American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

NRC Study on the Future Role of the U.S. Geological Survey (8-12-98)

The Committee on Future Roles, Challenges, and Opportunities for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a newly established "multidisciplinary group of experts drawn from industry, academia, and government to assist the USGS in its evolution" formed by the National Research Council Commission on Geosciences/ Environment and Resources.  The committee held an initial two-day meeting in the Washington area to discuss the future of the USGS, focusing on four points:

First Day
The first day of the meeting, July 20th, began with introductions of all those present, and welcoming comments from Mark Schaefer, Deputy Assistant Director for Water and Science in the Department of the Interior. The committee then met in closed session for the remainder of the morning.

The afternoon session opened with a presentation by Donald DePaolo, chairman of the Committee, advancing the purpose, scope and plan for the NRC study. Acting USGS Director Thomas Casadevall furnished an overview of the USGS stressing the expanded responsibilities of his organization with the addition of the biological division, and the fact that the organizational role was not to make decisions, but to provide the scientific data others needed to make decisions. He expressed his delight that the Committee was to embark on a review of the USGS, and looked forward to receiving the Committee's report.

USGS Chief Biologist Dennis Fenn presented the structure, budget, and responsibilities of the Biological Resources Division stating the division's mission was to provide the scientific understanding and technologies required to support sound management and conservation of the Nation's biological resources. Programmatic efforts would be directed toward ecosystems, endangered and at-risk species, exotic species, contaminants, fisheries and aquatic resources, wildlife, and status and trends of biological information. He stressed the need to coordinate and cooperate with other state and federal agencies, universities, and the private sector.

Geological Division Associate Chief Linda Gundersen advanced an overview of her division focussing primarily on the division's strategic plan for the next decade, and its 7 science goals. These were to: Assess geologic hazards for mitigation planning; provide short-term prediction of geologic disasters and rapidly characterize impacts; understand the Nation's energy and mineral resources in a global geologic, economic, and environmental context; anticipate the environmental impacts of climate variability; establish the geological framework for ecosystem structure and function; interpret the links between human health and geologic processes; and, determine the geological framework for ground-water resource assessments and hazardous waste isolation.

Assistant National Mapping Division Chief Hedy Rossmeissl outlined the origins of the National Mapping Program, the elements of the program in transition, and the content, trends, and future strategies for the division. In addition to describing the products of the division, she alluded to the areas in transition including government decentralization and devolution; the multi-dimensional geographic information community, technological advancements; political pressures; societal changes; adjustments in the federal role; developing partnerships within government and the private sector; customer service; program accountability; strategic planning; and the dramatic shift in the employee skill to deal with spectacular technological advances.

Chief Hydrologist Robert Hirsch presented the budget, structure, office locations, and personnel distribution of the Water Resources Division. Their mission was described as providing reliable, impartial, timely information needed to understand the Nation's water resources. Highlighted programs included the stream gaging network, and the national water quality assessment program. Nine areas were identified for increased emphasis. These were: urban and suburban impacts; the coastal zone; drinking water; aquatic habitats; waste isolation and remediation, hazards; climate related to hydrology; surface and ground water; and improved water management.

Associate Operations Director Barbara Ryan displayed an overall USGS effort entitled "Gateway to the Earth." The mission was advanced as an intent to provide the Nation with reliable, impartial information to describe and understand the earth. The program integrates earth and natural science information, and provides data and information that characterizes processes in, on, and around the Earth. The program involves all four of the USGS's operational divisions.

The remainder of the afternoon and evening consisted of site visits to several USGS operations including the National Hazards Information Center, the Water Isotope laboratory, the Water Geochemistry Laboratory, and demonstrations of the National Oil and Gas Assessment program, the National Digital Atlas activity, and the Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem Program.

Second Day
On July 21st, at the National Academy of Science Building, the committee reconvened to hear statements by key administrators from the National Park Service, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Office of Management and Budget(OMB). The speakers discussed areas that the USGS needs to improve and methods by which the USGS and other agencies can build better multiagency partnerships in research, technology, public relations, and information systems.

 National Park Service

John Dennis, Chief of the Natural Systems Management Office, spoke about  the National Park Service's role as an applied science bureau.  Mr. Dennis explained that the bureau's needs are fairly concrete, such as GIS data, site-specific studies, information on processes, and models. They could benefit from trend analysis, data interpretation, technical assistance, and institutional links.  According to his testimony, he thinks the USGS should inform society about the supply of natural systems available, how those systems function, and the economic value they contribute. He stressed how mapping and monitoring activities (e.g. seismic activity at Mt. St. Helens) are key functions that the USGS can provide the NPS.  Mr. Dennis also addressed five ways in which the USGS can have a role in emerging scientific issues.  1) conducting regional-scale studies of physical and biological events related to global climate change, 2) assessing non-economic costs to the environment that result from development, 3) surveying loss of biodiversity, 4) coordinating large volumes of interdisciplinary data, and 5) educating urban residents about the unseen natural resources that sustain modern life.  Mr. Dennis commented on how partnerships get lip service but lack the active participation and personal relationships needed to be successful.  He stressed that resource management in the National Park Service is done on the local level, and yet the local managers lack resources to support science at this level.  This situation may have partly resulted from the exodus of $20 million from the NPS budget to USGS coincident with the USGS acquisition of the National Biological Survey (now the Biological Research Division).  Therefore, the USGS can greatly augment this need by providing regional studies, data acquisition, and data management to these local managers.  The theme of his testimony relayed his view that the key USGS role is not to provide fundamental research for the nation, but to provide interdisciplinary, applied science.

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Dr. James Baker, the Administrator of NOAA, stated that the USGS should address how current trends of society, such as population growth, population migration, and aging, are stressing the country's resources.  He discussed the USGS's role in bringing information to society.  Dr. Baker outlined five areas that he sees as critical for the USGS to address in the future.  They include the availability of water resources, natural disaster reduction, ocean resources, biodiversity, and the merging of civil with formerly classified mapping data.  He concluded by discussing USGS's role in bringing information to society.  As Co-chair of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources of the President's National Science and Technology Council, Dr. Baker feels that the USGS could benefit from an organizational structure that gets the bureau a few steps closer to policymakers.  According to Dr. Baker, often scientists are a self-selected group with little interest in public relations, but the USGS needs to be more pro-active in promoting itself to the American public, a problem that NOAA does not share.  The point that he stressed most, which Dr. Baker said may be contrary to current USGS policy, is that the Survey should also have an international as well as a domestic focus.

Fish and Wildlife Service

In 1996, the Biological Resources Division (BRD), formerly the National Biological Service, was incorporated as part of the USGS. This division was formed from the research and related activities of seven Department of the Interior bureaus, with the largest components coming from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.  John Rogers, Deputy Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, briefly commented on the effects of this restructuring on the FWS.  As urban sprawl increases, and federal lands are invaded by foreign species of animals and plants, there is a greater need for both basic and applied biological research.  Rogers stated that there is no difficulty in getting information from the USGS -- although nothing is the same as having "a researcher at your elbow" -- but that as budget restraints continue to decreased research funding, the USGS and FWS need to strengthen their relationship.  He suggested that, along with improving cooperation between services, there needs to be better communication and joint pressure to keep the budget at least at current levels.

Bureau of Land Management

Pat Shea, Director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), listed what he thought should be top priorities of the USGS: be a good neighbor, practice the best science, promote multiple use programs and projects, improve public relations, and work on outreach and education.  By sharing data and making it readily available in a user-friendly format on the Internet, technology can play a major role in reaching these goals.  Mr. Shea also suggested that shared indicators and mutually agreed-to standards would greatly improve interagency cooperation, but that all agencies needed to do a better job of following trends in information and technology.  He continued by saying that the science community needs to work on its public relations; "make it clear to the public the good of science."  There are many small success stories in the PR area, like citizen environmental monitoring programs in the Pacific Northwest and the adopt-a-burro program, that get the public's attention, but that more of these programs are needed on a larger scale.  He finished by saying that the divisions in the USGS need to have more say in research projects to help meet the needs of multidisciplinary projects.

Minerals Management Service

Pulak Ray, the Chief Geologist for the Minerals Management Service (MMS), said that USGS needs to be pro-active in areas like geohazards, coastal research, alternative energy sources, and hydrology.  Ray said that MMS needs regional studies done by USGS for up-to-date information so that site-specific studies can be placed in the larger context.  Stressing the importance of regional and site-specific studies, Ray said that new technology and computers can only do so much without up-to-date data.  MMS, primarily a regulatory agency, needs USGS to be the primary agency that it can turn to for field information.  He suggested that USGS should play a major role in developing a sediment-core depository and information database.  MMS and USGS administrators need to meet regularly to plan and discuss projects, research areas, and to help improve cooperation between agencies.

Environmental Protection Agency

Robert Perciasepe, Assistant Administrator for Water for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), opened his presentation by discussing the distinction between science application programs and science education programs.  According to Mr. Perciasepe, some technical programs focus on the application of scientific innovations to everyday life while other programs concentrate on better understanding the sciences and the mysteries of the universe.  For the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to meet future needs, the survey must merge these two sets of programs and integrate their projects with other agency developments.  One area of growth for USGS is to expand its expertise to a policy-related role and to build bridges at a  policy-level to other federal agencies.  USGS can balance their activities and participate in a broader range of policy work.  In addition, USGS should concentrate on improving these linkages and coordinating monitoring between state partners.  Particularly, Mr. Perciasepe emphasized increasing the cooperation between USGS and EPA on data storage and national water quality.  To maximize its role in the future, USGS can fulfill societal needs by merging scientific and technical issues.  For example, the USGS could assess geological conditions in a way that is connected to such areas as biology and watershed health.  This assessment connects to Mr. Perciasepe's main message that integration between various agencies and the coordination of multidisciplinary activities will be the standard for the future.

Office of Management and Budget

T.J. Glauthier, Associate Director of Natural Resources, Energy and Science for the Office of Management and Budget, also stressed the need to strengthen collaboration across the different agencies.  Mr. Glauthier commented that the existence of a balanced budget required agencies to overlap on research and to provide information that is valuable to the community.  Since government funding is limited, USGS could take on the additional role of using technology to cut costs.  For example, NASA through flexible thinking used improved technology like the internet to increase public support for its programs and to reduce costs.  In addition, Mr. Glauthier believes the USGS should implement programs that provide grants which will shift areas of research.  Nationally, USGS has a role in using satellite data for domestic purposes.  Yet internationally, USGS maintains a responsibility to continue communication with foreign governments and to share information on global scientific issues such as global climate change.  Like the other presentations before him, Mr. Glauthier focused on the strengths of collaboration and cooperation across agencies, across governments.

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

Contributed by Shannon Clark, Joy Roth, and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs Interns; and John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs Senior Advisor

Posted August 7, 1998; Last updated August 12, 1998

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