Executive Summary

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has adapted to the changing political, economic, and technical state of the nation and the world since it was established in the late nineteenth century. Over a period of more than 120 years, the USGS has evolved from a small group of scientists who collected data and provided guidance on how to parcel, manage, and use the public lands of the West to an agency comprised of thousands of scientists who conduct research and assessment activities on complex scientific issues at scales ranging from the local to the global. The USGS will no doubt continue to evolve and adapt to meet changing national needs. In fact, the recent integration of the National Biological Service and parts of the U.S. Bureau of Mines into the USGS presents an ideal opportunity to examine the agency's vision, mission, role, and scientific opportunities as the organization begins the early years of the twenty-first century.

The USGS recognized the need to adapt to changing demands when it asked the National Research Council (NRC) to undertake this study. The NRC formed a multidisciplinary committee of 16 experts (see Appendix A for biographical information on committee members) to address the following issues related to the future roles, challenges, and opportunities of the agency:

  • major social needs that the USGS should address;

  • significant emerging scientific and technical issues that appear especially important in terms of their relevance to the mission of the USGS;

  • opportunities for improving partnerships and other cooperative arrangements with federal agencies, state agencies, universities, and the private sector;

  • appropriate international functions of the USGS; and



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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY Executive Summary The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has adapted to the changing political, economic, and technical state of the nation and the world since it was established in the late nineteenth century. Over a period of more than 120 years, the USGS has evolved from a small group of scientists who collected data and provided guidance on how to parcel, manage, and use the public lands of the West to an agency comprised of thousands of scientists who conduct research and assessment activities on complex scientific issues at scales ranging from the local to the global. The USGS will no doubt continue to evolve and adapt to meet changing national needs. In fact, the recent integration of the National Biological Service and parts of the U.S. Bureau of Mines into the USGS presents an ideal opportunity to examine the agency's vision, mission, role, and scientific opportunities as the organization begins the early years of the twenty-first century. The USGS recognized the need to adapt to changing demands when it asked the National Research Council (NRC) to undertake this study. The NRC formed a multidisciplinary committee of 16 experts (see Appendix A for biographical information on committee members) to address the following issues related to the future roles, challenges, and opportunities of the agency: major social needs that the USGS should address; significant emerging scientific and technical issues that appear especially important in terms of their relevance to the mission of the USGS; opportunities for improving partnerships and other cooperative arrangements with federal agencies, state agencies, universities, and the private sector; appropriate international functions of the USGS; and

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY the balance of activities such as data acquisition and management, regional studies, and fundamental research. This report is intended for diverse audiences. It contains advice for policy makers, managers, and scientists, as well as anyone with a broad interest in the future of the USGS.Chapter 1 is an introduction to the U.S. Geological Survey, including a discussion of its mission and vision statements.Chapter 2 provides a historical context for the chapters that follow.Chapter 3 identifies the driving forces in the early twenty-first century that stand to influence the USGS.Chapter 4 considers how the USGS might evolve to meet future national needs, and Chapter 5 discusses the administrative challenges the agency will face. The final chapter summarizes the conclusions and recommendations, most of which are given below. Throughout this summary and in Chapter 6, the committee presents its conclusions in italics and its recommendations in bold type. A NATURAL SCIENCE1 AND INFORMATION AGENCY Over time, the USGS has evolved and built a solid foundation on which to plan its future. The recent integration of the Biological 1   Throughout this report, the committee uses the term “natural science” to broadly frame the range of scientific issues that are addressed by the USGS. Natural science is defined as “any of the sciences (as physics, chemistry, or biology) that deal with matter, energy, and their interrelations and transformation or with objectively measurable phenomena” (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1986). The specific activities carried out by the USGS within the broad domain of “natural science” depend on the agency's mission, which in turn, is shaped by the missions and responsibilities of other federal and state agencies and a variety of societal and political forces. Examples of natural science disciplines currently within the purview of the USGS include geology, hydrology, geography, biology, and geospatial information sciences. The committee chose this terminology after considering many other alternatives because it is a relatively succinct term that is generally understood to encompass all of the major scientific issues that are addressed by the USGS. The use of a single broad term also serves to emphasize one of the committee's main points—the value of integrated, coordinated science when dealing with the types of multidisciplinary mission-relevant problems addressed by the USGS. The term also was chosen by the USGS to describe itself in its 1999 vision statement. However, it is important to clarify that the committee's use of the term “natural science” does not imply that the USGS mission should include all natural sciences. The USGS is A natural science agency—not THE natural science agency.

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY Resources Division (BRD) into the USGS has broadened the agency's mandate beyond its traditional focus on geological, hydrological and geographical sciences. The agency's current mission is to supply information that contributes to the effective management of a variety of natural resources and that promotes the health, safety, and well-being of the nation's citizens. This mission is fully appropriate for a federal science agency. The USGS is a vitally important provider and coordinator of information related to critical issues in the natural sciences. As a result of changes in its external and internal environments, the USGS is evolving from an agency that was organized primarily to discover what is out there, to one that tries to understand what is out there, to one that tries to understand how what is out there works (i.e., process understanding). The questions posed to the agency increasingly call for multifaceted, analytical, and integrative investigations of complex processes and systems. By evolving into a natural science and information agency, the USGS will be able to play a leadership role in the elucidation of the geological, hydrological, geographical, and biological processes that are important to the nation and in the use of modern technology for the effective and efficient dissemination of this information. In upcoming decades, many of the relevant societal needs (see Chapter 3) and emerging scientific opportunities (see Chapter 4) that the USGS should address will involve interactions among the natural environment, its biota, and people. The USGS is well positioned, in terms of its information resources, technological capabilities, and range of professional expertise, to provide well-coordinated, comprehensive responses to priorities of society and science. Interactions between the environment, its biota and people are highly complex and unpredictable, and solutions will require integrative, multidisciplinary approaches. The USGS should place more emphasis on multi-scale, multidisciplinary, integrative projects that address priorities of national scale. The committee recognizes that integration is difficult to achieve, especially in cases that require integration of natural and social sciences. However, failure to integrate inhibits the understanding of many natural science problems. Nevertheless, not all complex problems require a broad, integrative, multidisciplinary research framework; therefore, the choice of research framework must fit the specific problem. Problems that do not

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY require a broad, integrative, multidisciplinary research framework should not be overlooked. Effective information management will be critical to the future performance of the USGS. For the USGS, information management has two essential aspects. The first is the ability to assess the information needs of its customers and partners and to focus its resources on meeting those needs. The second is to effectively deliver and facilitate the use of reliable, high-quality data and information. In the future, information management at the USGS should shift from a more passive role of study and analysis to one that seeks to convey information actively in ways that are responsive to social, political, and economic needs. MAJOR RESPONSIBILITIES Consistent with the mission responsibilities and the technical and analytical capabilities of the participating agencies, it is desirable that the USGS provide national leadership and coordination in the specific programmatic areas for which it is responsible. In particular, the USGS should provide national leadership and coordination in (1) monitoring, reporting, and where possible, forecasting critical phenomena, including seismicity, volcanic activity, streamflow, and ecological indicators; (2) assessing resources, including oil and natural gas (domestic and foreign), minerals, water, and biota; and (3) providing geospatial information. These activities include the following overlapping categories: surveys, monitoring, data analysis, research, information dissemination, and product generation. Subject to the overriding requirement that the USGS fulfill its primary and high priority mission responsibilities, the committee believes that the USGS should continue to conduct each of these activities, but that the balance of activities should shift toward the value-added activities of data analysis, problem solving, and information dissemination. A shift of balance does not mean that the USGS should reduce data gathering or long-term data collections, but that it should do more to interpret what the data mean and to make the data useful and accessible.

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY Monitoring, Reporting, and Forecasting The value of the USGS's high-quality, long-term monitoring databases will increase as data are collected over extended periods of time and as they include a wider range of environmental variability and human influences. Long-term monitoring is expensive and time consuming, and it needs to be conducted carefully to provide the greatest amount of information return per dollar or time expended. The use of automated gauging and other remote monitoring devices, especially at remote sites, could make long-term monitoring more reliable and cost-effective, however. Long-term databases are one of the USGS's most important contributions to the nation, and care must be taken not to disrupt them. For many years, the USGS has provided national leadership in communicating natural hazards information in a timely and understandable manner to multiple and diverse client groups. This information assists in protecting lives and property. The USGS is encouraged to play a stronger role in the disaster information community because the cost of natural disasters is increasing rapidly. Planning to minimize or avoid impacts is critical to reducing cost and human suffering. It is critical that the USGS continues to exercise national leadership in natural hazards research and risk communication. The USGS should emphasize system modeling as a powerful tool for integrative science. The committee believes that the development of an enhanced capability in integrative system modeling can contribute to the future effectiveness of the USGS. Modeling and integration capabilities have to operate across divisions and feed into the administration of research programs. Assessing Resources The USGS has a national reputation for its work in the area of assessing energy, mineral, water, and more recently, biological resources. The USGS should provide national leadership in the provision of natural resource information. This will help the United States understand its future resource needs.

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY Providing Geospatial Information The USGS is well positioned to provide the framework for a geospatial information depository and portal for the DOI and other federal departments, providing access to a range of natural science information and derivative products that can support effective decision making. In this role, the agency would be responsible for integrating and making interoperable the nation's disparate geospatial databases, for promoting and coordinating the continued development of the architecture for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), and for developing national mapping and product specifications. The USGS would also be responsible for making the geospatial databases available as understandable information products for public use and exchange. NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL ROLES As discussed in the previous section, the USGS is expected to address a variety of natural science issues of regional, national, and international importance. A major responsibility of the USGS is to serve as the science arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). A number of DOI agencies (e.g., Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Minerals Management Service, and National Park Service) rely on objective, nonadvocacy information from the USGS to inform their decision making. If this information were not available from the USGS, similar expertise would have to be developed within these agencies. The USGS should ensure that science information is provided to DOI bureaus in an efficient and effective way. In turn, DOI leadership should ensure that USGS personnel and resources are utilized effectively in DOI decision making. The USGS also has significant responsibilities in support of other government agencies, states and local governments, tribes, industry, academic institutions, and the public. The USGS has to provide leadership and research on a scale appropriate to the problem being addressed. Because many of the natural science issues within the purview of the USGS are global in nature, there is a compelling argument for the USGS to increase its international work on activities that meet mission objectives. The USGS should develop international expertise in natural science problems relevant to the USGS mission. Specifically,

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY the USGS should perform a more vigorous role in pursuing foreign area and global studies that develop relevant natural science information in support of U.S. interests; increase technical assistance to foreign countries that are developing relevant natural science programs; and become more active in international activities to benefit the domestic programs and the international stature of the agency. IMPROVING EFFECTIVENESS In the future, the USGS likely will be asked to do more than in the past, and management of the agency will become increasingly challenging. The most fundamental challenge is one of magnitude: the size of the agency's human and financial resources relative to the demands for its information, services, and products. Yet the agency's management also has to address problems of substance, such as those associated with the need to develop an innovative, strategic, and balanced program of problem-specific and core research. Priority Setting The future of the USGS depends on its skill in identifying and setting rational and realistic priorities and its ability to reduce commitments of time and money that do not contribute to these priorities. Priority setting is not unknown at the USGS. In recent years, the USGS has prepared several strategic plans that establish broad priorities for the agency. However, there are three areas of concern in the USGS planning process that should be addressed. First, priorities stated in the strategic plans seem to have been developed internally with few mechanisms for refining them in response to input from customers. Second, in being responsive to its customers, the USGS should resist overpromising or overcommitting resources and, as a result, creating unreasonable expectations among its customers. Third, although responsiveness to customer needs should drive USGS priorities, this responsiveness should be in the context of the agency's national mission. The USGS should develop a more effective process to assess and prioritize customer needs. An important aspect of priority setting for the USGS is to support and maintain a strong research program. Clearly, the USGS needs to

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY undertake both problem-specific and core research to address current and emerging science issues. However, the USGS should give high priority to, and expand considerably, the core research agenda and commit the necessary resources to undertake the priority research. The USGS should develop a research agenda that is balanced appropriately between problem-specific research and core research. The research agenda should be developed through a formal and continuous strategic planning process. External advisory committees are a potentially powerful instrument both for making a public agency responsive to public perceptions about its mission, goals, and achievements and for demonstrating its concern about being responsive to public needs. As a major federal science agency, the USGS cannot afford to be without external advisory committees. The USGS should establish and make extensive use of external advisory committees. Consideration should be given to the establishment of an agency-level external advisory committee and, where there are none now, external advisory committees at divisional and program levels as well. Meeting Technical Needs Without a new generation of talented scientists to replace departing staff, the ability of the USGS to answer the questions of the future will be compromised and the morale of the remaining staff will deteriorate. The USGS should devote substantial efforts to recruiting and retaining excellent staff. The rejuvenation of the work force should take into account the new areas of expertise that will be needed in the future. Even if the professional staff of the USGS were to increase substantially in the future, the increase would probably be insufficient for the agency to accomplish its goals solely through in-house activities. As the problems that the USGS address become more complex and multidisciplinary, it is unlikely that the existing professional staff, even with major retraining, would be able to keep up with all of the new techniques and new knowledge required to carry out an ambitious program of integrative science. To achieve its mission goals, the USGS will have to strengthen coordination and collaboration with other federal agencies as well as with states, academia, and industry. At present, the USGS is insufficiently engaged with potential partners,

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY especially related federal agencies whose work can enhance the ability of the USGS to achieve its mission objectives. USGS cooperative programs with regional, state, and local governments as well as with other entities are stimulated by requests for scientific knowledge and data. Clearly, the reimbursable work of the USGS benefits many agencies. However, some of the reimbursable programs cause friction between the USGS and state and private entities, are viewed as conflicts of interest, and may divert the agency from its mission. The concerns, real or perceived, about competition between USGS and state surveys have to be addressed. The agency should ensure that reimbursable contracts meet mission and strategic goals and that they do not compete unfairly with state or other organizations. Budget The agency's budget, which has remained constant in real-year dollars for many years—despite a significant broadening of the agency's responsibilities—is a matter of concern. Even with an agile, talented work force and a strong commitment to coordinated research efforts with other agencies and partners, it will be difficult for the agency to attain its future goals, especially those associated with a long-term core research program of integrative, multidisciplinary, relatively large research initiatives. The USGS is being called upon to confront complex problems that are critical to human and ecosystem survival. The committee believes that long-term problems that pose increased risks to the nation, such as those associated with natural hazards, cannot be solved with the current level of funding. As the agency's responsibilities continue to increase, its budget should be increased to a level commensurate with the tasks. With an appropriate level of funding for practical research related to national needs, the USGS will be better able to fulfill its mission. In addition, future budget requests should contain sufficient flexibility to permit the USGS director to respond rapidly to new research challenges and opportunities. A fraction of the agency's operating costs could be set aside for new initiatives analogous to a venture capital fund in the private sector.

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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY CONCLUSION Future demands placed on the USGS can be expected to exceed the capacity of its financial and human resources. To a degree, the demands can be met by strengthening coordination and collaboration with other federal agencies, universities, and private industry and by creating a more agile and flexible work force. However, unless significant actions are taken soon to address human and financial resource issues, the USGS may be unable to meet all of its mission goals, respond rapidly to new challenges and opportunities, and transition toward becoming a natural science and information agency. The USGS has established a good foundation on which to plan and build a successful future. In the future, the USGS will be asked increasingly to deal with questions about how natural systems affect human systems and how human actions modify natural systems. If it broadens the basis of inquiry to include integrative approaches involving natural and human sciences and becomes proficient at information management, the USGS will more fully realize its potential to provide the scientific information and knowledge essential to the future well-being of society.