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Science That Moves With Society
Dr. Suzette Kimball
What are your priorities?

I get that question a lot, especially on Capitol Hill. In fact, I recently found myself, as director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in an oversight hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, discussing the directions my organization is taking. I was asked questions about, among other things, whether our priorities, as reflected in our budget, were in line with our core mission.

What is the core mission of an Earth science agency, especially one like the USGS that conducts work in just about every facet of hydrology, geology, biology and geography?

I was then asked questions, from both sides of the aisle, about earthquake and landslide early warning, minerals assessments, water quality, wildlife management, Asian carp, sea level rise, and a variety of other things.

So, the senators really answered that priority question for me: Our priorities are wherever the world’s greatest needs intersect with our ability to address them. Our mission is the common threads, woven through all aspects of Earth science, of protecting life, sustaining health and ensuring prosperity.

Our country is facing some big questions. How are we going to manage drought in California, Texas and the Southwest in general, or the next Flint-like potable water crisis? More and more people are living in places prone to earthquakes, hurricanes and other hazards—how can they prepare for and recover from these dangers faster? Can the U.S. keep pace with the increasingly competitive global minerals market? Diseases like Zika are costing lives, and invaders like zebra mussels are costing livelihoods; how do we get ahead of these threats? And where are we going to get the tools that show us where these problems and opportunities exist and how they are changing?

This is an intimidating list. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we are experiencing an explosion in technological and scientific abilities. At the USGS, we’re exploring the use of UAVs for remote stream measurement, landslide sensors that can detect the slightest movement of earth, minerals assessments of asteroids, environmental DNA to identify the presence of invasive species even before they’re captured, and 3D elevation data that could revolutionize the value of mapping.

These sorts of developments can drive huge gains in public safety, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, electronics and more. And they’re happening in conjunction with an upheaval in communications technology and behavior—almost 70 percent of Americans own a smartphone (and that percentage is growing), and the ways they can gather, use and share scientific data, making research and integration effective and ubiquitous, weren’t possible even 10 years ago.

Scientists, therefore, are presented with great challenges by these new tools and methods.

First, the ease with which information is created, shared and proliferated can be perilous—we must exercise unprecedented levels of thoughtfulness about the quality and the implications of the data we produce. We must find ways to meet expectations of speed and relevance while still providing reliable, actionable information.

Second—and this challenge is a huge opportunity—these technologies allow for an unprecedented cadre of citizen scientists; for paths by which the general public can gather data and get involved in science in new and unforeseen ways. This is a great foundation for strengthening the role of science as a guide for policy.

The timing of these developments couldn’t be better. Look back at those big questions and consider the growing anxiety about food security, water supply, energy development and more. We need all the help we can get, and we can get that help by pushing the innovation of newer, faster, better ways to understand our changing planet, its changing populations, and our ability to engage more of those populations in problem solving.

I know what failing to connect relevant science to people looks like. I’ve often had a new researcher tell me about her exciting, important ideas, and then tell me that everywhere she turns for support, she’s told: “Great idea, but our money is locked up in these other projects”—projects that I know have stayed the same for 15 or 20 years.

Science that actually meets humanity’s needs isn’t monolithic. It doesn’t stay the same. It responds to evolving challenges, and it’s relevant to evolving culture. That includes politics.

As scientists, we have to avoid becoming political agents, but we also have to understand that the political process is very important in a democratic society. Science is just one piece of the decision-making puzzle, along with politics, culture, economics and other considerations, and those others sometimes outweigh science.

Our obligation is to present science in ways that are understood, meaningful and relevant to the decisions that need to be made. Science can then be a gathering place, a tool of ambassadorship to people of all origins and cultures, meeting those people where they are and serving their needs.

So, I’m issuing a call to all of us in engineering, science and technology: Let’s look up from our work and around at the people who will need it. Let’s think about who they are, where they live, and what matters to them. Let’s get to know them. And then let’s solve problems with them.

That’s the only way we’ll get ahead of the curve on some of the incredible challenges we face. Otherwise, the curve will roll right over us.

Dr. Suzette Kimball is the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation’s largest water, Earth and biological science, and civilian mapping agency. She serves on several boards, including the Consortium for Coastal Restoration through Science & Technology, and she has authored numerous publications on coastal and natural resource science and policy.


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