The geography program at UCSB is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country, and Michael Goodchild is one of the department’s most respected scholars. A pioneer in the field of Geographic Information Science (GIS) and the Director of the Center for Spatial Studies (known as spatial@ucsb), he has received numerous awards and honors, including the 2007 Prix Vautrin Lud, sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Geography.” It was thus no surprise when Professor Goodchild was selected to take part in a group established by the National Research Council to look at the future of the geographic sciences, which in the broadest sense encompass such issues as environmental change, sustainability, globalization, and population, using tools like mapping, imagery, remote sensing, and spatial analysis.
Using this broad definition as its framework, the Committee on Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences in the Next Decade set out to “determine how the geographical sciences can best contribute to science and society in the next decade through research initiatives aimed at advancing understanding of major issues facing earth in the early 21st century.” The Committee, comprised of 12 experts from major research universities and institutes in the United States, has identified 11 questions (see below) that “can provide a more complete understanding of where and how landscapes are changing to help society manage and adapt to the transformation of Earth's surface,” according to the report, Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences.
The questions are grouped around four main areas: environmental change; sustainability; the rapid spatial reorganization of economy and society; and technological change. The report has two primary audiences: researchers and scholars who will develop and advance the geographical sciences in the next decade, and policy makers and others in a position to find solutions to the pressing, large-scale scientific issues of our era. As one of the most highly ranked geography programs in the country – which consistently has been at the forefront in the use of science and technology, especially GIS and spatial studies, and in expanding the interdisciplinary nature of geography – the UCSB geography department is strong in many of the areas covered by the recommendations and well placed to continue as a leader in the geographic sciences, and in cases where it is not, other campus departments cover those issues.
"I was happy to see the prominence the report gave to the importance of a geographic perspective. The geographical sciences discussed in the report are much more than geography, and include any use of spatial methods to examine the unique space of the Earth’s surface. The report discusses the importance of spatial thinking, and of introducing its concepts into the curriculum at all levels. But I think the report could have gone much further in drawing out the similarities between research on geographic space, and research on other spaces such as that of the human brain. This is the central theme of the center, and I think the center is ahead of the report in this respect."
Asked about the undergraduate major as it relates to the new emphases, he says:
"The geography major at UCSB is organized around spatial thinking, with plenty of attention to its tools, data, and applications. But spatial thinking is much broader than geography, and we’re working hard to introduce spatial thinking into the wider curriculum at UCSB, currently in the form of a proposed minor. Spatial thinking is a recognized form of intelligence, alongside mathematical and verbal intelligence, and it is essential for anyone who works with images, pictures, and geographic data. Yet it is given virtually no systematic attention at any level in the educational system. "
On the need to make any changes based on these recommendations, or to strengthen any areas:
"Geography at UCSB needs additional strength in several areas, especially given the current budget situation and retirements. As a highly ranked department, we need to be constantly active in recruiting and retaining the best people. We need to continue our areas of strength, but also to be able to respond quickly to new opportunities and developing areas of research that match the scientific and technological nature of our approach. The report gives a clear vision for the future of geography, and a good basis for the need for additional resources."
Professor Goodchild also assessed the geography department in terms of the 11 questions suggested by the Committee.
How to understand and respond to environmental change:
- How are we changing the physical environment of Earth's surface?
- How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?
- How are climate and other environmental changes affecting the vulnerabilities of coupled human-environment systems?
How to promote sustainability:
- Where and how will 10 billion people live?
- How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
- How does where we live affect our health?
How to recognize and cope with the rapid spatial reorganization of economy and society:
- How is the movement of people, goods, and ideas changing the world?
- How is economic globalization affecting inequality? How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace and stability?
How to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment:
- How might we better observe, analyze, and visualize a changing world?
- What are the societal implications of citizen mapping and mapping citizens?