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Professionals comment on working in the Federal Government

Charles E. Brown, U.S. Geological Survey
P. Patrick Leahy, U.S. Geological Survey
Bonnie A. McGregor, U.S. Geological Survey
Dallas L. Peck, U.S. Geological Survey


Charles E. Brown
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Virginia

In this brief summary, I am going to reflect on more than 30 years of involvement with the geological-sciences profession and to give some observations of change and direction. During this span of time, I have seen remarkable changes in the profession. The changes have included both upsizing and downsizing of the work force in academia, government, and industry, but I am very happy to have been a part of and to reflect on these processes because the diversity of work in the geological profession is unl imited in scope. Present business-cycle swings throughout the economy seem to have a great impact on employment opportunities in the geologic profession, much more so than in the recent past.

The geological, hydrological, and environmental sciences are all related in their own unique multidisciplinary fashion. These crosscutting relationships allow a geoscientist or other environmental-sciences professional to cross over work boundaries bec ause of the supporting bridges built upon the fundamentals of mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and, now, computer and statistical sciences. These disciplines all link in several ways to the mathematical modeling capabilities that stand at the fore front of all the sciences. There is no apparent reason to believe that mathematical modeling of geologic, chemical, hydrologic, biologic, and meteorologic processes will not continue to remain on the cutting edge of research and application in the science s.

As an employee of the USGS for nearly twenty years, I am able to make a few suggestions to geoscientists, based on my experiences. The first recommendation to the geoscientist is to be well versed in the basics of the mathematical sciences, and it is n ow a must also to be more than computer literate, i.e., to be computer educated. I recommend a career-development path that permits one to attain continuing education either in the sciences, engineering, or business to enhance and magnify a geoscience bac kground. Continuing education is a must to prevent the use of obsolete methodology and to gain new insights in work. It is recommended that you do not walk a straight and narrow path within your profession, but that you develop a path that includes divers ity in training; as such you become more multidisciplinary in your efforts. This multidisciplinary nature also leads to better teamwork in the workplace. It is recommended that the principle of "multiple working hypotheses" become an element of all your problem-solving and work efforts. It is important to recognize the importance of the international components of your science and work, and further that you build upon foreign languages if the opportunity exists to do so. It is important to recog nize the 'politics' of your profession, and to recognize that politics is a way of life and that there is no way to circumvent its effects. Finally, I recommend learning to write in a scientific and professional manner as early as possible in your career, because ultimately this is the way you communicate the results of your work to peers and managers. The metamorphosis outlined here may prevent you from becoming a dinosaur, because change is the norm in the geologic profession as it is in Earth history.

The best potential for employment opportunities in the next few decades seems to lay with the hydrological and environmental sciences. There will always be a need to develop, protect, and conserve new and existing water supplies and natural resources. The environmental management and associated litigation needs should increase the demand for professionals doing this type of work.

Jobs in the federal sector will probably not increase in the near future, but it is expected that jobs in the state and local government sector will increase, as regulatory demands are moved from the federal government to the states in accordance with federal-budget changes. There will, however, always be a need in the federal and other governments, academia, and industry for geoscientists. The ups and downs in business cycles experienced by the petroleum and energy industries will continue to affect e mployment opportunities for geoscientists, but there will always be a need for geoscientists whose specialty revolves around the exploration and development of energy resources, whether petroleum, coal, uranium, or unconventional forms of energy such as h ydropower, geothermal, solar, or wind.

My formal introduction to geoscience and hydrology began in undergraduate days. I was a mathematics major and later changed to geology. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to work with world-renowned U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geophysicists, geologists, and hydrologists, and this work helped to shape my future accomplishments. I was able to work and discern what field work in geology is all about. My first employment in the USGS was as a field assistant on a geophysical survey that was used in evaluating the potential of a sedimentary basin in the southwestern U.S. to contain aquifers and to further determine the potential for producing large amounts of water from wells drilled in that semi-arid region. In the late 1960s, when I commenced my career, employment opportunities were increasing in all work sectors for geoscientists. My six summers of work in government helped to shape my science-writing and field-work skills in geophysics and environmental geology, and helped me to choose a caree r that encompassed the science of hydrogeology with emphasis on the environment, statistics, and geophysics. I would like to reemphasize that these fields of study continue to expand and to require skilled professionals.

In the future, there will be many geoscience opportunities related to energy- and water-resources development and protection on the international front. Great demands will be placed upon the geoscience and hydrologic professions as we export overseas o ur advanced energy and water technologies that are being presently developed in the U.S. Thus the future is brighter for geoscientists with advanced mathematical and computer-programming skills. The age of databases is upon us, and we must prepare accordi ngly to meet the demands for analyzing voluminous data compilations and creating models of the data in a timely manner.

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P. Patrick Leahy
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Virginia

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently received a wake-up call relative to the changing role of science in the Nation. In 1995, we were identified for abolishment by the 104th Congress. A major reason for this threat was the perception by many pol icy makers that our work tended to lack relevance to the pressing issues facing the Nation. We were fortunate that many individuals and groups stepped forward and strongly urged Congress to rethink the proposal to eliminate the Nation's only Federal earth -science agency. Clearly these supporters recognized the unique national role filled by the USGS. But this threat was a clear message to the USGS that we need to be more responsive to the public and address relevant societal issues. This does not imply that the USGS will only collect earth-science data or abandon basic research. What it does mean is that we will communicate better with those who need timely, accurate, and objective earth-science information.

The need for objective, accurate, timely, and understandable earth-science information may be greater now than at any time in recorded history. Major issues such as the safe disposal of waste and the consequences of resource extraction are being debate d by society, and decisions are rendered often without the benefit of factual earth-science information. Certainly these decisions will have profound and lasting consequences for future generations. Important questions we must ask ourselves as earth scien tists are, "Why is earth-science information not being used more effectively by policy makers to craft solutions to these pressing problems?", and "What should we as earth scientists do to fill this information gap?".

As Chief Geologist of the USGS, I have given serious consideration to these questions. The Chief Geologist is responsible for the Nation's information needs regarding geologic hazards, resources and processes. These programs include domestic and worldw ide earthquake, volcano and landslides monitoring and research; assessments of energy and mineral resources; tracking of domestic and international mineral information; geologic mapping and interpretation of land and sea-floor resources, and ecosystem stu dies.

My own interest in science started in my teens during the exciting years of the early space-exploration program. High-school courses in biology, chemistry, physics and calculus at La Salle Institute in Troy, New York, provided a sound basis for pursuin g a career in science. While an undergraduate at Boston College, I took a beginning course in physical geology that inspired me to major in geology. I also had the fortunate opportunity to work as a summer field assistant for the USGS. This experience enc ouraged me to pursue an M.S. in geophysics at Boston College. I completed my academic training at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I received a Ph.D. in geology. Related work and teaching experiences during graduate-school years helped round out my training in geosciences. During summers, I worked for a major oil company and a geophysical research observatory, and during the school year I taught laboratory courses at both Boston College and Rensselaer.

I have been extremely fortunate in both my academic efforts and professional career because many senior individuals have spent time with me and provided mentoring. This guidance has served me well and it is an aspect of service to an organization that I am afraid we are rapidly losing.

I began my professional career as a hydrogeologist with the USGS in the Dover, Delaware, office in 1974. One of the most rewarding aspects of my early research in the USGS was to study the ground-water flow system of the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain , especially the behavior of ground-water flow in the coastal-plain aquifer system in response to eustatic sea-level changes. Later, my work as Chief of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, the first systematic assessment of the quality of the n ation's ground- and surface-water resources, was particularly rewarding. My greatest challenge began in 1995, when I was selected as Chief Geologist and became responsible for the Geologic Division. This was particularly challenging because I had spent th e first 20 years of my career as a hydrogeologist in the Water Resources Division. This combined experience has convinced me of the importance of multidisciplinary efforts to solve scientific problems.

Many of the complex geoscience issues we face today are of significant interest to the public. Indeed, earth-science problems often involve serious conflict, have costly and long-term consequences, require timely action on the part of a policy maker, a nd reveal significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding. As earth scientists we must take steps to better understand societal issues and their potential relation to earth-science information. We must conduct both applied and basic research, link mon itoring activities with interpretive studies, and develop new technologies that allow us to conduct our work faster, more cheaply, and more accurately. We also need to focus on timely delivery of appropriate information to the user and work more effective ly with a broader group of disciplines. These disciplines may include not only traditional partners in earth science, such as geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, and hydrologists, but also non-traditional partners, such as biologists, economists, soci al scientists, resource managers, and policy makers.

The USGS has now completed a strategic plan that, like a road map, indicates possible actions that will benefit the agency in anticipation of the changing societal, economic, and political conditions through the year 2005. A key part of this plan is th e identification of our core competencies: the skills, characteristics, and assets that the USGS must nurture and strengthen to excel in current and future activities. Additional changes in the USGS are incorporation of the former National Biological Serv ice and the minerals information component of the former Bureau of Mines. These organizational changes make the USGS the sole scientific agency in the Department of Interior and poise the USGS to address multidisciplinary issues better than at any time in its 117-year history.

These trends provide insights on the appropriate preparation for students to compete effectively in this changing social landscape. In some respects the federal earth scientists of the future will be "citizen-scientists." In addition to condu cting cutting-edge science, federal geoscientist will be expected to deliver scientific information in an understandable form to a broader array of users that includes not only other scientists, but also students, policy makers, and the general public. Ea ch of these audiences has different needs, and we must fulfill the expectations of all in a timely manner.

The implications for students are important. In preparation for a career in federal earth science, students should be broadly educated in the sciences and mathematics, especially at the undergraduate level. Because of the complexity of issues to be res olved, multidisciplinary studies are expected to become routine. Having exposure to and a solid working knowledge of other disciplines will be a valuable asset for the earth scientist. Students need to have a strong appreciation of public-policy developme nt and the significant current and emerging societal issues that may benefit from earth-science information. Many universities and colleges are developing cross-disciplinary courses and seminars that will be extremely useful to students at all academic le vels. The ability to communicate effectively with a diversity of audiences is also absolutely critical. In the past we have generally viewed our scientific peers as our principal audience. This is no longer enough. The ability to describe complex technica l ideas to a non-technical audience will ensure that critical findings are accessible to and therefore used by the appropriate audiences. New technologies will continue to advance our science, and students need to have a strong grounding in emerging techn ologies that are as diverse as geographic information systems, advanced remote sensing, global positioning systems and digital information-dissemination technologies.

Geoscientists need to develop and maintain flexibility. Students should avoid emphasizing certain subdisciplines in the earth sciences simply because of their intellectual rigor. The elegance of earth science is not only in its inherent intellectual ri gor but also in the ability to solve problems using multiple approaches.

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Bonnie A. McGregor
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Virginia

Science is an exciting and challenging career. I took my first science course in 7th grade, and I loved it! Because I also loved the sea, I decided on a career in oceanography. My undergraduate degree in geology from Tufts University was a good foundat ion for graduate studies resulting in a master's degree in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Miami. My research career has included research positions at three universities , as an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and as a marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) beginning in 1979. After a few more years in research, I moved into management, first as a deputy offic e chief for the USGS marine program and then as the associate office chief for marine programs and coordinator of the offshore geologic-framework program. In 1983, President Reagan proclaimed the area from 3 to 200 miles off the coast of the United States and its island territories as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. This proclamation brought over 3 million square nautical miles of submarine lands within the national domain, an enormous new underwater frontier containing vast resources of minerals, energ y, and information to be explored and mapped. As part of the role and mission of the USGS to characterize and map the federal lands, I was involved in developing and promoting a program to respond to the proclamation.

In the early 1990s, the Department of the Interior began actively encouraging women to train for and participate in senior executive-level management positions. Soon after completing an SES training program, I was selected as Assistant Chief Geologist for Program, where I was responsible for the operational plan and Congressional budget approval for a division of about 2,500 people and an appropriated budget of more than $220 million. After less than a year in that job, Department of the Interior Secre tary Babbitt appointed me Acting Associate Director. When Dr. Gordon P. Eaton was confirmed as Director in March 1994, I remained in the Director's Office in the new position of Associate Director for Programs.

My job is to provide guidance and coordination, both internal and external, for all scientific programs at the USGS. I work closely with Barbara J. Ryan, Associate Director for Operations, to oversee the day-to-day activities of the USGS, leaving the D irector free to concentrate on the direction of the bureau in issues related to the longer term. The USGS is unique among the geological surveys of the world in combining geology, geography, biology, water, and topographic mapping in a single agency of ro ughly 10,000 people, and just over a billion-dollar total budget, and this combination of abilities gives us unique strengths in providing information to help people solve problems and make decisions.

We at the USGS have recently completed a strategic plan for the next ten years. "Completed" may not be the right term-strategic planning is a continuous, dynamic process. Our new plan will continue to change over the next decade as circumstan ces and conditions around us change. The plan is divided into three parts. The first part describes the economic, political, and societal driving forces that are likely to influence the options and choices for future direction of the USGS. The second part discusses our core competenciesthe key skills, characteristics, and assets that must be nurtured and strengthened for the USGS to excel. The third part describes our business activitiesthe scientific and technical efforts currently undertaken by the USGS and those we will carry out in the future. Those of you preparing for a career in the earth sciences may be especially interested in the list of business activities, which includes water availability and quality, hazards, geographic and carto graphic information, contaminated environments, land and water use, nonrenewable resources, environmental effects on human health, and biological resources.

The USGS has added the biological resources business activity to its unique mix of scientific strengths  the National Biological Service was consolidated with the USGS on October 1, 1996 as the Biological Resources Division. The merger combined t he strengths of the physical and biological sciences in the Department of the Interior into a single science bureau that conducts comprehensive studies of the Earth and its living and nonliving components. The complex issues that face land and resource ma nagers and decision-makers in today's society require coordinated scientific knowledge from many disciplines for successful resolution.

The past year or so has been exciting and challenging for government agencies, especially science agencies. New thinking in Washington and across the United States is having a profound impact on future directions and support for science in our Nation. In the coming years, we scientists must demonstrate our relevance to societal issues, explaining the benefits of science in language that all can understand. At the USGS, we have developed new ways of communicating our work to a wider audience, including our series of State and topical fact sheets, our Public Issues in Earth Science series of color booklets, and our World Wide Web site, which has become one of the most heavily visited Federal government sites. Come visit us at http://www.usgs.gov.

The prospect of continuing tight budgets combined with the demand for societal relevance in our work may seem daunting. Yet the need for information about the Earth is growing, as the nation's and the world's population increases and the need for water , energy, minerals, and safe places to live expands as well. Questions like "Are we safe from the effects of natural hazards? Do we have enough resources - and of good enough quality - to meet our needs now and in the future? How are we affecting the world we live in?" can only be answered through sound, focused research that is properly communicated to the policy-makers and resource managers whose daily decisions build our future. The USGS has survived and flourished during its 118-year history by facing the changes and challenges of the day and responding to them with vigor and enthusiasm. Our goal remains unchanged: to serve the public and the nation by providing science for a changing world.

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Dallas L. Peck
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Virginia

In reflecting on more than four decades of service in governmental earth sciences, I am particularly impressed at the incredible scientific diversity to be found within the system, the revolutionary discoveries in the sciences, and the sense of gratifi cation and dedication one observes among geoscientists employed at the Federal, State, and local levels. Geoscientists - geologists, hydrologists, geophysicists, geographers, geochemists, and others - work for many different state and federal agencies. St ate agencies employ earth scientists within geological surveys, natural-resource agencies, highway departments, and environmental organizations. Federal agencies requiring the skills of geoscientists include land-management organizations such as the Natio nal Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management; construction and water-management agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation; regulatory bodies including the Minerals Management Service, t he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement; and research organizations such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of En ergy, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Since the 1970s many cities and counties have also established geoscience positions to meet increasing demands for basic earth-science information to help make policy decisions.

Naturally, as former Director of the USGS and an employee of the Survey for over 40 years, I can speak most knowledgeably about my own agency. Of the more than 10,000 USGS employees, over 8,000 are scientists and technicians representing many scientifi c fields including hydrology, biology, geology, cartography, chemistry, seismology, geophysics, paleontology, geography, physical sciences, engineering, and several other professional specialties.

The USGS is the largest natural-science research and information organization in the United States, and as such it has been involved in technical investigations and research in every State in the Nation, its Territories, many foreign countries, and the solar system. It provides topographic maps and data for the Nation and collects and analyzes information on geologic framework and processes, energy and mineral resources, the quantity and quality of ground and surface water, and the status and trends of the Nation's biological resources. The USGS however, is not alone in its mission to respond to national needs for natural-science information. Every one of the federal, state, and local natural-resource agencies relies on geoscientists to provide informa tion on which society depends. Partnerships among the U.S. Geological Survey and these agencies have existed for over a hundred years through joint projects, as well as through the sharing of plans, technologies, data bases, and costs. Close cooperation a lso exists between the governmental sector, the university community, and private industry, and internationally between earth-science agencies. The key to the many successes over time has been this interdependence.

My own interest in geology started during my teens in Spokane, Washington. I hiked over many mine dumps in nearby mining districts and found a wide variety of rocks and minerals that served to illustrate the lessons learned during an excellent geology course at Lewis and Clark High School. That course, in addition to classes in mathematics and science, facilitated my entry into the California Institute of Technology as an undergraduate major in geology. After graduating from Cal Tech, I became a summer field assistant with the USGS. Graduate work in mining geology led to an M.S. at Cal Tech, followed by a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard, while summers were spent working as a field assistant for the USGS. Such programs give students an excellent opportuni ty to learn exactly what it is like to carry out work in their given field, and at the same time to allow the potential employer the chance to see what the students are like in a work situation. In my case this supportive process led to permanent employme nt with the USGS, starting as a junior geologist in 1954, compiling a geologic map of western Oregon and mapping the volcanic rocks of the western Cascade Range. This was followed by assignments to Menlo Park, California, to map the geology of part of the Sierra Nevada Batholith, and to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory to help monitor Kilauea volcano and study its lava lakes. My most exciting experience was working with the Apollo 16 and 17 Field Geology teams both before and during the missions. My entry into the world of management began in the 1960s when I was given responsibility for the geochemistry and geophysics programs of the Geologic Division, which was followed by assignment as the USGS Chief Geologist in 1977. My greatest challenge began in 19 81, when President Reagan selected me as the 11th Director of the USGS.

Traditionally, governmental geoscientists have supported natural-resource decision makers by supplying topographic maps and providing understanding of the geologic and geographic framework and processes, information on energy, mineral, and water resour ces, and prediction, mitigation, and prevention of natural hazards. These efforts supported the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the technological age. However, emphasis is changing within the United States and elsewhere in much of the world, from a focus on exploration and development of natural resources to concern about anthropogenic effects on the environment, both locally and globally. As we respond to this changing emphasis, environmental sciences must become a part of a nucleus of geoscience education, joining the more traditional earth-science disciplines. Integration of the physical and biological sciences is key to understanding the complex systems of the Earth.

Employment opportunities for governmental geoscientists are somewhat diminished while the nation deals with overall budgetary constraints and economic concerns. These factors will continue to constrain state and federal budgets for much of the 1990s, i ncluding that of the USGS, and may result in staff reductions, or at best, limited hiring. However, even in this situation, geoscientists are still needed, and some specialists will be in great demand. Within the USGS this trend has placed a premium on su ch specialties as hydrology, hydrogeology, and aqueous geochemistry in response to the broad concern (and expanded support) for investigations of toxic-waste disposal and water contamination. Expanding use of geographic information systems will lead to gr eater demand for geographers and cartographers, while the concern over natural hazards will provide opportunities for seismologists, geologists, and geological engineers.

My career as a governmental scientist within the USGS has been challenging and intellectually rewarding. It is a pleasure to work with outstanding people with a commitment to objectivity, combining competence, dignity, and responsibility in providing "science for a changing world."

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