Inside the Beltway: Geography at the National Research Council

February 6, 2003

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Geography and geographic information science are more visible to public officials than ever before.This is especially true for policy makers who operate in the rarified and strangely insular hothouse of the federal government in Washington.These "inside the Beltway" mangers, decision makers, political appointees, and career bureaucrats increasingly use geographic principles and geographic technology in their every-day work.As a result, it is vital to both geography and the nation that geographical principles and techniques be presented effectively in their best light on both theoretical and applied bases.

One important avenue for maintaining and enhancing geography inside the Beltway is the National Research Council (NRC), the action arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).Because of the importance of NRC in Washington, every practicing geographer should be aware of and support its activities. President Abraham Lincoln established the NAS in 1862 as a body of scientists who would advise the federal government of the scientific aspects (particularly armaments) of the conduct of the Civil War.After the war, NAS continued as a relatively small group of scientists selected on an honorary basis, but the need by the federal government for scientific advice expanded.In 1917 Congress added the NRC as the action arm of the Academy, and a wide range of researchers began to serve the government through the NRC.

The NRC now utilizes the services of several thousand volunteer scientists who serve on more than 700 advisory panels.As part of the NAS, the NRC has direct connections to the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Institute of Medicine, but the NRC operates largely as an independent agency to provide scientific advice to the federal government upon request.NRC depends on its cadre of volunteers, who serve without pay but who are provided travel expenses to attend panel meetings.The clients of NRC, usually governmental agencies, supply the financial support.Sometimes, congressional action mandates NRC advice to the government in the sense of using the "best science" to solve a problem or to expend public funds.

The advantage to the government of using the NRC is that the process provides advice independent of political pressure.The NRC structure undergoes periodic change, but the heart of its activities is in its committees, panels that operate for a period of a few months to a couple of years, and that consist of about a dozen members. Because volunteers are drawn from worlds of business and academia, most panels represent a wide range of expertise and opinion.

Most major sciences actively advise the federal government through the NRC on matters of national importance.Recent committees have provided advice on issues ranging from prohibiting smoking on airplanes to defining best practices for screening for breast cancer, monitoring seismic signals for clandestine nuclear testing, defining wetlands for land use planning, specifying hazardous levels of arsenic in drinking water, and selecting research goals for agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. For more information on NRC, visit

Geography also play a role in the NRC through two standing committees, the Committee on Geography (COG), and the Mapping Sciences Committee (MSC). These committees report to the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, which in turn is part of Division of Life and Environmental Sciences. COG advises federal agencies on all things geographic, but especially issues related to spatial analysis and nature-society interactions.COG also serves as the U.S.National Committee in representing American Geography in the international scientific community. MSG advises agencies on GIScience matters, and has been an important influence on federal decisions regarding GIS data and its management.These two standing committees, then, are the major conduit by which American geographers channel ideas and advice to the federal government.These standing committees appoint ad hoc committees to deal with individual requests for advice, usually producing published reports that are the lengths of small books.For example, when the U.S. Geological Survey considered appropriate directions for geographic research in the agency, it tuned to the Committee on Geography, which appointed a Committee on Research Priorities at the U.S.Geological Survey.The recently completed report, Research Opportunities in Geography at the U.S.Geological Survey, is available from the National Academies Press.Read the book on line, or order a copy at

The importance of the two geography committees at NRC is that they give American geographers a voice in issues of national and international importance, and they put geographers on a similar footing with physicists, chemists, medical specialists, biologists, and other scientists.The committees have been in operation for several years, are well established, and have a track record of providing timely input to Washington policy makers using the service of scores of geographers. A sampling of the reports resulting from the work of study committees includes the following:

  • Future of Spatial Data and Society, 1997
  • Rediscovering Geography: New Relevance for Science and Society, 1997
  • Distributed Geolibraries: Spatial Information Resources, 1999
  • National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus, 2001
  • Research Opportunities in Geography at the USGS, 2002
  • Geographic Foundation for Agenda 21, 2002
  • Community and Quality of Life: Data Needs for Informed Decision Making, 2002
Each of these reports is available from the National Academies Press and the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources at

Additional committees are presently active, with their reports soon to appear.A representative sampling includes the following.

  • Beyond Mapping: The Challenges of New Technologies in GIS
  • National Needs for Coastal Mapping and Charting
  • Support for Thinking Spatially: The Incorporation of GIS Across the K-12 Curriculum
  • Review of GIS Research and Applications at HUD
The committee dealing with "Beyond Mapping" is a good example of a typical committee study that is of interest to the GIScience community.The study is funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Bureau of the Census, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, U.S.Geological Survey, and the National Science Foundation.The committee consists of about a dozen members from business and academia who are willing to have three meetings and a workshop over an 18-month period.Their goals include reviewing the evolution of mapping and geographic information activities in recent years, specifying a research agenda that will address societal and technological issues, identifying the knowledge and skills required by mapping science professionals in corporations, agencies, and educational institutions, outlining the current strengths and weaknesses in a changing technological environment, and assessing the state of the research infrastructure that supports GIScience. For more information on the study, visit

Several studies of interest to geographers are in development at NRC. A sample of the topics includes the following subjects that include geographic knowledge and techniques.

  • Assessment of Human Vulnerability to Global Environmental Change
  • Energy and Materials Intensity of Industrial Development
  • Human Welfare Applications of Remote Sensing
  • Building a Local Capacity to Apply Spatial Data
As individual geographers, each of us has a vested interest in the NRC process. The topics addressed by the Mapping Sciences Committee and the Committee on Geography show their connections to all geographers, as well as demonstrating the sorts of advice that the federal government uses from geographers.Those of us in agencies may find that our professional activities are directly influenced by decisions made based on advice given by NRC committees.Those of us in corporations have a direct economic interest in the successful outcome of advice to the federal government that guides the effective use of our knowledge and techniques.Finally, those of us in academic institutions can see in NRC reports the sort of training that we must be providing to our students so that they may be useful geographers as well as good scientists and technicians.

It is critical that NRC geography-related committees be supported by geographers, especially those geographers in corporations.NRC committees are usually attractive to academicians because of the prestige involved, but it is more difficult to find committee members from private business who are willing to serve.Private practitioners should be willing to serve for two all-important reasons. First, Washington inside the Beltway needs the advice of geographers who work in the corporate world because of their experience, which is different from the experience of geographers in the academic world.Second, service in Washington affects the bottom line: corporate geographers who are clued in to current affairs in Washington are likely to make better business decisions and to insure their long-term success.


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