Thursday, July 04, 2013

Challenges facing the next director of the USGS

Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, resigned effective March 1, 2013.   As President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell consider her replacement, this would be the time to consider what we want the USGS to do, how they should do it, and to rethink roles of the agency.

One fundamental question is whether the USGS is principally a science support agency for the U.S. Department of Interior, or a geoscience institution that plays a leading role in identifying and implementing solutions to national geoscience issues. I would argue the latter is the case.  There are dozens of examples of why this is increasingly necessary, but let me proffer just a few to make my case.

The USGS is the custodian of some of our most important Earth science infrastructure including the national stream gaging program and much of the nation’s seismic monitoring capability.   However, we lost more than 1,500 stream gages nationwide from the peak of 8,326 in 1968, even at a time when they are more critical for dealing with water resources and flooding, especially at the regional watershed level.   Many of these were restored to operation since 1998 in large part by shifting costs to state and local agencies but many are on the block again due to the latest budget cuts. 

USGS seismic monitoring is concentrated on high risk states and now, after the Virginia magnitude 5.8 earthquake of 2011 literally shook up Congress, in states near the Capitol.   Areas like Arizona and others where we have not had very recent large damaging earthquakes get little or no USGS support for the minimal seismic stations (7 in Arizona for example run by AZGS) that we bought used and hold together with baling wire and spit. 

What are the management and funding models for critical national infrastructure like this – is it a federal responsibility, the state’s, or some mixture?  For something like the USGS-run Landsat satellite program, there’s no question that it is a federal function. But when we come down to Earth, the answer seems to vary by program and changing budget situations.  Of the growth in the USGS budget, a good part of it has been due to an expanded mission (Biological Research acquired in FY1995; Enterprise Information began in FY2005; and Global Change in FY2008) and these new components represented 25% of the agency’s total revenue in 2010. 

One of our most critical shortcomings is the lack of an assessment of natural hazards in the U.S., either nationally or in most states.  We do not know for instance how many landslides occur in a year, what areas are susceptible to landslides, how much damage they cause, or how many people are injured or killed by them.     Multiply that times all the other natural hazards such as floods, debris flows, sinkholes, expansive soils, etc., and you understand why a recent report from the National Research Council, entitled “Disaster Resilience,” called for comprehensive data compilation and analyses around which to plan a national agenda to better monitor, predict, respond to, and mitigate these events.  This screams for a federal-state partnership with substantive USGS involvement, and likely programmatic leadership.

Similarly, we have a dwindling national ability to assess our mineral resources and our vulnerability to international supply disruptions of them with consequences comparable to energy security issues.   The nation – government, business, and average citizens - has become sensitive in recent years to the total U.S. dependence on foreign sources for rare earth elements that play critical roles in the economy, including in many high-tech and green technologies, and national security.   A similar recognition and urgency does not exist for other strategic and critical minerals that we import, often from unstable or potentially unfriendly regimes.  Yet at the same time, the USGS is cutting back its already miniscule Mineral Resources program by as much as half. 

The budget of the USGS has been effectively flat, except for inflation, for at least the past 15 years while costs have gone up and additional tasks given to the agency, squeezing the agency’s ability to carry out many of its core functions.   Yet, other science agencies, like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, have seen huge budget increases with strong congressional and stakeholder support to do even more.   A key question is why USGS is lagging in competing for its share of science funding in the federal budget.

The USGS Coalition (, composed of supporters of the USGS, has argued for years for “increased federal investment in USGS programs that underpin responsible natural resource stewardship, improve resilience to natural and human-induced hazards, and contribute to the long-term health, security, and prosperity of the nation.”   But these efforts, while laudable, have not been sufficient.

In 2008, a group including former USGS directors and Presidential Science Advisors, called on merging USGS and NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), to form an Earth Systems Science Agency, to better address “unprecedented environmental and economic challenges in the decades ahead. Foremost among them will be climate change, sea-level rise, altered weather patterns, declines in freshwater availability and quality, and loss of biodiversity” (   The proposed ESSA would need to coordinate its efforts with other agencies with significant Earth science missions, including NSF, NASA, Energy, EPA, and others.

One of the pragmatic recommendations the group made was that “No less than 25% of ESSA's budget should be devoted to grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements with academic and nonprofit institutions.”    That level of engagement with the broader scientific community has successfully mobilized community and political support for other federal agencies and would presumably do the same for an ESSA if it was ever formed or, I would argue, for the USGS as it exists today if it embraced a similar approach.   The USGS does not provide external funding opportunities anywhere near the level of many other science-based federal agencies, because as many USGS officials have told me, “we don’t have enough money to carry out our core functions now. We can’t give away any more money.”   

Would it be worth some significant but hopefully short term pain if a restructuring of the agency’s relationships in the broader science arena could translate into long term benefit for the agency with an expanded clientele willing to push Congress and the President for more and larger cooperative programs, ultimately aligning the USGS budget more realistically with its responsibilities?

The idea for a merged agency never went any further but the issues remain. Coordinating a more formal, comprehensive national Earth science agenda in collaboration with NASA, NOAA, NSF, DOE and others is still in the nation’s best interests and it might help raise the profile of the critical work carried out by USGS.   This doesn’t need to be done through a merger as suggested in 2008, but by the USGS asserting a greater and more forceful role as a national, and indeed global leader, in identifying and setting priorities for addressing the most critical Earth science issues facing society today.

Another aspect to the USGS role at the national level is its interactions with States in a federal system.  Having been in the unique position of serving as State Geologist in three states over the last two decades, I’ve struggled repeatedly over state and federal roles in the Earth sciences.    State Geological Surveys collectively comprise 2,200 employees nationwide with combined budgets of about $240 million, or about one-fourth the size and budget of the USGS.   The three biggest state surveys, Illinois, Texas, and California, account for more than one-third of all state survey revenues. Most State Surveys are relatively small, with limited scientific and technical expertise outside of core areas. 

Too often, though, we have found offices of the USGS competing with us for limited state and local funds in our states, or working on local projects that would be hard pressed to be defended as national priorities.  This “competition” has and can continue to serve as stumbling blocks in building broader support for USGS programs among the agency’s natural constituencies.

An analogy I like to use is the difference between the local sheriff and the FBI.  The FBI does not issue traffic tickets or respond to fender benders. But when local law enforcement needs some highly specialized capability or national resource, or an issue crosses state lines, the FBI can bring to bear services that are not available at the local level.  Could we clarify roles and responsibilities between State Geological Surveys (and other state agencies I suspect) and the USGS?  Can the USGS maintain the cadre of national experts that states can turn to for assistance that doesn’t make sense to maintain in every locality?  The Canadian national and provincial geological surveys hammered out such an agreement many years ago and it seemed to resolve some of these conflicts.

So, the challenges facing the next director of the USGS are daunting, at many levels.  These are only a few of them, and ones that I have particular familiarity with.   I would argue however, that there are changes that can be made in what the agency does, and how it does them that can redefine the role of the USGS so that the community, broader society, and decision–makers are more likely to step up to ensure the USGS has the support and resources to be able to carry out the critical missions we have for it.  These would not be easy decisions to make or implement.   I wish the next director our best wishes and offer our support.


  1. Lee,

    Very thoughtful analysis and great fodder for those in Washington who actually care about these matters.

    Vince Matthews, Ph.D., Leadville Geology LLC

  2. Lee,

    Very insightful and comprehensive review of challenges facing the USGS. Your point about the lack of a significant external grant progrsa and its effect on the size and enthusiasm of the USGS constituency has been debated in budget discussions with OMB. The problem has been what or who to cut to come up with funds necessary for a grant program since it has never been an option to simply add funds for this purpose. Another continuing issue facing the USGS budget has been that the Department of the Interior budget has not been a federal priority in recent decades and within Interior, the USGS doesn't usually compete well given the land and resource management mission of DOI.

    Your analysis should be very useful to those being considered for the USGS director position. It may serve to narrow the field by scaring some away!

  3. Thanks Chip. The issue of how to start up a significant external grants program without further gutting existing programs is a major stumbling block. I danced around it a bit, referring to short term pain, but in reality it cannot be so blithely dismissed.

    [Chip did not mention it, but he served as Director of the USGS from 1998 to 2005]

  4. David Vonderheide11:29 AM

    The time has come for a cabinet-level position known as the Secretary of Science and Technology, with all scientific and technological agencies brought under that one umbrella.

  5. Harvey Thorleifson7:26 AM

    Lee, you have made thoughtful, constructive, and compelling points on a topic of pressing importance. At stake is our ability to manage and protect our water, to plan for adequate availability of energy and materials, to ensure efficiency of land use planning and construction, and to optimize our resiliency in relation to hazards.

  6. David -- let's add that the person holding this cabinet position must have an advanced degree in physical sciences. Seems like a no-brainer, but considering politics . . .