Progress in the solid-Earth sciences has been remarkable over the past few decades, driven by the availability of new instruments, improved modeling capabilities, reduced barriers to cooperation with scientists in other countries, and increased coordination with other disciplines, such as astronomy and biology. With research advancing on such a wide front, it can be difficult to define the frontiers of scientific inquiry and to convey that information in a way that captures the imaginations of the scientific community, the U.S. Congress, U.S. federal agencies, and the general public.
At the request of program managers at the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, the U.S. National Academies has assembled a committee of experts to identify the grand research questions driving the solid-Earth sciences. Although other reports have identified research priorities in this area, just a few (such as “Living on a restless planet,” 63 pp., NASA Solid Earth Science Working Group, Pasadena, Calif., 2002) have cast them mainly as compelling, fundamental science questions. Such ‘big picture’ questions may require decades to answer, and research support from many government agencies and organizations. The answers to these questions could profoundly affect our understanding of the Earth.