Between the Bytes
A recent report on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (JEDI) in the geosciences began like this:
But I am using the term “recent” in a geological sense, not a calendric one. The article—by Robert Gillette, discussing efforts by the US Geological Survey, Geological Society of America, and American Geological Institute to promote broader participation—was published in 1972, before a great many of today’s CSDMS members were even born (Gillette, 1972). The target time frame for achieving parity was to have been somewhere between 2002 and 2012.
Did we reach this target? Not even close. In a review of geoscience PhDs granted in the US between 1973 and 2016, Bernard and Cooperdock (2018) found that, as the title of their paper put it, there has been “no progress on diversity in 40 years” in the geosciences. As a result, the entire field has continued to miss out on an enormous pool of talent and energy.
What to do?
The American cultural and political turmoil over the past year provides yet another lesson in how deeply inequity can run in a complex society. Caste and tribalism are depressingly common facets of the human experience, and in the United States, the past year highlighted some uniquely American forms of that experience. A (calendrically) recent piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall  describes an unfortunate characteristic of many societies: when historically marginalized groups begin to achieve greater social equality, there can be a backlash of dominant-group grievance that unscrupulous politicians are all too eager to stoke for their own gain. Such has been the American experience—both recent and historical.
But from my perspective (which is admittedly limited to that of a white male professor), I see reasons for hope, and reasons to believe that the global geoscience community can grow to become a more inclusive and diverse community. My optimism is grounded, first of all, in witnessing positive social change within my lifetime. When I was a child in the 1970s, a woman in the United States could still legally be fired simply for becoming pregnant, and prior to the 1974 Equal Opportunity Credit Act, banks could refuse to grant her credit, solely on the basis of gender. The geosciences at that time, and for many years afterward, were overwhelmingly male-dominated—meaning, among other things, that the science lost the potential contributions and talents of nearly half of humanity.
When I started graduate school in the early 1990s, my academic department of 40-some faculty included just one female (assistant) professor. But today, at the dawn of 2021, I’m proud to work in a department that boasts a 50/50 gender balance among early and mid-career faculty (the balance is currently about 40/60 female/male among all faculty). Nor is my department at CU Boulder an outlier. The silver lining in the data presented by Bernard and Cooperdock (2018) is that the geosciences have neared gender equality in the granting of PhDs (45/55 female/male as of 2016).
To be sure, as the 2020 film Picture a Scientist illustrates, women in science continue to face a host of issues that they should not have to contend with—the metaphorical body of the iceberg beneath the tip. Progress on gender equality in science can feel agonizingly, frustratingly slow. But the enormous positive change in the span of a generation demonstrates that such change is possible, and worth fighting for. Much the same can be said of LGBTQ rights: a seemingly maddening, exhausting struggle, and yet one that over the past generation or so has yielded real and meaningful progress.
One might argue that progress on women’s and LGBTQ rights does not necessarily suggest grounds for optimism when it comes to combating racism. After all, one of the striking lessons of Bernard and Cooperdock’s study is the contrast between the geosciences’ substantial progress on gender diversity, and its lack of progress on racial diversity: a finding that suggests that the challenge of equity and inclusion for BIPOC scientists is even more daunting than that of gender equity. The barriers are many; they are complex, interwoven, intersectional (e.g., Dutt, 2020). Even so, I feel a sense of cautious optimism. Over the past 30 years there have been many efforts and programs designed to improve inclusivity in science, but never before in my professional life have I witnessed anything like the energy and focus that has arisen following the public outcry over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer. Where before there were institutional and funding agency programs, and project-level contributions encouraged by incentives like NSF’s Broader Impacts criterion, now these are joined by a sense of much wider grassroots engagement. Geoscientists are forming reading and discussion groups on JEDI issues, seeking an actionable understanding (see for example the Unlearning Racism in Geosciences project). Faculty are pressing their institutions to re-double their commitment to equitable recruitment, hiring, and retention. Not all these efforts are new, and it is important to recognize the many groups and individuals who were already working hard to build a more inclusive science community, ranging from grassroots community efforts like GeoLatinas to undergraduate engagement programs like RESESS, SOARS, and RECCS, among many. Nonetheless, I believe that the new injection of awareness and commitment that we saw in 2020 represents an important acceleration of momentum, and although it’s too soon to know where it will lead—the characteristic time scale of a professional population being measured in years or decades rather than months—I believe it is here to stay.
At the 2021 Annual (virtual) Meeting this coming May, the CSDMS community will have an opportunity to learn about practices and resources for contributing to JEDI progress. Nicole Gasparini, Chair of the CSDMS Terrestrial Working Group, will be offering a clinic on Building a More Inclusive Research Unit. In addition, community members Bec Batchelor, Anne Gold, and Diana Acero-Allard will be leading a clinic on Inclusive Mentoring. I’m grateful to all of these community volunteers for leading these events. And for those CSDMS members who have not already seen it, I highly encourage you to watch last summer’s opening lecture for the CSDMS Summer Science Series, by Dr. Brandon Jones of NSF, on Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Participation of Underrepresented Groups in the Geosciences – highlighting, among other things, the vital importance of an “all hands on deck” approach.
In that vein, it’s worth noting another small but meaningful way that academic members of the CSDMS can contribute. Many of us are educators, and have the privilege of introducing students to the geosciences. I’m sure that a great many students have seen likenesses of James Hutton, Alfred Wegner, Henri Darcy, or Alexander von Humboldt flash by in lecture halls. Why not also include some contemporary practicing geoscientists as well? This can send an important message: geoscience is a living field, with real and (at least somewhat) diverse people who take joy in studying nature and solving problems. Along the way, it doesn’t hurt to point out the diversity in the kinds of work and career that this vast science embodies. Many people imagine geoscientists as people who roam the wilderness with a rock hammer, or sit beside oil wells and take measurements. The perception of geoscience as almost exclusively field-based, which draws so many outdoor enthusiasts to the profession, may be a source of discouragement for people from marginalized communities, who might not necessarily feel welcome or safe in all environments. Teachers in the CSDMS community are well positioned not just to bust the “cowboy geologist” myth, but also to make our students aware of the many different career paths that a background in computational geoscience in particular can support: research, environmental consulting, scientific computing, geospatial tech, and data science, to name just a few.
Carl Sagan likened science to carrying a candle in the dark (Sagan, 1995). If that flame is to endure, the call to illuminate our world with understanding must be open to everyone. Bernard and Cooperdock’s study reminds us that the task of becoming a truly inclusive scientific community is not a trivial one. But the recent history of positive social change gives reason to hope, and reason to keep working.
- Bernard, R. E., & Cooperdock, E. H. (2018). No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geoscience, 11(5), 292-295. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-018-0116-6
- Dutt, K. (2020). Race and racism in the geosciences. Nature Geoscience, 13(1), 2-3. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0519-z
- Gillette, R. (1972) Minorities in the Geosciences: Beyond the Open Door. Science, 177, 4044, pp. 148-151. DOI: 10.1126/science.177.4044.148
- Sagan, C. (1995) The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House.
The year 2020 marks the 13th birthday of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System. Following a series of community workshops and white papers, CSDMS (the acronym is often pronounced affectionately as “systems”) became an entity in April 2007, when NSF awarded a five-year grant led by Prof. Jaia Syvitski to establish a new facility at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The early vision expressed the ambition of a hopeful community:
Like most 13-year-olds, CSDMS has come a long way since birth, but has plenty more growth and development ahead before reaching full maturity and potential. And like a typical adolescent, CSDMS’ development has come at different speeds in different dimensions: late-blooming in some aspects, and precocious in others.
One of the surprises has been the growth of community. The makeup of CSDMS’ first executive committee gives a sense of the early disciplinary scope: sedimentary geologists, geomorphologists, and sediment-oriented oceanographers. I sat on that committee as a chair of the Terrestrial Working Group, and at the time the working groups were envisioned as just that: small teams that would actually create and manage software. But after the first few years of operation, it became clear that interest in CSDMS extended way beyond its original core of sedimentary processes. In response to the surge of interest from related communities, CSDMS established Focus Research Groups, with topics ranging from solid-earth geodynamics to ecosystems and human dimensions. Today, CSDMS has nearly 2000 members, divided among a dozen different Working and Focus Research Groups. Even the smallest group now has over 100 members, while the largest—Terrestrial, chaired by Nicole Gasparini of Tulane University and Leslie Hsu of the US Geological Survey—numbers over 900 members. The annual all-hands meetings are popular, especially with early career scientists, and full of enthusiastic buzz. The buzz remained even when the meeting was forced online by the COVID-19 pandemic: the May 2020 event had over 400 individual attendees. CSDMS may have set out to build software, but it ended up building a community.
CSDMS has also helped nurture a new culture of code sharing. When the facility first launched, model codes were mostly trade secrets: kept within lab groups and close networks of collaborators. A common attitude was that a computer model is like a lab; as Randy Leveque of the University of Washington put it, sharing code could be seen as “like inviting every scientist in the world to come use your carefully constructed lab apparatus free of charge.” But while that view has merit in some situations, Randy went on to note that there are many good reasons to share code anyway. For one thing, funding agencies require open sharing of software and data. But even if that weren’t the case, the fear of being scooped by your own software is almost always unwarranted. The reality is that no one understands your code better than you do (in fact, to create a research code that’s as accessible to outsiders as it is to its creator would be a rare and remarkable feat). And there’s no shortage of important questions that a well-crafted code can help address. In my experience, a much more common outcome from code sharing is new collaborations and contributions, as other researchers seek to build on what you’ve started.
But that wasn’t the prevailing view in the earth-surface community when the CSDMS Model Repository was first created as a platform for open sharing of version-controlled model software and metadata. The question was (to paraphrase Field of Dreams): if you built a repository, would they come? The answer turned out to be a resounding “yes”: the CSDMS Model Repository now catalogues over 370 models and tools, and continues to grow.
The same spirit of generosity took hold in the sharing of technical expertise. For the past ten years, community members have volunteered their time and energy to offer hands-on “clinics” at the CSDMS annual meetings, on topics ranging from techniques like machine-learning to the use of particular models.
Meanwhile, the vision of a comprehensive, multi-scale, and ever-improving modeling environment posed a computational challenge worthy of a tech giant. Simply constructing a single numerical model, perhaps global in scale, would have been challenging enough. But the community made their wishes clear: a single model could never hope to encompass all the scales, processes, and concepts that lie at the forefront of the earth-surface sciences. The modeling system would have to be modular, with the ability to swap in alternative sub-models. It would have to address processes ranging from glacial erosion on high peaks to mud transport on submarine fans. And would have to embrace time scales ranging from storm events to geologic periods.
A small facility with just two or three research software engineers could never hope to build all of this, from scratch, by themselves. The key to success therefore lay in taking full advantage of existing resources, and making it an open community-wide project. It would be a “stone soup” vision: the facility provides the kettle, while the community brings the ingredients. The Integration Facility began with technology fronted by a graphical user interface. The CSDMS Modeling Tool displayed community-developed modules as graphical icons, which were coupled by drawing lines to connect inputs and outputs. Once assembled, the resulting model would run on a remote high-performance computing cluster. It was cloud computing before that term even existed.
The development team quickly discovered the need for two additional elements: a standard interface through which to operate and query each module, and a standard vocabulary—an ontology—for naming variables in a consistent way. The vocabulary standard addressed the proliferation of different names for the same thing ( “discharge” and “stream flow,” for example), as well as similar names for different quantities (means annual versus instantaneous discharge, for instance). Scott Peckham designed the ontology pattern, first as the CSDMS Standard Names, and later, with Maria Stoica, in an expanded version known as the Scientific Variables Ontology.
To meet the need for a standard programmatic interface, CSDMS developed the Basic Model Interface (BMI). In order to have a numerical model act as a modular component—a software “building block” that can be initialized, advanced, queried, given new data, and combined with other components—that model code needs to provide a consistent set of interface functions. The BMI specifies what these functions should look like: their names, their signatures, and their return types, as well as the syntax specific to particular programming languages. A model equipped with a BMI becomes interactive. You can advance it, pause execution, interrogate state variables, plot data—and exchange values with another model, which becomes the key to model coupling. Beyond that, the BMI provides a standardized operating mechanism: like the steering wheel and accelerator in a car, it offers a set of standardized controls that are the same from model to model, making the learning curve much simpler. And BMI is catching on. It’s now used, for example, in models developed by researchers at Deltares, the US Geological Survey, and the Netherlands eScience Center.
The CSDMS framework tool that makes use of BMI has continued to evolve. We learned that many, perhaps most, model coupling and model-data integration projects need a level of programmatic finesse that can only be handled by scripting. In response to this need, the script-based machinery behind the graphical front end was brought forward into a user-facing product: the Python Modeling Tool (pymt). With the 1.0 release in 2019, pymt recognizes the explosive growth in the popularity of Python in the geoscience community, and provides access to a collection of BMI-enabled components and tools, alongside Jupyter notebooks that provide hands-on tutorials. Pymt has already been used to power research ranging from permafrost to river and coastal morphodynamics.
Pymt provides a standardized, accessible pathway to legacy models and model-integration tools, but what about creating new models? New data and ideas drive new and refined theory, and that in turn requires adaptation of the numerical software that embodies these ideas. To meet the need for efficient creation and modification of numerical models, CSDMS supports the Landlab Toolkit. Landlab is a Python-language programming library that promotes standardization and re-use by providing interoperable process components that can be assembled, together with a grid object, to create complete integrated models. Since its 2016 debut, Landlab has featured in more than two dozen publications, with applications that collectively span hydrology, geomorphology, tectonics, ecology, basin stratigraphy, landslide hazards, and ecohydrology.
Still, much remains to be done to fully realize the CSDMS community’s vision. One challenge—not just in the geosciences, but across the sciences—lies in training. Many scientists report spending a large fraction of their research time in developing software, yet they also report being largely self-taught. Self-taught scientific programmers are less likely to be aware of tools and best practices that can significantly improve software reliability, transparency, reusability, and productivity. Clearly, geoscientists should not be expected to possess the complete skill set of a software engineer, yet some level of training beyond the status quo is essential if we are to have a computationally fluent scientific workforce. Domain-science facilities like CSDMS have an important role to play. To this end, in 2020 CSDMS launched a new summer institute for early career scientists (albeit initially a virtual one, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Similarly, CSDMS continues to provide opportunities for community members to work directly with, and learn from, professional Research Software Engineers.
Likewise, a sustainable cyber-ecosystem requires rewards and incentives for contribution. The emergence of new software journals like the Journal of Open Source Software helps a lot here, by providing a formal review and publication venue for well-designed, tested, and documented research software. Domain-based awards that recognize software contributions, like the CSDMS Syvitski Student Modeler Award, are important ingredients as well.
Plenty of opportunities and challenges remain on the technology front. The increasing capability of cloud computing presents a potentially valuable resource for research, given the flexibility in hardware resources that it offers. And a critical frontier lies in discovery through data-model integration: a need that CSDMS has begun to address with a standard programmatic interface for accessing and sub-setting datasets, and a library of access functions known as Data Components. There is plenty of room to grow the library of BMI-enabled model components that can operate in frameworks like pymt. And Landlab has just begun to scratch the surface, with lots of potential for new capabilities such as automated matrix configuration tools, performance enhancement, visualization, and 3D gridding.
Looking back, it’s heartening see a growing and thriving community, and the roots of connection across interests and disciplines that have grown around it. CSDMS isn’t fully grown yet but it’s come a long way. Welcome to the teen years.