Bare Earth Elements: Past and present directors dissect the future of USGS

USGS headquarters USGS headquarters in Reston, Va. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Don Becker
December tends to be a busy time for geoscientists — likewise for those of us who cover and write about work in the field. Part of that annual year-end hustle and bustle is due to the timing of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual fall meeting, which brings together tens of thousands of scientists, exhibitors and others (including science writers and reporters) for a week’s worth of research talks, poster presentations, press conferences, workshops and countless other events.

That’s where I was last week — part of the melee around the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where, as I heard it, the box-office tally was about 24,000 attendees. I was attending the meeting to scope out research, stories and scientists that we might cover in EARTH in the coming year. And there certainly was a lot of fascinating, cutting-edge material (some of which we’ve already covered here online).

The meeting is of course populated by participants from universities and research agencies all around the world. And as always, one agency that had a particularly strong presence at AGU this year was the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). With about 10,000 employees and 400 locations nationally, USGS is the country’s principal federal entity for research, monitoring and innovation within the geosciences (although there are others who work in these capacities as well). It continues to produce cutting-edge basic research; institute improvements in our ability to monitor natural resources, hazards and conditions; and collect data for use both internally and by numerous other researchers. It also remains a highly respected agency internationally.

USGS seems to have a penchant for self-assessment and an ambition for pragmatic self-improvement. That was on display last Thursday night in San Francisco in an hour-long panel discussion featuring USGS acting director Suzette Kimball along with four of the five most recent past directors and acting directors, including Tom Casadevall, Chip Groat, Pat Leahy and Marcia McNutt. I had the privilege of sitting in on the discussion, which was co-sponsored by the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), with a roomful of USGS employees. After opening remarks from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the panelists candidly addressed a number of issues, including how USGS has been and should continue adapting to best address its roles in science and public service, as well as internal and external barriers affecting its success in these roles.

USGS monitoring team on Kilauea Geochemist Jeff Sutton of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and a group of students visit a gas monitoring station on Kilauea's east rift zone. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Liliana Desmither
The major theme in terms of USGS’ evolution was collaboration — both within groups in USGS and between USGS and other federal agencies. Several of the past directors pointed out that the push for improving partnerships internally and externally has been ongoing for the last few decades, and that there have been improvements. Casadevall noted, for example, that the agency is configured differently now than it was 30 years ago, with research focuses expanding to address broad themes rather than specific questions. And Kimball mentioned that USGS scientists are involved in more than 800 complementary partnerships with other agencies and groups. The USGS’ Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, initiated in 2012 with the goal of providing a dedicated setting for cross-disciplinary work, was also cited as an example of the survey’s efforts to promote collaboration.

But each panel member agreed that progress has been slow and needs to happen faster for USGS to be able to react more nimbly to meet rapidly arising questions, challenges and data needs related to natural hazards, environmental change, food and water security, and other pressing concerns. Despite the many partnerships and efficiency improvements that USGS has engaged in, Kimball said, there is a lasting perception among politicians, particularly in Congress, that USGS and other scientific agencies duplicate each other’s efforts to a substantial extent. The panelists agreed that combatting this perception in government, which in turn impacts public perception as well as agency budgets, is a vital but very difficult challenge, especially given the variable levels of scientific background and divergent views of the roles of USGS and other federal science agencies represented in Congress.

Leahy — currently executive director of AGI, a not-for-profit organization representing 50 geoscience societies (and which publishes EARTH) — noted that part of the difficulty with fostering new collaborations and partnerships has been that geoscience as a whole is too fragmented. He suggested that, despite best intentions, it is still difficult to bring researchers entrenched in their own disciplines together to talk about collaboration. He also suggested that USGS consider adding a more robust forecasting capability, built on its existing knowledge base and infrastructure, to its portfolio of products. Although political sensitivities might emerge from such forecasts — related to mineral and water resources, for example — he proposed that they would represent added value beyond just monitoring and cataloging current conditions.

Limited budgeting is, as always, another barrier for USGS (and most research, let's be honest). Beyond doing their best to demonstrate the survey’s importance to Congress, the panelists acknowledged that its internal rules for allocation and cost structuring have also been slow to evolve, perhaps hampering collaboration in cases where funding sources are unclear.

Another issue the panel addressed was related to USGS’ standing and role internationally, and what goal it should be working toward in this realm. Several panel members acknowledged having frequently encountered the troubling argument in government that the survey should solely be focused on domestic science and issues only of direct relevance to Americans. Kimball said that notion is antithetical to her vision for the survey, suggesting that USGS “has a real role as leaders in global science.” And Casadevall pointed out that USGS has long had a global perspective of science, sharing data and resources, posting scientists abroad and sending scientific envoys to help other countries solve problems. (See, for example, recent stories in EARTH detailing USGS’ efforts in Afghanistan.) Without persistent efforts to maintain its record and stature, he said he feared the survey could become marginalized internationally, especially as geoscientific organizations in the European Union, China and elsewhere seek to expand their level of international collaboration.

The panel touched on other issues as well in the course of their discussion, such as how best to effectively utilize the huge amounts of monitoring and other data that USGS collects. Overall, however, collaboration and the need for ongoing improvement in operations and to trumpet the important role played by USGS (and geoscience broadly) in the country’s well-being were the main issues of the evening. 

Timothy Oleson

Timothy Oleson

Oleson is the news editor at EARTH, and writes the Bare Earth Elements blog. His scientific interests span the geosciences from biogeochemistry to seismology to space science. Formerly based in Madison, Wis., he now resides in the Washington, D.C., area.

Monday, December 22, 2014 - 17:00

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