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Spring 2005
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers

An "NIH of Geographic Research"?

Doug RichardsonI have long admired the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as an exemplar of how high-quality research can be conducted in a government setting, leading to major advances in science that ultimately enable us to better understand and meet real needs of people and society. What if there existed somewhere in the federal government something akin to an "NIH of geographic research"? Of course, the enormous scale of NIH's funding for basic biomedical research within the federal government would not be realistic for many years, if ever, for geography and GIScience. But the concept of a major federal institute of geographic research, staffed internally by thousands of first-rate scientists focused on fundamental research questions at the frontiers of geographic science, is one that is long overdue, and which could play an unprecedented role in enabling us to better understand and address critical needs of our world.

NIH has long been the leading generator of basic research in medical science internationally and has done so through massive programs of both intramural and extramural research funding. Thus, not only does NIH conduct basic research internally within its 20 major research institutes, but it also integrates and greatly extends this with substantial extramural research grant funding to university and private sector research institutes. Its emphasis on generating real-world applications through basic research is one that deserves more attention in geography and GIScience.

The fundamental questions and large research programs of the type that might be undertaken by an "NIH of geographic research" would also help engender team and collaborative research capabilities much needed in GIScience if we are to address increasingly complex human/natural systems in meaningful ways. Another significant outcome of the intramural/extramural model of research at NIH has been the synergistic interaction and coordination of basic science research agendas among top researchers in federal, university and private research centers. In geography, these intersectoral linkages are poorly developed to the detriment of research progress across all sectors.

On a personal note, I have often been struck by contrast between the artificially fractured sectoral divisions in geography and the refreshing (and enjoyable) interaction of top scientists from multiple sectors in biomedical research. My wife and I frequently hosted social gatherings at our home in Washington, D.C., for my late father-in-law (an NIH biochemist who had received the Nobel Prize), and the guests invariably included leading medical researchers from federal agencies, private research firms, universities, and international institutes. Nobody at those gatherings cared which sector a researcher worked in; what mattered was whether they knew what they were talking about. Perhaps geography could learn a bit from the biochemists in this regard as well.

A few federal agencies, such as NASA, NOAA, USGS, and DOE, do carry out some geographic research internally at a very high level, and Tom Wilbanks' long and substantive contributions at the Department of Energy are an excellent case in point. The National Science Foundation (NSF), of course, also plays a critical role in funding external geographic research and in helping to foster cross disciplinary programs, and we are fortunate to have strong leadership for geography and GIScience in place at NSF. Unlike the NIH, however, the NSF does not conduct large-scale research itself.

Perhaps the one existing federal agency with the greatest potential for developing a major integrated intramural/extramural geography and GIScience research capability would be the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Though a relatively small agency, geography has been assuming a more central role in the U.S. Geological Survey, and the prospects for its expansion are excellent were this to become a management priority, given geography's strong growth trajectory in society, government, and the university.

Geographic Research at the USGS

With this potential in mind, the AAG has been working closely with the USGS to help strengthen geography and GIScience research within the agency. The AAG has recently sponsored several special high-level meetings together with the USGS, including one in January 2005 dubbed the "USGS Geography Summit" at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. USGS Director Chip Groat, Barb Ryan, and I opened the three-day meeting, which included 50 USGS geography division senior staff from across the country, during which we addressed the adoption and implementation of a new USGS 10-year science plan. It was a very productive meeting, with good progress made toward the realignment of geography at the USGS around a research focus and adoption of a proposed new geography science plan by those who will ultimately have to implement this vision. The AAG has also participated in helping to shape and revise the USGS 10-year science plan in several other venues, including recent National Research Council panel reviews of the science plan.

This past September the AAG also hosted jointly with USGS the AAG/USGS Geography Land Remote Sensing Workshop, a gathering of 35 leading geography remote-sensing experts from the university, government, and private sectors. This two-day meeting addressed the needs for continuity and advancement of Landsat and related geography/ecosystem monitoring remote sensing programs within the USGS and the government at large, and an AAG publication with recommendations on this issue is forthcoming in May.

Although the vision of an "NIH of geographic research" is certainly far from a reality today, and it is not clear exactly where within the federal government a strong geographic research capability might ultimately develop, I am convinced that the need is sufficiently compelling that it will occur somewhere. With prescient leadership at the USGS, and support from the AAG, Esri, and others, might we see a greatly expanded federal basic research program for geography and GIScience in the future at the "U.S. Geographical Survey"?

Doug Richardson

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