Past Messages


Lesli Wood, Summer 2006

woodWe are outsourcing earth sciences in this country. Our own undergraduate enrollment in university earth science education programs has dropped dramatically since the early 80’s. Although such enrollments have always waxed and waned with the price of energy, we seem to have crossed a critical threshold, and even in these times of higher energy prices, we may never see the enrollments that we once saw in the discipline. Yes, advances in technology can increase efficiency in the workforce, resulting in fewer “warm bodies” needed to push the button to zap and map surfaces. However, such advances will never duplicate the synergy of a geoscience community teeming with the diversity of experiences and ideas of myriad warm bodies. True, as Dr. Scott Tinker commented in his recent talk at the AAPG/SEPM Annual Convention in Houston, “One talented person is worth 10 warm bodies”, but were decimation to occur, the danger of also losing a diversity of opinions and ideas is real.

The concept of critical thresholds in geomorphology is well established. These are limits in natural systems beyond which, if crossed, major changes occur in rivers, hill slopes, etc. In fact, all natural systems including biologic evolution exhibit critical thresholds. I have listened to the discussion of gloom and doom in earth science enrollments for years and have personally seen the slide in that enrollment for decades. One has only to look at the downward trending graph to see the critical thresholds that have been crossed over time. Many critical thresholds have been driven by slides in energy prices and have resulted in declining employment of earth scientists by the energy industry. Once the new threshold is crossed, however, it is very difficult to return to pre-threshold conditions. For example, our fear of crossing the $70/barrel threshold for oil (now history) will lead to a push to a new frontier from which we may never return. My fear in watching declining participation in earth sciences is that we will push into a similar frontier in which earth scientists will decline to near insignificance.

The opinion has been voiced that the future of enrollment numbers and “warm bodies” in geosciences and engineering lies in Asian and Indian students. In my role at the Bureau of Economic Geology in the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, I supervise many foreign nationals, including many Asian and Indian students. I also have many wise and resourceful Asian and Indian geoscience colleagues. However, I would hate to see earth sciences in the United States outsourced to our gifted colleagues overseas. China and India are projected to be the two fastest growing consumers of energy resources over the next several decades. Many, if not most, of the large contingent of new Asian and Indian students will be called upon by their own societies to be responsible for the energy and water future of their countries. If we fail to recognize the need to grow domestic earth science enrollments in our own U.S. schools and universities, we are risking the future of our energy supply, our water and air quality, and our ability to plan for and mitigate natural hazards. In the future, not only will the current developed countries be in competition for energy resources with developing countries, but we may soon find ourselves dangerously lacking in earth scientists and engineers to explore, develop, and evaluate water resources.

How do we keep from disappearing completely? Three good ways are through education, outreach, and visibility. It is critical that people recognize the value that earth scientists bring to the table in energy, water, and societal safety issues. Many earth science professional societies, including SEPM, are coming together to support Washington-based internships, fund fellowships, and hold focused meetings that increase the visibility of our science. This September 25 through 27, the GCAGS convention and GCSSEPM meeting will be held in Lafayette, Louisiana—the ultimate gathering of regional societies for discussion of common themes. There will be field trips to New Orleans and areas along the Gulf. A slate of excellent talks is being prepared, many of which emphasize the earth science community’s study of recent dramatic processes that are active in the Gulf Coast and their consequences. An extremely important part of our job is to illustrate the consequences of society’s actions or inactions concerning our rivers, shorelines, and future energy needs. A few more fluvial geomorphologists and few less front-end loader drivers involved in the planning of the city might, in hindsight, have served New Orleans better.

The GCSSEPM Society is poised to make an impact both in outreach and visibility for the earth sciences. We are by no means merely a society of hydrocarbon explorers. We are rather a society of scientists with broad backgrounds in energy, hydrology, geomorphology, engineering, biology, paleontology, economics… and the list goes on. We have partnerships with students in universities through our GCSSEPM student liaison programs, numerous student scholarships such as the Ed Picou Scholarship, and our student awards program. Members serve on councils, committees, and foundations. All members are visible spokespersons for geoscience. We even have a few members of Asian and Indian descent—you can expect that number to grow. China and India know on which side their future bread is buttered—on the side of earth science professionals. We need to remind our domestic society and decision makers that the same is true for the U.S.