New Report Advocates for Integrated Earth Systems Science Initiative at NSF, with Input from USU Professor Courtney Flint

September 24, 2021

The National Science Foundation (NSF) plays a key role in advancing understanding of how the Earth systems by funding research on atmospheric, ocean, hydrologic, geologic, polar, ecosystem, social, and engineering-related processes. Today, however, these systems are driven like never before by human technologies and activities. To better understand the complex interactions between the natural world and society, the National Science Foundation needs a next-generation Earth systems science initiative, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“This report highlights the need for more diverse perspectives to be integrated in the next generation of Earth systems science,” said Courtney Flint, professor in the Department of Environment and Society in the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, and coauthor of the report. “More scientific perspectives, including social sciences and engineering, as well as beyond-science perspectives of those experiencing and influencing a changing Earth are key to understanding complexity and finding new solutions to critical problems.”

The complex interactions of Earth systems have maintained life on our planet for billions of years. Understanding of these systems, their dynamic interactions and feedback mechanisms, and their importance to humanity has grown substantially over the last few decades. For example, systems like the atmosphere and water cycle underpin an ability to grow food and to access clean water. But critical questions remain about how these systems function and interact — including how decisions made today might impact these systems and humanity in the future.

“The time is ripe for an integrated research approach that can generate knowledge to help us address some of our most urgent challenges as a species,” said Ruth DeFries, professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our future depends on improving our understanding of how Earth’s systems work, and how our actions today might affect the planet tomorrow.”

“This report lays out a vision for an Earth systems science initiative at NSF that is bold, integrated across disciplines, and forward looking. Potential benefits accrue not just to science and researchers, but to communities whose future depends on learning how Earth systems are changing,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

An Integrated Approach

NSF’s next-generation Earth systems science initiative requires NSF to place an increased emphasis on research inspired by real-world problems while maintaining its strong legacy of curiosity driven research across many disciplines — and to enhance the participation of social, engineering, and data scientists, and strengthen its efforts to include diverse perspectives in research. In particular, Next-Generation Earth Systems Science at the National Science Foundation lays out six key characteristics that an integrated Earth systems science initiative will need to embody:

  • Advance research that is driven by curiosity, as well as research that is driven by real-world needs and uses, across a range of locations and time spans.
  • Facilitate the convergence of social, natural, computational, and engineering sciences to inform solutions to problems related to Earth systems — such as how to implement plans that avoid the worst impacts of flooding, by studying and understanding how human activities and climate change impact the water cycle.
  • Ensure diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just approaches to Earth systems science.
  • Prioritize engagement and partnerships with diverse stakeholders so that they are better included in the research process.
  • Synergize observational, computational, and modeling capabilities to accelerate discoveries.
  • Educate and support a workforce with the skills and knowledge needed to participate in an integrated research approach.

The study behind the report—undertaken by the Committee on Advancing a Systems Approach to Studying the Earth: A Strategy for the National Science Foundation—was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


Courtney Flint
Department of Environment & Society
(435) 797-8635