Findings and Recommendations
In preceding chapters the committee highlighted some important new imperatives and some exciting new technologies affecting geotechnology. It looked at opportunities that should be seized now and envisioned a future quite different from today. The committee also examined how geoengineering addresses societal needs now, and how geoengineering can address these needs better in the future.
From its deliberations the committee developed three categories of findings and recommendations. The first category includes knowledge gaps to address the critical issues and societal needs identified in the 1989 report Geotechnology: Its Impact on Economic Growth, the Environment, and National Security (NRC, 1989), gaps not yet satisfactorily resolved by the geoengineering community. This category addresses how new tools and technologies can be used to fill in these knowledge gaps and to tackle new applications in geoengineering. The second category is a compelling new imperative for Geoengineering for Earth Systems (GES). By GES we mean a systems engineering approach to geoengineering problems in the context of complex social, environmental, and economic factors. GES is an approach to sustainable development of our infrastructure and resources. The third category relates to changes in interdisciplinary research and education necessary to ensure that a diverse workforce is able to apply new tools and technologies to new applications of geoengineering.
Primarily, the committee’s findings and recommendations are directed to the National Science Foundation (NSF) but suggestions for other agencies, education, and practice are made as well. Support for the findings and recommendations are documented in Chapters 2-5.
To summarize, the committee developed a vision for the future of the field of geotechnology as follows: Geotechnology will respond to the societal needs for engineering on and below the surface of Earth and with earthen materials using innovative and sophisticated science and technology, contributing to sustainable practice and participating in the interdisciplinary nature of the civil and environmental engineering problems facing society.
6.1 KNOWLEDGE GAPS AND NEW TOOLS
The committee finds that significant knowledge gaps continue to challenge the practice of geoengineering, especially the ability to characterize the subsurface; account for time effects; understand biogeochemical processes in soils and rocks; stabilize soils and rocks; use enhanced computing, information, and communication technologies; and understand geomaterials in extreme environments (see Chapter 2 for the full list of knowledge gaps). The committee is concerned that resources for investigator-initiated research at NSF are diminishing and believes that the balance between investigator-initiated research and directed research is unbalanced toward directed research.
Geoengineering is burdened by a lack of adequate characterization of the geomedia and paucity of necessary information, which contributes to some extent to unavoidable uncertainty in design. We are still unable to translate our fundamental understanding of the physics and chemistry of soils and rocks and the microscale behavior of particulate systems in ways that enable us to quantify the engineering properties and behavior needed for engineering analysis of materials at the macroscale. Given these problems, paradigms for dealing with the resulting uncertainty are
poorly understood and even more poorly practiced. There is a need for (1) improved characterization technology; (2) improved quantification of the uncertainties associated with characterization; and (3) improved methods for assessing the potential impacts of these uncertainties on engineering decisions requiring engineering judgment (i.e., on risk analysis for engineering decision making).
NSF should continue to direct funding of the fundamental knowledge gaps and needs in geoengineering.
NSF should restore the balance between investigator-initiated research and directed research, and should allocate resources to increase the success rate for unsolicited proposals in geoengineering (and civil and mechanical systems) to a level commensurate with other programs in the engineering directorate.
The committee sees tremendous opportunities for advancing geoengineering through interaction with other disciplines, especially in the areas of biotechnology, nanotechnology, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and microsensors, geosensing, information technology, cyberinfrastructure, and multispatial and multitemporal geographical data modeling, analysis, and visualization. Pilot projects in vertical integration of research between multiple disciplines—perhaps including industry, multiple government agencies, and multiple universities—should be explored as alternatives to more traditional interdisciplinary proposals.
New technology—already available or under development—promises exciting new possibilities for geoengineering. Some applications of these new technologies that the committee found of particular interest use (1) microbes to stabilize or remediate soils; (2) nanotechnology to modify the behavior of clay; (3) nanosensors and MEMS to characterize and
monitor the behavior of geomaterials and geosystems; (4) remote sensing and noninvasive ground-based sensing techniques; and (5) next-generation geologic data models to bridge sensing, computation, and real-time simulation of behavior for adaptive management purposes and geophysics for urban infrastructure detection. Some of these new technologies likely will have major impacts on geoengineering, such as revolutionizing the way geosystems are characterized, modified, and monitored. However, many of the applications of these new technologies have yet to be identified. In taking advantage of these new technologies, most geoengineering researchers would benefit from additional background in such areas as electronics, biology, chemistry, material science, information technology, and the geosciences. Rapid progress in applying these new technologies will require revised educational programs, novel research schemes, as well as updated and re-equipped laboratory facilities.
NSF should create opportunities to explore emerging technologies and associated opportunities in three types of activities. The first is designed to train researchers in new technologies through directed seed funds for interdisciplinary initiatives, such as continuing education of faculty (off-campus intensive courses), theme-specific sabbaticals, exploratory research initiatives, and focused workshops. The second is to provide funding for new equipment for the adaptation and development of emerging technologies for geoengineering applications.
The NSF Geomechanics and Geohazards Program should emphasize application of biotechnology, nanotechnology, MEMS, and information technology to geoengineering in its annual Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program solicitation.
6.2 GEOENGINEERING FOR EARTH SYSTEMS
There are no isolated activities in this rapidly changing world. A decision in one place has repercussions in other places, sometimes with dramatic and unanticipated consequences. The influence of countless decisions at all scales is having a marked impact on the environment. In order to respond effectively to issues caused by human interactions with Earth systems, the committee sees a need for a broadened geoengineering discipline. Sustainable development provides a new paradigm for geoengineering practice, in which the tools, techniques, and scientific advances of multiple disciplines are brought to bear on ever more complex problems.
Geoengineering has made significant progress since 1989 in addressing societal needs. However, there has been a change in perspective from national to global and a realization that social, economic, and environmental dimensions must be included to develop robust solutions to fulfill these needs. Increased attention to anthropogenic effects on our environment and to sustainable development are important manifestations of this change in perspective.
NSF should create an interdisciplinary initiative on Earth Systems Engineering (ESE), including GES. The problems of GES occur on all scales from the nano- and microscale behavior of geomaterials, to the place-specific mesoscale investigations and the scale of the globe that responds to climate change.
A GES initiative should include any research problem that (1) involves geotechnology, and (2) has Earth systems implications or exists in an Earth systems context. In this regard, Earth systems have components that depend on each other (i.e., the outcome of one part of the problem affects the process in another part of the problem). There are feedback
loops and perhaps dynamical interactions. The parts of the system come from the biosphere (all life on the Earth), geosphere (the rocks, soil water and atmosphere of the Earth), and anthrosphere (political, economic, and social systems), as well as individual components within these “spheres”. This initiative should include the development of geo-systems models and support for adaptive management, data collection, management, interpretation, analysis, and visualization.
Multiple government agencies, including the Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security, have interests in Earth systems problems. These agencies would be well served by advances in geoengineering that could help to address the complex problems, knowledge gaps, and needs they face.
NSF program directors should coordinate GES research and development efforts with other agencies by developing a GES roundtable, sharing and jointly archiving information, and leveraging through cofunded projects.
The committee recommends that a workshop be organized to wrestle with the issue of engaging geoengineers in public policy initiatives on GES and sustainable development. The National Science Foundation is the ideal sponsor of such a workshop, and the United States Universities Council on Geotechnical Education and Research must be urged to be an active participant along with the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Rock Mechanics Association, and other professional societies. The societies must be represented by their leading practicing-engineer members, rather than by executive administrators of the societies. Unconventional thinking related directly to issues of research and
practice and engagement in public policy will be required before the details of how it should be administered are developed.
6.3 INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION
Research and educational institutions are normally organized by discipline. The above findings and recommendations can be realized only if the institutions involved recognize the challenge and find new ways to accommodate research, education, and practice. For truly interdisciplinary solutions, cooperation must be invited, encouraged, and rewarded. Structures must exist in universities as well as funding agencies to facilitate collaboration.
The committee recommends that the NSF
Encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and collaboration between researchers and industry practitioners and among tool developers and potential tool users in its proposal preparation guidelines; include such collaboration as an explicit proposal evaluation criterion in its proposal preparation guidelines; and include cross-disciplinary collaboration as an explicit proposal evaluation criterion. Geoengineering proposal review panels should include researchers from related (cross-disciplinary) fields and from other federal research entities to the extent possible.
Encourage communication among researchers through principal investigator workshops where principal investigators describe their current NSF-funded work. NSF should also require timely dissemination and sharing of experimental data and analytical models using the protocols and data dictionaries being developed for the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES)
project. Proposals should provide specific information on dissemination of this information, and “Results of Prior Research” should document dissemination of data from previous NSF-funded work.
Conduct a critical evaluation of existing collaboratories and develop criteria for evaluation of collaboratory proposals, including consideration of the relative merit of funding a collaboratory versus funding individual and small-group research.
A more diverse workforce in terms of educational background, technical expertise, and application domains, as well as more traditional measures of diversity, is required to bring a broad range of cultural understanding, skills, knowledge, and practice to bear on complex geoengineering problems. In parallel with a new perspective on interdisciplinary research and the transfer and adaptation of knowledge between disciplines, a new perspective on science and engineering education is required so that the new workforce is truly ready to do the research and practice.
The diversity of the geoengineering workforce has improved in the last 30 years but more improvement is still needed. The long-term vitality of the geoengineering field depends on the entry of diverse, creative talent to the field.
NSF should make use of the data it has collected during its efforts to improve the educational foundation for a diverse student population and study new measures that could be taken to improve diversity in geoengineering. This effort should also include exploring, evaluating, and expanding programs that cultivate interaction between principally undergraduate institutions and research institutions.
The structure of universities can facilitate interdisciplinary research but is still lacking in its support of interdisciplinary engineering education.
NSF should create an interdisciplinary undergraduate education program to support education appropriate to GES and adaptation and transfer of knowledge to geoengineering from such disciplines as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and infotechnology.
NSF should leverage research funding to engage design and consulting engineers in geoengineering research and development activities. Proposal evaluation criteria could include credit for matching funds and in-kind services from industry, or some portion of available research funds could be dedicated to projects with matching industry support.
In concluding its work, the committee was pleased to learn of the recently completed National Academy of Engineering report Engineering Research and America’s Future: Meeting the Challenges of a Global Economy. The main recommendations in that report are for increased investments at the federal and state levels, especially for fundamental research; upgrading and expanding laboratories, equipment, information technologies, and other infrastructure needs of universities; cultivating greater U.S. student interest in, and aptitude for, careers in engineering and in engineering research in particular; development and implementation of innovative curricula; and revision of current immigration procedures to make it easier to attract top scientific and engineering talent from around the world. Each of these recommendations should be adapted specifically to help meet the challenges of geoengineering in the twenty-first century.
The report provides a vision for geological and geotechnical engineering in the new millennium and suggests societal needs that the discipline can help to address. It explores ways that geoengineering should change to achieve this vision. There is real potential for breakthroughs and there are exciting opportunities for geoengineers if they become involved in biotechnology, nanotechnology and advances information technology. New solutions to persistent traditional problems can be obtained with these new nontraditional technologies. Beyond solving old problems in new ways, geoengineers have the potential to engage outside of traditional roles in the larger-scale problems of Earth systems that challenge the future of life on Earth. Geoengineering is the field of engineering most closely aligned with issues of sustainability, and this field should take a leadership role in the primary challenge of our time. This vision requires our educational, research, and industrial institutions to embrace the art of interdisciplinary work. What we recommend here is well captured by Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We recommend new thinking to use emerging engineering science to solve the compelling societal needs we face. This venture will constitute a revitalization of geoengineering and thus represent the possibility for a great new age for geoengineering.