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U.S. Geological Survey Customer Listening Session

Statement by David Applegate, Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute
January 29-30, 2003


Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I wish to commend the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for the effort you are making to receive input from partners and cooperators. The American Geological Institute (AGI) has a long history of partnership with USGS, and we look forward to continued collaboration in the areas of education, public outreach, data preservation, and information dissemination. AGI also encourages USGS to enhance collaboration with the institute's 40 member societies.

The three themes of this year's listening session -- public health, public safety, and public prosperity -- are well chosen to underscore the value of the Survey to the American people. These themes also are a reminder that some of the Survey's most important activities serve the entire nation and impact the nation's citizens where they live and work, for example environmental monitoring (public health), natural hazard reduction (public safety) and energy and mineral resource assessment (public prosperity). In order to emphasize the broad value of the USGS to society, AGI is working with other stakeholder groups to establish a coalition that will focus attention on the important work of the Survey and seek to build awareness of the value of federal investments in this agency.

Two years ago, the National Research Council released its report, Future Roles and Opportunities for the U.S. Geological Survey, which states quite clearly that the Survey's value to the nation goes well beyond the Department's stewardship mission for federal lands. It is imperative that the national scope of the Survey's mission be recognized and valued within the Department of the Interior and the White House. That national scope includes, but is not limited to, the Survey's responsibility to provide scientific support for the land management agencies. This important component of the Survey's mission helps to ensure that the federal lands are being managed based on the best available scientific information. The Survey's long-term ability to expand its national role is dependent on the degree to which its sister agencies consider their scientific needs are being met.

Public Safety

Americans today have a dramatically heightened awareness of our vulnerability to terrorism, but similar awareness does not exist when it comes to our ever-growing vulnerability to natural disasters. Improving resilience to extreme events whatever the cause will strengthen the nation's overall ability to respond to disruption by any means. As recommended by the National Research Council, the USGS needs to "continue to exercise national leadership in natural hazards research and risk communication." With more people moving to hazard-prone areas -- coasts, floodplains, and areas of increased seismic, volcanic, and landslide risk --- there will be a growing need for USGS science directed at characterizing and mitigating these risks.

The long-term databases produced by the Survey's monitoring programs are one of the USGS's most important contributions to the nation, and care must be taken not to disrupt them. Budgetary restrictions have prevented the Survey from making the large strides needed to modernize its national streamgage and seismic networks, both of which will require substantially increased investments in the coming years to take advantage of new technology and growing need. Recognizing that the long-term value of such networks is a hard sell in an annual budget cycle, we recommend that USGS make extra efforts to promote them.

The Advanced National Seismic System represents a tremendous opportunity for the Survey to provide leadership in earthquake warnings for the nation's most vulnerable urban areas. Vigorous support for this program should be coupled with the Survey's active participation as a partner of the National Science Foundation during the implementation of the EarthScope project.

One of the Survey's most important contributions to public safety is in the development and dissemination of domestic geospatial data. This contribution has taken on even greater significance in light of homeland security needs. And yet the role of the Survey is in danger of being diminished as other federal entities with very different missions are expanding their domestic mapping capabilities. Considerable concerns exist within the geoscience community over the trend toward increasing restrictions to geospatial data, a trend that could accelerate if the USGS -- with its traditional support for maintaining open access to data -- does not maintain its role in this area. These restrictions are particularly problematic for the state and local governments that are on the front lines when it comes to any sort of disaster, whether due to natural forces or willful human acts. The National Map represents an important opportunity for USGS and the nation, and it should serve as a centerpiece for meeting the nation's diverse geospatial needs.

Public Prosperity

The nation's strategic interests demand a full accounting of both domestic and international resources: water, mineral, and energy. In all three cases, the USGS is the nation's premier science authority and data source. The Survey's unique capabilities in remote sensing and geospatial data analysis will also be brought to bear in the re-assessment of domestic security needs. In recent years, there has been an erosion in several of these areas, particularly the Survey's mineral resource assessment capabilities. That trend must be reversed if the USGS is to provide all the analytical needs that the present crisis demands in assessment of global resources to meet societal needs.

As the nation's need for water, energy, and mineral resources inexorably grows, USGS expertise must be brought to bear, working with its many partners to provide a sound basis for decisionmaking.

Public prosperity is not served when the federal government unfairly competes with the private sector. The National Research Council's Future Roles report sounds a cautionary note that in the Survey's efforts to prove its relevance and serve its customers, it has provided services to local jurisdictions that have put it in conflict with the private sector -- a major political liability. The report urges the Survey to undertake local projects only when they clearly serve a broader national goal. At the same time, much of what the Survey does constitutes a unique public good, and efforts to privatize or contract out Survey programs should be done with care to ensure that the public continues to be well served.

Public Health

The budgetary juggernaut of biomedical research has been fueled by a broad political consensus on the need for advances in this field. A strong case has been made for the reliance of modern biomedical breakthroughs on technological advances made possible by federal investment in fundamental physical science research, and there is growing discussion among policymakers about the need for a balanced research portfolio. But this physical science underpinning of biomedical research is not the only linkage that can be made between human health and non-medical science. Indeed, the USGS is uniquely positioned to demonstrate linkages between the earth sciences, ecology and human health through its interdisciplinary work on environmental exposure pathways. The Survey's skills in collecting and characterizing natural settings lend themselves to collaborations with agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Public Health Service. These collaborations should be planned at the highest level, involving scientists both inside and outside the agencies.

For too long, there has been a divide between the geoscience community and the public health community leading to mistrust and poor communication over such geology-related health issues as radon, arsenic, and asbestos. The USGS partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences holds great promise for helping to bridge the divide and should be strengthened. The USGS global mineral assessment has a great deal of potential for developing derivative products that can be used for making decisions that balance resource needs and environmental impacts affecting both ecosystem and human health. Research by USGS scientists into long-range transport of pathogens by airborne dust and the impacts of geologic materials on human health both contribute immensely to our understanding of the associated public health risks.

Although we tend to think of natural disasters primarily as a public safety issue, they also represent a threat to public health. For example, the flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999 had a major impact on both human and environmental health in North Carolina due to inundation of industrial hog farms. A better understanding of natural processes, better warning systems, and better integration of USGS data and analysis into decisionmaking can help alleviate these public health hazards.

A Look to the Future

Even as the USGS seeks to be responsive to pressing issues, the need will remain for basic environmental data. That means the Survey must continue to support geologic mapping, long-term monitoring programs, and related activities that can serve as the basis for decisionmaking about a wide range of societal challenges.

If the Survey is to adequately serve the nation in these three important thematic areas, it must keep a close eye on the future of its workforce. Creating an environment in which the best scientists can work on challenging problems that address societal needs must be a top priority for USGS leadership. The USGS has a tradition of excellence in a number of geoscience disciplines, including seismology, economic geology, and hydrology. If the Survey is to meet societal needs in the future, that expertise must be maintained by a new generation of scientists. The establishment of the Mendenhall postdoctoral fellowship program is an excellent step toward achieving this goal, and it must be followed up with longer-term opportunities. Building partnerships with the academic and private sectors can be done through creative use of fellowships, detailees, and other short-term arrangements.

Thank you again for this opportunity to appear before you. I would be happy to provide additional information on any of these topics.

___________________

The American Geological Institute is a nonprofit federation of 40 geoscientific and professional societies that represent more than 100,000 geologists, geophysicists, and other earth scientists. The institute serves as a voice for shared interests in our profession, plays a major role in strengthening earth science education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role that the geosciences play in mankind's use of resources and interaction with the environment. For more information on AGI, visit www.agiweb.org.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted: April 9, 2003

 


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