history, the USGS has remained unique among the world’s earth science agencies in terms of its size and breadth of expertise. No other geological survey has the ecosystem and satellite missions of the USGS and few have national responsibility for both geology and hydrology.

The USGS and its partners in the Federal Government have examined the role of the USGS in the international arena before. The salient aspects of these previous studies are discussed in the pages that follow and in Annex 2. More recently, in 2010, the USGS has been reorganized to emphasize its commitment to multidisciplinary science. In so doing, the USGS established offices for six science “mission areas,” including: climate; ecosystems; natural hazards; minerals, energy and health; water; and core sciences including mapping. These recent changes make this an appropriate time for the USGS to make an objective assessment of how the USGS can best serve the interests of the United States in the international arena.

This background paper is a summary of past and present USGS international scientific interactions and collaborations. It documents the early years of USGS international engagement, the rapid growth of USGS international work in the years following WW II, and the recent changes within the last decade as the USGS has increasingly emphasized multidisciplinary work and has grappled with post 9/11-related changes. The paper cites a number of different USGS international activities, not as a comprehensive discussion of USGS work, but as examples of the breadth and depth of USGS international efforts. Finally, this paper examines some of the critical issues that will influence the future of USGS international activities.

This background paper has been prepared to assist the National Academy of Sciences committee regarding the study on “Opportunities and challenges for international science at the U.S. Geological Survey,” USGS looks forward to the committee deliberations and its recommendations and final report.


At irregular intervals over the 131-year history of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), various efforts have been made to take stock of USGS’ unique scientific and technical capabilities and to analyze the potential for an increased USGS role in international science and in the Nation’s foreign affairs programs. Over the years studies have been carried out by the USGS, the U.S. Department of State, and the National Academy of Sciences (DOS and USGS 1983; NRC, 1987; NRC, 2001). The results of these studies have been fairly consistent: they recognize USGS’ unique contributions and capabilities, encourage a larger international role for the USGS, and acknowledge the financial, legal and political constraints on the growth of USGS’ international activities.

A new study is being undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences in the 21st century, with a new USGS Director, Dr. Marcia McNutt, a new science strategy (USGS,

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