Community Report Recommendations: NASEMS 2012

New Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences

A strong theme developed in many of the previous sections of this report is the pressing need to enhance the community’s capacity to produce high-quality dates. The recent pace of innovation of new methods, ranging from radiometric dating to thermochronometry to surface exposure dating, has generated exciting new scientific opportunities and a large unmet demand for measurements. New mechanisms for supporting geochronology laboratories will be required to efficiently develop these opportunities and to promote continued technical advances in the coming decade. In this regard, this aspect of EAR-funded facilities requires the special attention given in this report to how to service the expanding needs of the community relative to other core facilities noted above that underlie opportunity areas.

Traditionally, age determinations have been made in single principal investigator (PI) laboratories. These laboratories are usually funded by a combination of grants directly to the laboratory PI and to investigators with which the PI collaborates. However, as the technical complexity of the measurements and the cost of instrumentation rise, this model is becoming financially unsustainable. In addition, there is a sense among potential users that this model does not serve the community as broadly and effectively as it could.

One way forward is for EAR to entertain proposals that seek funding for major new facilities capable of meeting these challenges. The committee prefers to avoid being overly prescriptive of what such a facility should look like—whether it be a single laboratory or an alliance of multiple laboratories, whether it be focused on a single method or a range of methods, and so forth. However, a collection of important objectives for such facilities is offered:

  1. The best science outcomes occur when strong intellectual engagement exists between the investigators who make the measurements and those who use them. This extends all the way from the inception of a project, through sampling strategy and sample selection, to the collection and interpretation of results. The committee believes that a simple analysis-for-hire scheme is unlikely to yield results of consistent high quality.
  2. It will be useful to identify mechanisms that will encourage broad community access to the facilities.
  3. It would be useful if facilities were encouraged or required to routinely demonstrate that the quality of their results meet the standard expected by the community they serve. Such a demonstration would eliminate any questions regarding the integrity of ages produced.
  4. The education of investigators, especially students and post-docs, is an essential goal of these facilities. The education of geochronologists and that of users of geochronology are equally important. Intellectual isolation of measurements from applications is best avoided.
  5. A component of the support given to facilities could be used to innovate new or better methods.
  6. Traditional single-PI laboratories doing high quality, innovative research will remain essential to the vitality of the field.

The facilities envisioned here could be quite expensive, and the committee does not prescribe a specific funding mechanism. In its boldest implementation the committee can envision creating one or more national geochronology centers that would require capitalization and operating costs that exceed the capacity of existing NSF-EAR programs, including the Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program.

Alternatively, single PI laboratories or networks of such laboratories could potentially fulfill the same objectives but would require substantially more support and more commitment to serving community needs than if implemented through current EAR programs.

Recommendation: EAR should explore new mechanisms for geochronology laboratories that will service the geochronology requirements of the broad suite of research opportunities while sustaining technical advances in methodologies. The approaches may involve coordination of multiple facilities and investment in service facilities.