center produces highly accurate predictions of natural disasters and weather patterns through a series of complex algorithms that analyze large sets of data.

Firefly -- is a small, student-built satellite that will circle the earth, catching glimpses of lightning strikes, and help analyze the electromagnetic radiation that accompany such strikes.

The International Ocean Discovery Program helps researchers explore the Earth's structure beneath the seafloor.

NSF's Academic Research Fleet now includes the Research Vessel Sikuliaq, which is a unique world-class platform that will help us understand how the Arctic is changing and why it's changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet. I was pleased to board the Sikuliaq this June as it readied to voyage from Seward, Alaska.

[Slide #3: NSF's five GEO priorities]

Regarding our future funding outlook, I thought it would be instructive to share with you the five guiding priorities we are pursuing in the area of GEO-sciences.

Number one, how can we better understand and predict the changing environment?

Number two, how can we prepare for extreme events, hazards and improve resilience?

Number three, how can we protect and sustain life?

Number four, how can we achieve thrivability for all? A thrivable world is one where humans can live productive and fulfilling lives going forward.

Number five, how can we engage, inspire and energize human capital and capabilities for the future?

[Slide #4: Understanding and predicting our changing environment]

Central to the priority of understanding and predicting the changing environment is our Ocean Observatories Initiative. In which we're literally "instrumenting" the world's oceans with new capabilities that will transform our understanding of oceans through cyber-enabled programs. We'll be looking at the dynamics of coastal processes, continental shelves, and air-sea interfaces.

We have a long history of supporting ocean-related research.

NSF was recently a participant in the Our Oceans Conference 2015 in Chile. There, the OOI commissioning was cited by Secretary of State John Kerry.

We also reported on progress in the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project.

It is inspiring to see so many nations taking pro-active steps to protect the health of our planet's oceans, including issues such as ocean acidification. NSF will continue to fund further research into understanding this critically important part of our global ecosystem.

We'll be investigating what happens with biomass in the ocean, the role of bacteria, phytoplankton, and larger animals. And we'll be looking into the fundamental biophysical processes operating beneath the seafloor.

We're instrumenting the ocean sea floor as well as the column and the surface to provide for the first time a three-dimensional -- 24/7 -- view of the metabolism of the Earth's ocean.

[Slide #5: Preparing for extreme events and hazards]

Let me now move to how we prepare for extreme events and hazards, both natural and man-made, and how we improve our resilience in dealing with these events. If you think about it, nature is the toughest peer reviewer out there.

So we need to continue to develop our predictive capabilities and then compare and contrast those with what nature actually is telling us. When those two vectors align, we'll really know we're making progress.

NSF supports GEO research that covers the gamut, from space weather events to droughts and floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, other severe weather and wildfires.

For example, research funded by NSF at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and universities was instrumental in the development of Doppler radar, which regularly enhances the lives of millions of Americans through improved weather forecasting.

Let me note that the photo on the upper right showing the devastating path of a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, taken by our GEO Directorate leader, Roger Wakimoto, as he was arriving on scene to witness the destruction first-hand.

And we recently announced the launch of a new effort called the Prediction of and Resilience against Extreme EVENTS -- or PREEVENTS -- which is one of the successors to the Hazards SEES program.

PREEVENTS is designed to enhance understanding of the fundamental processes underlying natural hazards and extreme events; improve models of natural hazards, extreme events, and their impacts on natural, social, and economic systems; and enable development of new tools to enhance societal preparedness and resilience against such impacts.

Through our GEO Directorate, we supported more than 70 Rapid Response Research -- you know it as RAPID -- awards totaling more than $9 million in connection with the Horizon oil spill.

Ships engaged by those awards spent more than 220 days at sea investigating the oil spill and providing some of the most definitive evaluations of the extent of the oil plume, the composition of the oil mixture, and what eventually happened with the plume.

Once again -- our GEO efforts are focused both on investing in earth sciences that yield real-world impacts on humanity.

[Slide #6: Protecting and sustaining life]

Protecting and sustaining life -- whether of the human, animal or vegetative kind -- is obviously a key priority of NSF.

Whether it's the study of a major earthquake in Nepal, or the impact of a tsunami, or the results of increasing ocean acidification on coral life, or the sudden volcanic eruption that destroys dozens of homes -- the geosciences provide the growing body of knowledge explaining why the Earth acts the way it does and how human beings can learn to live more safely and productively upon it.

The implications are clear -- the more we know about the geo-scientific forces at work in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and in the Earth itself, the more we can do to protect and sustain life on our planet.

We need to focus on resiliency. We need to educate people about what to do when faced with imminent forces of nature. Some years ago, NSF funded studies in the social and behavioral area that showed that warnings about impending hurricanes produced unexpected results.

The studies showed that when authorities advised populations under threat of an upcoming hurricane, they typically did not take the warnings at face value. Most people would move inland, all right -- but they generally travelled only about half the distance advised.

Such research is related to GEO because if we are taking measures to protect human life, we obviously have to take into account human behavior.

This is why NSF has been placing increased emphasis on inter-disciplinary research that draws on the expertise of different fields, including the social and behavioral sciences.

Similarly, NSF invests in engineering studies in building construction for areas such as earthquake zones, coast lines, and volcanic regions.

The more we know about how buildings of different construction fare over time in these environments, the more we can do to protect people from the threats they may face.

[Slide #7: Moving from sustainability to "thrivability]

The U.S. has a long history of investment in and deployment of technological advances derived from basic research facilitated by NSF.

I know that one of the controversial developments of the last few decades is the emergence of hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking" -- as a major energy source for the U.S.

There is no doubt that this technological breakthrough has had an impact. Our natural gas production has climbed, making the U.S. one of the world's leading producers of this new energy resource.

Oil production has rebounded, leading to lower prices at the gasoline pump. And the new abundance of these fuels has reduced the nation's dependence on coal.

I raise the fracking phenomenon because we made a GEO award of $50,000 more than three decades ago in a study to test the hypothesis that fracturing rocks by hydraulic pressure might free up the petrochemicals located within those rocks. This award proved to be one of the initial steps that led to the fracking revolution.

Now, new technologies can have both upside and downside impacts. Today, we are supporting the development of new tools and techniques that will monitor the subsurface environment during fracking to help ensure it is done in an environmentally responsible way.

Our NSF portfolio evolves with time, based on new knowledge. For example, the SEED program has evolved into a FY16 priority called INFEWS, an acronym for Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems.

Growing U.S. and global populations, extensive changes in land use, and increasing geographic and seasonal variability in precipitation patterns are placing ever-increasing stresses on the critical resources of food, energy and water.

This is a major issue for many areas of our country, as has been seen in recent years in the drought-parched regions of California and other southwestern states. But critical challenges are emerging in virtually every region.

INFEWS funds interdisciplinary research to tackle these challenges, allowing us to better understand these interconnected substances, and design and model solutions to address the variety of urgent natural, social, and human-built factors involved in their production and use.

Water sustainability is one of the most urgent challenges facing the world today, and NSF is taking a lead role in understanding the hydrological systems of ensuring an adequate supply and quality of water to people in different climates and landscapes.

This is intimately linked to food production, and both require energy and deliver energy. Food, Energy, Water: other agencies focus on one or two of these. NSF will be the first to focus on the nexus -- the dependent relationship of all three -- and infuse our approach with computer simulation and modeling.

[Slide #8: Inspiring human capital and capabilities for the future]

The final priority is human capital: How can we engage, inspire and energize human potential and capabilities?

Our investments in the improvement of STEM learning, teaching, and workforce development will help ensure that the scientific community has the intellectual wherewithal to carry out basic research in the future.

NSF always keeps in the forefront of its planning the need to develop future talent for the continued leadership of U.S. science, engineering and technology.

GEO offers young students who are fascinated with the natural world -- from exploration of fossils in the field to extremophiles in the ocean -- there are abundant opportunities for growth and discovery.

In the photos on the slide, we see a Graduate Research Fellow using GPS receivers to monitor bedrock landslides in Norway and another GRF working with Chilean glaciologists to monitor a glacier in the Chilean Andes.

[Slide #9: Director's Priority: Greater diversity in geosciences]

Which leads us to what I have called a FY16 "The Director's Priority" known as INCLUDES.

INCLUDES is an integrated, national initiative to increase the preparation, participation, advancement, and potential contributions of those who have been traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented in the STEM enterprise. It will build on and amplify NSF's current portfolio in broadening participation.

INCLUDES is about adopting special approaches -- such as system engineering approaches or collective action approaches, and leveraging entities like the internet and museums that reach millions -- to scale up the more localized engagement and outreach efforts we see in abundance, but which have only local impact.

We hope that by adopting new approaches to the challenge of inclusion we can increase more rapidly, and retain more effectively, those who have been left out of science, or dropped out of science.

INCLUDES will enlarge the portfolio of the science and engineering centers NSF funds, its EPSCOR program, and eventually all of the major programs NSF invests in.

It will be a goal, together with research and science education, that is a value of NSF. Because science is too wonderful for it to be exclusive, and too important to leave anyone out.

[Slide #10: Investing in Earth Sciences -- Impacting Humanity]

As I wind down my prepared remarks, I want to underscore that NSF seeks to enable discoveries and breakthroughs. NSF is committed to working with you -- and your institutions -- in continuing to champion scientific research -- and especially fundamental scientific research -- in GEO-related sciences.

This is a tough time for Geosciences on the Hill. Some would challenge its goal to understand our planet as not of the highest priority for the science agencies. Some would find a hypothetical ocean on a distant moon of more interest than our own ocean, whose mysteries have barely been tapped.

The Earth, with its life-preserving yet tenuous atmosphere, and ocean depths replete with as yet undiscovered species that may point to our own evolution; the Earth with its magnetic field that interacts with a complex solar wind and is subject to solar flares; the Earth that is subject to natural disasters that are unpredictable in their fury; the Earth that is undergoing longer-term changes that would affect the habitats of all living creatures, including us.

This is the Earth that is not a high priority for investigation, for discovery? It is the only pale blue dot that we know of, and it is ours to better understand and care for. It is your challenge as scientists to ride this questioning tide with your best tools -- your quest for truth, your application of the scientific method to increase our knowledge about our planet; and your ability to communicate in all directions the beauty, the value, the importance of the geosciences.