The State of Federal Geoscience

Charles Groat

Considering the discouraging news we have heard, I really wish I could say I'm here from the U.S. government and we're here to help because this would be the time for it after all we've heard.  I wish I could tell you that the federal agencies were going to hire 5,000 geoscientists over the next few years.  Not only can't I do that, but also my overheads are pretty dull compared to the ones you've seen this morning.  I was going to give a talk without overheads and then I found out why something I'd observed over the years was true, that federal employees never give talks without overheads.  It's required.  It's in the little thing you signed when you go to work for the federal government, that you will use overheads in all of your talks.  So I found out at the last minute I was going to have to use overheads so here they are.

When I talk about government, I'll probably focus, in fact I will focus on the federal government, but as a former state geologist, if I don't remember that there are geoscientists in state government as well, I'll get shot.  I will talk about U.S. Geological Survey within the Department of the Interior, recognizing that other bureaus in the department have geologists or geoscientists as well.  And obviously other departments in the federal government have many geoscientists.  And I've left out a couple in the overhead.  Obviously the Department of Agriculture has geoscientists in it, as does EPA.  But the fact is geoscientists are spread out across the government in agencies that range from research like ours and applications and research clusters within some of these departments, to those who are actually on the ground implementing programs and dealing with the operational aspects of those agencies.  Whether it's in the environment or energy and minerals or land and water management, they are everywhere.  And if you take the 1993 numbers that AGI had developed, it looks like there are about 20,000 or so geoscientists in government agencies at the present time.

I'm going to focus on federal agencies, as I said, and principally the USGS, but I do want to talk about a few generalities that affect all federal agencies and their employment of geoscientists. It is very obvious that the chief control over not only our hiring of geoscientists, but our geoscience programs in general is the budget.  There are funding realities that we have to face up to, and that is if you look at expenditures for programs, particularly research that involve geoscientists across the federal government and the rates of increases in those programs, they have barely met the pace of inflation.  So we haven't seen substantial sustained increases in funding that would allow the generation of new programs that would bring about the hiring of lots of new people.  So the lack of money for new positions is one aspect of it, but more immediate and more real on a day to day basis is the fact that given lack of significant increases in funding, when people retire or take other opportunities, we tend not to fill the vacancies.  We tend not to fill them because the money that's there needs to be used to net the increasing costs of mandated salary increases, mandated fringe benefit increases and inflation in operating costs.  So the pool of money doesn't get any greater, the numbers of people shrink.  One of the "benefits" of the very difficult RIF that the geologic division suffered back in '95 was that there was some money available for operations for programs for a while.  But it wonít take very long before that money, without budget growth, gets consumed paying for people and the fringe benefits that go along with them.  So we have a very difficult time then expanding our work force.

This graph shows that the budgets in practically all agencies have done what I've said.  And if we look where the significant increases are for funding in federal
agencies, they are not in groups that have lots of geosciences.  It's the National Institutes of Health.  It's the things that are on the publicís mind that attract funding.  And those are health issues, issues related to education, and similar things people identify with as opposed to those things that relate to science or relate to geosciences in particular.  Perhaps with one exception, and that is that the National Science Foundation has done relatively well in recent times and geosciences within it have done moderately well.  But that's because the Republican congress is very convinced that sound investments in basic scientific research are important and is willing to spend money there as opposed to increasing funding for agencies that actually apply or use geoscience or science in general.
 The other aspect of the federal government that we have to face up to is that program funding is fickle.  Things come and go.  We have administrations that come in with their agendas, they push certain programs, and they often don't remain the same throughout the tenure of that administration.  So an agency gears up to do something that's in one year or the next year, and then all of a sudden it's not in because the administration has changed its direction or the administration itself hampers.  In the past several years, at least the past four or five years, a Democratic administration, a Republican congress, have had different views of the world.  What the administration advocates, the Republican congress doesn't necessarily buy.  What the Republican congress would like to see more of, in our case for example, energy and minerals, the administration isn't too excited about it.  So you get this standoff that means programs don't generally don't go as far as they might if both the congress and the administration were on the same page, and even then, given budget caps and limits, increased funding isnít a certainty.  So if you look at a trend in R&D funding in constant dollars over the past four or five years, you see the health agency (NIH) and NSF doing fairly well, but you see the rest of the federal establishment that spends money for research, and particularly those agencies in which geoscience is a major component not doing so well.  If you look at the Department of Interior in the middle of the graph, we haven't done very well at all.  So there has not been, to repeat the point made earlier, significant infusions of money into federal agencies that do research away from the health fields or the basic sciences fields.  And as a result we do not have a significant amount of growth that would increase hiring.

A sampling of some of the programs that have suffered from inconsistency or disputes between different branches of government, or among different agencies within the government, includes global climate change.  It is a Vice Presidential initiative.  Early in the administration it was hot.  It did get more money, but that funding went principally to atmospheric research.  Watershed planning, a very high topic for EPA in recent years, has received increases but not much of that has gone into the geosciences and it tends to be on the decline.  Even environmental health, which is part of the health trend you would think, but it has not received significant amounts of money, even though at times it has been a high profile topic.

One other area I want to mention that suffers, in the federal and state governments, from flat budgets is our ability to keep up with technology.  If we are in the research business, then researchers clearly want to have the tools that allow them to be efficient and effective.  If we are in the communication business and communicating the results of our research for applications, then we certainly want to have the tools to do that.  And the tools are more incredible now than they have ever been before.  Yet we are not able to do the things we would like to do to keep up with technology.  How do we replace seismic monitoring systems that are 80's technology when you don't have any money to do that?  How do you replace stream-gauging stations with those that deliver data in real time and hazards warning systems of all kinds if you don't have the resources?  How do you buy the information technology hardware and software that allows you to communicate those pieces of information to the public and other consumers and other scientists if you don't have the resources?  How do you buy the analytical equipment to outfit your laboratories?  And as fast as things move forward, we fall behind at the same rate.  So flat budgets, therefore, not only affect our people and our programs, they affect the tools we have to carry out those programs.  And in all of these cases, the news hasn't been particularly good.

There are a couple of personnel issues that are government wide that I think are worth mentioning. One is the aging work force that has been cited by the private sector as well as by the government agencies.  We can't hire young people.  We don't get that infusion of new ideas, new technologies, and new skills that the universities are trying to imbue them with.  So we lose not only that, but we lose their familiarity with some of the technology that they have contact with in their education.  Fewer people means increased workloads.  There is no end to unfunded mandates that come down in government agencies, things you need to do, and I'm sure the same thing is true in industry.  But we're faced with the same work force, a work force that increasingly is in declining in numbers.  It gets over-stressed and over-committed trying to meet the various challenges that are put in front of it. A second issue is diversity: our workforce, especially the scientific front, is dominated by white males.  We have done fairly well in increasing the number of women, but fall short with ethnic minorities.  This chart shows the numbers of people we would have to hire in various specialty areas to become representative, and frankly we are not coming close.  So we are having a difficult time in numbers of people we can hire and a difficult time in increasing under-represented populations in our technical workforce.

What are we doing about it?  What are the solutions?  Frankly, we are spending a lot of time thinking of ways to bring into service people in different ways than as traditional employees, and employing students is one of the chief growth areas.  Eight percent of our work force is now students - undergraduates, graduates, or post-doc's (if you want to consider them students). The post-doc program is something that our geologic division is taking advantage of.  It has a program to use, as part of its scientific work force, increasing numbers of post-doc's.
People who are still affiliated with universities in one way or another who are working for the U.S. Geological Survey as anything from interns to fully participating scientists, yet they are not in our full time equivalent ranks are becoming increasingly important to us.  We are using term appointments where we hire people for a shorter period of time rather than making it a career commitment.  We are using contracting.  We have hundreds of contractors in our various programs.  This is a benefit in the sense that it provides the private sector an opportunity.  It's a benefit in terms of some of our efficiencies.  It gives us difficulties in terms of consistency and corporate memory.  We're using lots of volunteers, retired people and people who are just available and interested in the geosciences.
If you look at a map of the US with the distribution of our operations, it looks like the chicken pox.  We have people everywhere.  So we are looking for opportunities to consolidate in some areas and co-locate people in our organization, particularly with universities.  And there are other federal agencies that are doing the same thing.  Because here again we have a sharing of talent, a sharing of programs, a sharing of resources where we can work together on things of mutual interest and do it much more effectively.

In the area of diversity, we're trying hard and we're trying to find new approaches.  I could go into this in more than I really need to at this point, suffice it to say we have some fundamental problems in recruiting under-represented populations into geoscience majors as well as into the profession once they graduate.  Basically I don't think we understand their motivation.  We tend to recruit them in the same way we recruit majority populations, assuming that everything that appeals to us - male and female Caucasians is going to appeal to them.  That's not necessarily the case and we need to factor in cultural and social values.  The USGS has seven teams of people that are going out to universities across the country to try to establish relationships with them and work with them in building trust and in building programs that would attract people into the field.  We are doing several things with partnerships and intern programs and career fairs and so forth.  The same things that industry is doing; the same things that universities are doing to try to reach out and attract members of under-represented populations.

Let me conclude with a few comments on geoscience programs.  What are the geosciences doing in federal agencies and what are the directions for the future, in general for government agencies and specifically for the USGS?  I call your attention to this program slide -   notice it says programs.  It doesnít show the geologic division, water resources division, national mapping division, and biological division. Geoscientists in our organization and geoscientists in the government in general are working more on themes and areas of emphasis and interest rather than being identified as discipline specialties.  That's not to say that within each of the divisions of the USGS or within the groupings in EPA and others there aren't very significant and continuing programs that geoscientists will take on as geoscientists, very discipline bounded and limited.  There will be, I'm not trying to de-emphasize that, but in terms of where the growth is as it's already been mentioned before in the mining industry and in the oil and gas industry, integrating different teams of people with different skills to solve complex problems is becoming more and more the way that scientists are going to work.  Since the USGS had biologists added to us a couple years ago, we now have a biological resources division, which gives us a wonderful capability to deal with the life sciences as well as the earth and related sciences and to integrate them to work on complex, multi-faceted problems.  Other federal agencies with more distributed science populations already have a mixed of expertise.  Hazards, natural resources, environment, information technology programs are all areas where we are trying to apply these diverse skills to complex issues.

Regarding funding, this shows you where weíve been in the past couple of years.  I'll have to admit that for federal agencies the budget disaster that took place last year worked out great for us.  We got the biggest increase we've received in a long, long time.  When they passed that monster omnibus  budget bill that nobody seemed to know the content of, we came out great.  So I would argue for government by chaos every year if it would bring those results.

This chart shows how the money is broken out across the U.S. Geological Survey with an $839 million budget request for FY2000.  Notice some different words in there.  Biology is not in our tradition, but is definitely in our future.  There is an integrated science piece that I wanted to call your attention to.  This is our attempt to direct budget dollars to the integrated sorts of things I just mentioned.  And we do that by crossing structural lines as well as crossing discipline lines with our money as well as our scientists.  Many federal agencies, not just us, are groping with ways to make their structures fit this growing mode of doing research as are universities.  Having just come from a university I know how challenging it can be to get geologists and biologists and chemists and physicists to cross their departmental lines, even within a college, to come together in an organized sort of way to do things.  We face the same challenges of stovepipe structures in federal agencies.  If we are going to deal with complex problems through integrated approaches, we need the budget structure and organization flexibility direction to do it.

I want to mention, almost in closing, the international aspect that has come up in several talks this morning.  Look at the global involvement of the petroleum industry and the mining industry.  Walter mentioned the environmental challenges that are going to pose opportunities, citing water in Africa for example. From a scientific point of view, from a research point of view, working on complex problems involving systems and cycles, you don't understand those within the boundaries of countries.  It was argued by my former mentor, J. Hoover Macken, that a geoscientist wasn't worth a hoot until he or she had many years of experience because it's an experiential science.  The more you see, the more you do, the better you are.  Well, if you bound those experiences to one state or one country, then you are limiting the ability of geoscientists to deal with the world-scope they now have to deal with.  So giving them that international dimension as part of integrated teams doing multi-disciplinary complex systems kinds of research is also great for them as scientists, beneficial for them in their careers.  Thus the international aspect of programs has great significance for both science and scientists.  If we are going to mirror where the national needs are, and if the national needs reflect more and more dependence on international elements, whether they be of minerals and energy or whether they involve the carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere, the USGS needs to be active on the international scene.  How do we pay for that?  Will the federal government appropriate money for us to be active in the international arena?  That's a great challenge, and it probably isn't going to be a major source of funding for this work.  We are going to have to find ways, as has the British survey or the German survey or the French, to find support by countries and international agencies trying to build capacity as well as solve problems.  There are many countries that need to field government expertise and university expertise to deal with the challenges and consequences of economic growth.  Populations or civilizations are advancing, they are using more resources and increasing environmental impacts.  We can help them deal with these as can universities.  That's a role that a federal survey has a piece of, but certainly not an exclusive piece of, and where we with the universities and private sector and the USGS can play a role internationally.

I will close with just a couple of comments on new relationships, which are so important for the USGS.  If we are going to be involved, and if other federal agencies are going to be involved, in integrated science, in international activities, if we are going to be making strategic hires, if we are going to be involved more in partnerships, and we are, who do we partner with?  We are finding more things we can do with the private sector.  There were times when, for U.S. Geological Survey in particular, to rub elbows with industry, particularly the oil and gas industry or mineral industry, was not considered appropriate.  It's no longer that way and it hasn't been for some time.  We work very closely with industry, particularly in the oil and gas resources assessment area, as we expand our analysis of undiscovered resources from domestic to international.  Industry is becoming a much more active and close partner in many of the things we do, whether it's resource development related activities, environmental activities, or whether it is information technology.  There are as many industry co-workers and partners as there are people from universities and other areas.  So our role in interacting with the private sector has become much greater than it's been in the past, and I think our mapping division, through our use of those technologies and those partners, is probably the best example of that.

And finally, since this is a university as well as an industry crowd, and since we have been accused of being a university without students in the past, it is appropriate to point out advantages of university partnerships.  We are a research organization.  We do want to see our research applied, in the same way that universities are increasingly becoming concerned about this.  Quality science applied to societal needs is our mission.  If resources are limited, if personnel are limited, we have a natural kinship with universities because we have many of the same goals.  So we are looking for ways to increase our interaction with universities, through co-location of our scientists with their scientists on campuses, by professional interactions where faculties and post-doc's and graduate students become a major part of our programs, and by assisting the costs and use of sophisticated scientific instrumentation as we have with Stanford.  There are many ways we can interact with universities, and very much open to exploring creative approaches.

As we go through the next couple of days talking about relationships in the face of limited budgets, limited personnel, and in some cases, limited opportunities for the geoscientists, we have to be aware of the fact that we are not high on the public awareness profile. Yet the geosciences are at the core of many of the opportunities and challenges in the future.  We must, as a profession that has traditionally been one that wants to go off into the field and do our thing with rocks and natural systems, come forward and be aggressive.  So we need to be as geared to talking out as we are to talking in. There are a number of success stories to prove to you that it is possible, but it isn't easy and we have to keep at it.  And particularly, we, in the federal establishment, as a science agency, have an even more difficult time because we're not a line agency making public decisions.  We're not out there in the trenches or headlines fighting it out.  We're the added value working behind the scenes.  It's hard to find people who know us who won't say the USGS is a great scientific organization, makes great contributions, but it is hard sometimes to find people who have heard of us.  So we have to be known as do the geosciences in general, and we are going to work hard at that.  And I think AGI, its governmental affairs programs, and some of the activities that the industry is going through to make this happen are signs that we're catching on.  We need to emphasize this outreach as much as we emphasize improving the quality of our science and its applications to ensure the support is there to advance our shared interests.