Comment: Why I am a geoscientist

by Eric Riggs
Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Credit: courtesy of Eric Riggs.

I work on a campus where we occasionally see some pretty impressive weather. Recently, I was at a universitywide meeting when a particularly nasty squall line blew through. Strong gusts rattled the windows and rain was falling so hard you couldn’t see the building next door. A colleague turned to me and said, “Do I have to worry about this?” Why did she ask me this? Because I am a geoscientist.

Think about how many times you get asked about climate change, fracking, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes — the list goes on. You cannot turn on the news or check a social media feed without seeing something directly related to the earth sciences almost every day. As soon as people in the public, even well-educated friends and colleagues, learn what you do for a living, the questions start coming your way. Why? Because you’re a geoscientist.

Regardless of all of our detailed scientific subspecialties, at the end of the day, we are all geoscientists. This means we know a lot about earth systems, and critically, we also understand how humanity interacts with and benefits from the earth system. Whenever I have the opportunity to teach new undergraduate majors in our allied fields of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences, I make sure to congratulate them on choosing an area of science so directly relevant to the public.

Credit: ©AGI.

They usually look puzzled when I say this, because, for the most part, they are just discovering how all their fundamental science and mathematics courses come together in their specialties. After powering through university-level physics, calculus, biology and chemistry, they feel pretty far removed from the public usually, and miles away from their friends in other majors in the humanities or business. When you are swimming in multivariate calculus, I admit it is hard to see the social connection. And this is why I take these moments to emphasize to them what I think is one of the most defining characteristics of geoscience: the social connection.

You can study and practice many other sciences without often directly intersecting human concerns, but this is not as easily done in the geosciences. Geoscientific problems have social, political and economic elements, especially in the broader geoscience workforce, but in academia as well. Whether you are investigating environmental contaminants, energy supply and development of any kind, water or air quality, atmospheric dynamics or ocean chemistry, it’s a very short step for your science to have a direct bearing on social concerns. Your work might inform an understanding of economic, business or political costs, or there may be considerations of risk and uncertainty. Your work may add directly to a broader human understanding of our place in the world. Our science is always tempered with a view toward application in the broader human enterprise. Many scientists find this “messiness” distracting, undesirable or bothersome. I believe it is our greatest strength.

So why am I a geoscientist? I love science, and I respect its power as a system of knowledge. All aspects of earth science fascinate me; I just can’t get enough and will always be a student of earth systems. But I also appreciate human systems, business and economics, and the progress of all people and societies. I find these to be utterly compatible and synergistic through the geosciences. That is why I am honored to serve as president of the integrated federation of earth science professional societies that is the American Geosciences Institute, and that is why I am a geoscientist.

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