Transforming Earth Science Research

In 2011, the National Science Foundation launched a project called EarthCube, pooling the work of data scientists and cyber scientists to make a comprehensive, holistic pool of earth, air and water data – easy to access and update – allowing the geoscience community to address the most challenging research questions about understanding and predicting the earth system. EarthCube has serious potential to transform how the Earth science research is conducted, and how it is taught in schools and universities.

Knowinnovation stewarded the project by facilitating its major meetings, which involved over 200 people from the geo-science community, about a hundred of them present at the meeting venue, and the rest connected virtually. At the first event, which took place in November of 2011, KI worked closely with the NSF to chart the course for the 4-day event. When we met with them to plan for the second workshop last June, the NSF emphasized that they didn’t want to be in charge, that EarthCube – both the project and the meeting – should be community driven.

“This is a new concept for the NSF and the community,” said Cliff Jacobs, Senior Advisor for the Geosciences Directorate at the NSF. “Traditionally the community response to announcements of opportunities and solicitations for proposals is to answer the questions in the solicitation, [so] the NSF is driving the research questions. With EarthCube, the community is requested to control the agenda, and to organize itself to affect solutions.”

Typically when KI runs a meeting, we meet with the “client” in the evening, to check in and be sure the activities are producing the right kind of output: provoking good questions and useful conversations. Given the NSF’s desire for this to be community-driven, we suggested letting the representatives of the EarthCube projects steer the meeting. The NSF agreed enthusiastically. We didn’t ignore the NSF – one of our facilitators met with them each evening – but the rest of our team met with the PIs from the 9 funded projects at the end of each day. We asked for their feedback on the activities and did a check-in to be sure we were heading in a direction that was useful to them. There were at least 25 people at each debrief; much more participation than we expected.

“An essential element KI added to running the community-driven meeting was a set of experience-based techniques to allow the community to converge on ideas,” said Jacobs. “That might have been difficult for them to reach a similar point of consensus without this guidance.”

It’s not an easy task for a funding authority to step away from control. The NSF’s willingness to let the current leaders of the community suggest the next day’s activities is a example of how the NSF is serious about empowering the community.

Bob Hazen, from George Mason University and the Deep Carbon Observatory, is one of the research scientists who came to a community meeting as a prospective user. He talked about his vision for the project:

A decade or two from now, I’ll ask my computer to call up the EarthCube 4-D holographic projection of the Mesoproterozoic distribution of continents. Then I can add layers: highlight collisional orogenic belts from that time interval; show the localities of cobalt and molybdenum deposits; add Mesoproterozoic volcanism and evidence for glaciation. Then, where are microbial fossils of that age? I can ask for a list of biomolecules that incorporate cobalt and ask how deeply rooted those enzymes are in microbial phylogenies.

When I enter the lecture hall, I’ll call up the 20-foot diameter EarthCube hologram for my lecture on plate tectonics. I’ll ask the computer to play a view of Earth’s plates back in time. Returning to the modern globe, I’ll show the Atlantic ocean floor topography, paleomagnetic data, and distributions of earthquakes and volcanoes. I’ll also enlarge the Juan de Fuca plate and the Pacific northwest, and then call up a dynamic cross section showing the ridge, subduction zone and consequent volcanism, as well as the distribution of deep subsurface microbial communities color coded by their metabolic strategies.

Hazen believes EarthCube 4-D can become the single most significant engine of discovery and learning in the Earth sciences. Unlike billion-dollar telescopes, oceanographic vessels, or synchrotrons, EarthCube could be used by many thousands of scientists and educators around the world, simultaneously.

The NSF’s Geosciences Directorate currently funds about 14,000 people – including earth, ocean, atmospheric and geospace scientists – who are the primary members of the community. The potential community of geosciences is even larger. And EarthCube is open to all interested participants and observers. More than 1,120 people joined as members of the network that was used to share documents and ideas and to carry on the conversation.

Know Further: More about the EarthCube project, guidance for the EarthCube community and additional guidance for EAGERS.