UCSB: current and future leader in the geographical sciences

Professor Mike Goodchild


Professor Mike Goodchild

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.

Professor Goodchild offered the following comments on the Department of Geography, especially spatial@ucsb, and the questions posed by the committee.


More than maps - the geographic sciences also include imagery, remote sensing (pictured), and spatial analysis. NOAA photos.

"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?
"The department is very strong in research on the physical environment, including the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land surface. We collaborate strongly with other environmentally related departments at UCSB."
  • How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?
"These questions are studied by biogeographers, or people who look at biodiversity and ecosystems from a geographic perspective. The department includes specialists in biogeography, and we collaborate with other biogeographers on campus, notably in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management."
  • How are climate and other environmental changes affecting the vulnerabilities of coupled human-environment systems?
"Our climatologists are examining many aspects of the climate system, including changes in monsoons in South Asia and in the climates of the Amazon Basin and Sub-Saharan Africa. We have active research programs looking at early warning of food shortages in Africa, in collaboration with the US Geological Survey." [Additionally, UCSB as a whole was recently ranked second among US universities for citation impact in climate change research, reflecting the overall strength of its science departments in the area of climate change research.]


How to promote sustainability:

  • Where and how will 10 billion people live?
"Over the next decade, most of the new inhabitants of the planet will live in urban areas. Answering this question requires expertise in demography and planning, areas where UCSB needs additional faculty strength." [Coincidentally, the Department of Economics is in the process of hiring a senior faculty member specializing in demography, who should strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration in this area.]
  • How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
"The future of the world’s food supply depends on increasing agricultural production and improving systems for distribution, and avoiding some of the most serious consequences of climate change. At UCSB we are well positioned to study the effects of climate change and transportation, but are not known for research in agriculture."
  • How does where we live affect our health?
"Again, UCSB does not have major strength in public health, although several of our faculty have research projects with public-health aspects."


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?
"We have excellent strength in transportation research at UCSB and are known for our uniquely geographic perspective."
  • How is economic globalization affecting inequality? How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace and stability?
"These are not major research areas for the geography program at UCSB." [However, the Global and International Studies Program is home to specialists in the politics and economics of globalization, and international peace and security.]


How to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment:

  • How might we better observe, analyze, and visualize a changing world?
"UCSB’s geography department is known worldwide for its strength in satellite-based remote sensing, and for its research on the analysis of geographic data using geographic information systems."
  • What are the societal implications of citizen mapping and mapping citizens?
"This is an important area of research that has emerged in the past few years. We have several projects in this area, and are actively engaged with community mapping projects on the South Coast."
April 2010


News Date: 

Thursday, April 1, 2010