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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY 1 Introduction In a time of drastic change, it is the learners that inherit the future. Eric Hoffer For more than 120 years, the USGS has provided sound science information and knowledge to the federal government and other customers and stakeholders. It has adapted repeatedly to meet new challenges and changing societal needs. If the past is prologue, the agency will adapt to significant scientific, technical, economic, and political changes in the future. By striving to be at the forefront in identifying societal needs and conducting the scientific work necessary to meet these needs, the USGS will maintain or enhance its value as the nation's primary provider of, or coordinator for, information and knowledge related to critical issues in the natural sciences1. It is a 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 challenge that will require energetic leadership and inspired strategic planning within the agency, significant input from the scientific community and user groups, and the strong support of elected officials. The USGS is at a critical juncture in its history. The context for federal science and technology policy is changing in the post-Cold War years (HCS, 1998). Federal investments in science and technology are being linked closely to broader national goals as the world becomes more crowded, the physical and biological environment more threatened, natural resources more depleted, the global economy more competitive, and world events more interconnected. These trends raise concerns for the health of the planet, the quality of human life, and therefore the nation's prosperity and security. To address these challenges, science in general and federal science in particular must become more responsive to the needs of society (HCS, 1998). After World War II and the onset of the Cold War, scientific research became focused on the threat of Soviet expansionism and global war, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a global information economy have redefined the role of science. This involves a stronger orientation toward application to complex, integrated problems spanning local to global scales. In this new social contract with the nation, science must respond to national and global needs by providing information, explanatory theories, and decision support mechanisms to user groups. Changes in the relationship between science and the federal government are taking place against a bureaucratic structure and talent pool that no longer apply in the post-Cold War years. Federal agencies are changing their structures to increase their sensitivity and responsiveness to demands from outside science. They are redefining their missions and reallocating resources to increase efficiency, deal with new technologies, promote integration of diverse approaches, and change their emphasis from outdated areas to newly defined ones. The USGS is uniquely positioned to respond to the new challenges. Steeped in a long tradition of high-quality basic and applied science, the agency is evolving into an integrative organization with a clearly defined mission involving a combination of the sciences of geology, hydrology,
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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY biology, and geography. The formal objectives of the DOI and the strategic plans of the USGS include a new vision for integrated science: “The USGS will reach across organizational boundaries to take greater advantage of the most useful skills, data, and technology and apply them to a more integrated, multidisciplinary approach to scientific problem solving (USGS, 1996a).” However, recent years have been tough for the agency. At a time when the USGS was engaged in a process of continuous strategic planning, restructuring, and selective reductions in work force, Congress considered the elimination of the agency. Former USGS Director, Gordon P. Eaton, summarized the threat to the organization as follows (USGS, 1996a): Political, economic, and societal forces that coalesced in 1995 threatened the very existence of the U.S. Geological Survey—an organization that we long believed to be vital and important to the well-being of the American people and to the advancement of the earth sciences. The near abolishment of the USGS was averted largely by our customers. It was their understanding of the value of our work and their demand that we continue to provide our products and services that ensured our near-term survival. One lesson learned from the threat was that the viability and prosperity of the USGS depend on our ability to demonstrate the relevance of our work to society at large. In a remarkable turn of events, Congress decided not to eliminate the USGS but instead gave it new responsibilities. In 1996, consolidation of the National Biological Service and portions of the former U.S. Bureau of Mines with the USGS created a broader and more comprehensive organization. Thus, the USGS has a singular opportunity to increase its value to the nation by conducting integrated physical and biological research. As a more inclusive science agency, it has the capacity to take a national leadership role in conducting studies to develop information and knowledge on the web of relationships that constitute the air-water-human-land system (Bohlen et al., 1998). To respond effectively to the emerging challenges of the twenty-first century, the nation needs access to objective, dependable information about the many science issues that affect human welfare. Often global or international in nature and mostly
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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY occurring in the near-surface environment, these issues include the following: discovery, use, and conservation of resources—fuels, minerals, soils, plant and animal life, and water; characterization and mitigation of natural hazards—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, contamination by naturally occurring toxic materials, landslides, subsidence, and other ground failures; stewardship of the environment—ecosystem management, adaptation to environmental changes, remediation or moderation of adverse human effects; support of commercial and infrastructural development—agriculture, energy systems, communications and transportation, utilities, settlements and other structures; and terrestrial surveillance for national security—precise positioning, remote sensing, mapping (NRC, 2001). As decision makers at all levels, from the U.S. Congress, to a business, to a local community, consider these and other needs of society, they will call extensively on the expertise available at, and data and information created by, the USGS. Consequently, the USGS must be prepared to respond to their needs in a timely and understandable manner. VISION AND MISSION OF THE USGS2 The USGS's emphasis on activities that are relevant to society's needs is captured in its formal science vision and mission statements (USGS, 1999a). Vision. USGS is a world leader in the natural sciences through our scientific excellence and responsiveness to society's needs. 2 The vision and mission language changed slightly between the published 1997 and 1999 strategic plans. However, one conspicuous change involved the way the agency described itself. The USGS is an earth science agency in the 1997 plan and a natural science agency in the 1999 plan.
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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY Mission. The USGS serves the Nation by providing reliable scientific information to: describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect the quality of life. The USGS addresses its science mission by arraying its programs under four major themes—environment, resources, hazards, and integrated data and information management—and by concentrating on two goals: Hazards mission goal: Provide science for a changing world in response to present and anticipated needs, focusing efforts to predict and monitor hazardous events in near-real and real time and to conduct risk assessments to mitigate loss (USGS, 1999a). Environmental and natural resources mission goal: Provide science for a changing world in response to present and anticipated needs to expand our understanding of environmental and natural resource issues on regional, national, and global scales and enhance predictive or forecast modeling capabilities (USGS, 1999a). These mission goals support DOI's goal No. 4, “Provide Science for a Changing World.” They are consistent with the primary responsibilities of the USGS. STRATEGIC CHANGE AT THE USGS In its quest to accomplish its scientific mission and increase customer involvement, the USGS embarked on a major program to improve operations in 1999. The director of the USGS, Charles G. Groat, charged his Strategic Change Team (SCT) to focus on the mechanisms that would facilitate the transformation of the agency from a cluster of loosely linked organizational units to a tightly interactive community with one mission and one message. If fully implemented, the recommendations of the SCT will transform the organizational culture of the
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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY agency. The SCT's vision of the twenty-first century for the USGS follows (USGS, 1999b): The Strategic Change Team envisions a flexible and responsive USGS that is a recognized leader in providing natural sciences information, knowledge, and tools. Customers, partners, and USGS employees and managers will form an interactive community with a common passion to create, share, and use knowledge of the natural sciences to solve society's complex problems. To realize this vision, the SCT made several recommendations including improvements in the efficiency of the agency's administration by streamlining bureau functions, the promotion of an agency-centered perspective, and a strong move toward regionalization to bring the agency's leadership and programs in proximity to customers. STUDY AND REPORT Change is difficult for any established organization such as the USGS; yet it is essential for the maintenance of relevance and vitality. At this critical juncture in USGS history, independent advice about the agency's vision, mission, role, and scientific opportunities can provide insight to help guide the organization in the early years of the twenty-first century. Recognizing the need to adapt to changing demands in the future, the USGS invited the National Research Council (NRC) in 1997 to conduct a comprehensive study on the evolution of the agency to meet future needs. Accordingly, in 1998 the NRC's Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources formed a committee to conduct this study. The committee consists of a multidisciplinary group of 16 experts from academia, industry, and government. Its members have recognized expertise in the disciplinary units of the USGS and in related fields such as planning and public policy, ecology, public health, toxicology, and social sciences. (Brief biographies of committee members are provided in Appendix A.)
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FUTURE ROLES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY The committee was charged to consider the following: major societal 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 other federal agencies, state agencies, universities, and the private sector; appropriate international functions of the USGS; and the balance of activities such as data acquisition and management, regional studies, and fundamental research. This broad charge stimulated and shaped the committee's deliberations that form the basis of this report, which is intended to provide strategic guidance to the USGS about its future. To address the charge, the Committee on Future Roles, Challenges, and Opportunities at the U.S. Geological Survey held six meetings between June 1998 and July 1999. These meetings included presentations from the staff of the USGS, briefings from representatives of state and federal agencies, and discussions with leaders in the private sector. The committee also received input from professional organizations and many individuals (Appendix B). As background, the committee reviewed relevant USGS documents and materials through 1999, examined pertinent NRC reports, and read other technical reports and appropriate published literature. This report is intended for multiple audiences because the USGS does not operate in isolation. It contains advice for an audience of policy makers, managers, and scientists, as well as anyone with a broad interest in the future of the USGS.Chapter 2 provides a historical context for the chapters that follow.Chapter 3 sketches 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 that stem from this study.
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