Written Statement Submitted by the
American Geological Institute
for the
U.S. Geological Survey Listening Session
October 11, 2001

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I wish to commend you 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 the U.S. Geological Survey (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 37 member societies.

This listening session focuses on the recent National Research Council report Future Roles and Opportunities for the U.S. Geological Survey. AGI supports the report’s findings and urges the Survey to act on them.

An important point needs to be made about the Survey’s mission. The most recent presidential budget request states that the USGS should focus its resources on providing scientific support for its sister land management agencies in the Department of the Interior. That mission is certainly important and needs to be well executed if land management decisions are to be made with the best available scientific information. But the Research Council report makes clear that the Survey’s value to the nation goes well beyond the Department’s stewardship mission for public lands. Some of the most important activities of the Survey -- such as natural hazard reduction, resource assessment, and environmental monitoring -- serve the entire nation and often are most applicable to those non-federal lands where the nation’s citizens reside. It is imperative that these missions be recognized and valued within the Department and the White House.

What is the future role for USGS science in meeting societal needs in the new century?

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.

The tragic exploitation of this nation’s vulnerability to terrorism is also a reminder of our ever-growing vulnerability to natural disasters.  Improving our resilience to extreme events will strengthen the nation’s overall ability to respond to disruption by any means. As recommended by the Research Council, the USGS needs to “continue to exercise national leadership in natural hazards research and risk communication.”

The USGS has a tradition of excellence in a number of geoscience disciplines, examples 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.

What are the emerging scientific issues on which USGS should focus?

For a mission agency like the USGS, emerging science needs will by definition be linked to emerging societal needs. 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 need for ecosystem restoration will also increase. The Survey’s interdisciplinary work on the Florida Everglades is a case study for what is to come. 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.

An issue that has been emerging for some time is the need for more integrated science in support of ecosystem management. All four of the Survey’s disciplinary divisions contribute important knowledge of ecosystems and their abiotic framework. Improvements in geospatial analytical tools make it possible for land managers to more easily consider how various aspects of the landscape relate to one another. But greater efforts are needed to inform land managers about what data are available and how the data can contribute to well-informed decisionmaking. As a recent report by the National Park Service Advisory Board made clear, the land management agencies are more familiar with their biological information needs and may be wholly unaware of the value of geological, hydrological, and pedological information. The Survey can take a leadership role in this area by encouraging greater interaction between Survey scientists and land managers in the other Interior Department bureaus and the U.S. Forest Service.

Regardless of what scientific issues emerge in the coming years, 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.

In order to help identify emerging scientific issues, AGI strongly supports the need for external scientific oversight of the Survey such as that provided by the National Research Council in Future Roles and other reports examining individual USGS programs. We hope that USGS will continue to rely on the National Academies as well as its own federal advisory committees for guidance on emerging issues and needs. External reports, however, are only as good as the agency actions taken to implement their recommendations. The need for external oversight is complemented by a need to mine the Survey’s own internal expertise -- the scientists who are most familiar with the Survey’s activities. Although there are signs that morale has improved since the budget-induced cutbacks of the mid-’90s, much remains to be accomplished in rebuilding internal confidence in Survey leadership.

How can the USGS improve its partnerships and forge new alliances in related science fields of health, medicine, and space?

The biomedical sciences have been a budgetary juggernaut, fueled by a broad 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. 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 Survey is to be commended for holding a congressional briefing on this topic to emphasize the connection between water quality data and human health. There are many more connections to be made. For example, 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.

The Survey should emphasize the impact that natural disasters have on human health. A great deal of pain and suffering can be alleviated through a better understanding of natural processes, better warning systems, and better integration of USGS data and analysis into decisionmaking.

How does USGS achieve a balance between data acquisition and information management, regional studies, fundamental research, and international interests?

As implied in this question, the USGS faces a substantial challenge in balancing the near-term information and assessment needs of its customers against the long-term monitoring and research that is its underlying expertise and knowledge base. Meeting the challenge will take strong leadership informed by extensive public input not only at the national level like this session but also at the regional level. The Research Council report endorses the Survey’s monitoring programs, emphasizing that long-term databases are one of the USGS’s most important contributions to the nation, and that care must be taken not to disrupt them. In the last budget cycle, the Survey was able to take the first steps toward modernizing its national streamgage and seismic networks, both of which will require substantially increased investments in the coming years. 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.

International involvement has been an even tougher political sell and will only succeed if its relevance to the USGS mission is clear. Success stories like the volcano response team and global resource assessments should be closely evaluated to determine lessons learned for other international initiatives.

The Research Council 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.

The USGS website is one of the most visited in the federal government, but the Survey has only begun to mine its rich information resources on earth processes and history that are of interest to students and the public. We encourage the USGS to give high priority to improving and expanding Web-based data access.

Finally, in striking a balance among many different interests, the Survey 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. Building partnerships with the academic and private sectors can be done through creative use of fellowships, detailees, and other short-term arrangements. The recent Memorandum of Understanding between USGS and the National Science Foundation marks an important step in reinvigorating the Survey’s ties to the academic research community, thus opening up a pathway for future employment.

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 37 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 the AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Posted by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

Posted October 18, 2001

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