improved decision-support systems. These computer programs allowed decision makers and individual citizens to refine their response to the threat using a series of “what if” scenarios.


Such a role for the USGS would be a reality if the Survey capitalized on its opportunities. The Survey is undergoing reform, by redefining itself as an organization capable of supplying natural science products that are globally recognized as credible, objective, and relevant to society’s needs. The USGS is focusing its activities on the “Critical Zone,” the earth’s surface and near-surface environments, where humans most directly interact with the natural system (NRC, 2001a, p. 35; see Sidebar 1–1). Its challenging mission is to provide reliable scientific information to:

  • describe and understand the earth;

  • minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters;

  • manage water, biological, energy and mineral resources; and

  • enhance and protect quality of life.

To achieve this mission the USGS has organized itself into four disciplines—the Geography Discipline, Geology Discipline, Water Discipline, and Biology Discipline. Each Discipline emphasizes a regional structure, resulting in a greater focus on geographic integration of its activities. The Geography Discipline assumes a position of prominence at a time when U.S. geography is re-emerging with newly recognized relevance to science and society. The juxtaposition of disciplinary change (throughout geography) with organizational change (throughout USGS) creates an unusual opportunity for geography to fulfill the Survey’s mission in new and innovative ways.


In 2000, to maximize the benefits of internal reform in the USGS and external change in geography, the USGS invited the National Research Council (NRC) to form a committee of experts to advise on issues related to research priorities in geography throughout the Survey. The Committee on Research Priorities in Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey was asked to address, for multiple audiences, the society’s need for geographic research and the appropriate federal research role. Specifically, the committee was charged to consider the following areas of concern for the Geography Discipline:

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