August 23, 2010


Submitted/Jerry Dobson

Jerry Dobson, professor of geography, and his wife, Gwen, are pictured with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C. Dobson recently completed a year as a Jefferson Science Fellow and senior scientist in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, U.S. Department of State.

Dobson reflects on year in D.C. as Jefferson Science Fellow

Geography prof worked on issues with Iraq, Afghanistan

“Rewarding ... exhilarating ... sometimes exasperating.” That’s how geography professor Jerry Dobson describes his year in Washington, D.C.

Dobson — internationally known for his pioneering work on geographic information systems, landmines, human geography and global population geography — has served in the U.S. Department of State since last fall as one of 10 Jefferson Science Fellows. All were chosen by the National Academies and represent a variety of scientific disciplines from prestigious universities nationwide. After working in Washington full-time for a year, the fellows return to their campuses and serve an additional five years on a consultancy basis.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Dobson and his colleagues during a recent ceremony at the State Department. In her remarks, she emphasized the need for scientific and technical expertise in government. The fellows were introduced and their individual contributions to policy and diplomacy were cited.

“It’s a fantastic experience for scholars and a boon to government policy makers,” said Dobson, whose title was senior scientist in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues. The fellowship is highly respected throughout government, and, he noted, “policy makers actually listen to us on matters of supreme national interest.”

Prior experience with the State Department is rare among Jefferson Fellows, but Dobson himself has collaborated with the Office of the Geographer since 1982, when he supported the U.S. position in a World Court dispute over the maritime boundary between the United States and Canada.

During his year in Washington, Dobson addressed four topics of high priority to the government.

Difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed an urgent need for better understanding of human geography, Dobson said, including culture, language, lifestyles and livelihoods. Dobson, who is president of the American Geographical Society, has been addressing this national need through his leadership of the society’s Bowman Expeditions program. The first such expedition, led by KU’s Peter Herlihy, associate professor of geography, studied indigenous land tenure in Mexico and the impact of a massive land reform program that allows for conversion of communal lands to private property.

“Lee Schwartz, the geographer of the United States, and I want to expand the Bowman Expeditions into a global program,” Dobson said. “The price of geographic ignorance is measured in conflict.”

Dobson also relied on his longtime specialty, global population geography, to help the Census Bureau’s international arm develop a population database that is 100 times more precise than the current world standard, LandScan. Dobson led LandScan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory from its inception in 1997 until 2001, when he moved to KU.

“Two countries have been completed in the new DemoBase project,” Dobson said. “Through good judgment and good fortune, Haiti was first. It was completed just before the disastrous earthquake. It proved its value many times over during the crisis. Pakistan was second, and that’s been used in the current flooding disaster. We hope eventually to do 40 countries or more.”

The third item on Dobson’s plate was improvement of geographic information systems in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“These organizations are heavily committed to projects using this information technology,” Dobson said, “and now they are committed to improving internal capacity to coordinate worldwide programs. This will, for instance, enhance their ability to share data from one project to another so the investment isn’t lost when each project ends. Worldwide, millions of dollars may be saved every year.”

In May, Dobson wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post on the BP oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He proposed “Operation Dunkirk,” a “cash for crude” strategy to enlist anything that floats — barges, tankers, fishing boats, recreational boats — to skim and collect surface oil for repurchase by BP. His advice to BP management: “Buy back your oil. Engage the public. Trust private enterprise. Trust the judgment and ingenuity of the American people.”

Unfortunately, said Dobson, “BP insisted on top-down control. They settled for a few hundred BP skimmers, when they could have had, say, 30,000 independent skimmers working around the clock, if only they had offered the right price per barrel. Ultimately, they sacrificed the ocean in favor of the shore and then just a cosmetic defense of beaches and marshes. My plan would have retrieved most of the oil before it reached the shore or disappeared below, as it now has.”

Dobson is the first KU faculty member and first geographer tapped as a Jefferson Fellow since the creation of the program in 2003. In addition to the outstanding professional experience, his year in Washington was beneficial personally. He and his wife, Gwen, have a son and a daughter-in-law in the vicinity who are physicians in the U.S. Army. Maj. Nicole Dobson and Maj. Craig Dobson were deployed to Afghanistan for more than half the time Jerry and Gwen Dobson were in Washington, so they helped care for their 2-year-old grandson Ian during each parent’s deployment.

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