The geological, geophysical, environmental, climatic, and hydrological components of Earth science research are fundamentally global in their physical scope, impacts, and interactions. Because of the global reach of Earth science, the U.S. government frequently draws upon the scientific expertise of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the principal science agency of the Department of the Interior (DOI), for data, information, advice, and technical assistance relating to Earth science—nationally and internationally—in support of U.S. interests. In addition, the emerging era of science diplomacy, which uses science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity, has also brought an increasing number of requests for USGS engagement on international Earth science issues.
In conjunction with the recent reorganization of the USGS, and motivated by the continuing demand for Survey expertise on a variety of urgent international Earth science problems, the USGS requested that the National Research Council (NRC) establish a study committee on Opportunities and Challenges for International Science at the USGS. The committee was tasked to examine the Survey’s past and present international activities that support the USGS national mission, to identify international research areas for the coming 5 to 10 years that have high potential to benefit both USGS strategic science directions and national priorities for the U.S. government, and to identify impediments to more effective USGS participation in international science activities.
This report responds to that charge by describing the core activities of the Survey’s seven science mission areas and the ways in which corresponding international activities benefit the USGS mission and U.S. national interests. The committee also identifies opportunities for new and continued international activities for the USGS to consider as part of its mission to serve the U.S. government and the nation. Based on the committee’s findings and conclusions, the report’s five recommendations outline a series of steps for the USGS to support and strengthen its international activities and to overcome impediments to more effective USGS participation in international science opportunities.
USGS INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE IN THE FABRIC OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT
The DOI strategic plan for 2011-2016 indicates science as a key component of the DOI mission and identifies the USGS as the Department’s primary science organization. The DOI strategic plan outlines the following goals for the USGS:
- ensure the quality and relevance of science products to partners and customers;
- provide science for sustainable resource use, protection, and adaptive management;
- provide scientific data to protect and inform communities; and
- develop a comprehensive science framework for understanding the Earth.
The mission of the USGS is to provide geological, topographic, biological, and hydrological information that contributes to the wise management of natural resources and that promotes public health, safety, and well being. In 2010-2011, the Survey restructured under the following seven mission areas: Climate and Land-Use Change; Core Science Systems; Ecosystems; Energy and Minerals; Environmental Health; Natural Hazards; and Water. These science mission areas align with the goals of the DOI strategic plan and the overall USGS mission. In the international arena, the USGS Office of International Programs (OIP) is responsible for representing all USGS mission areas and reports directly to the Director of the USGS. The authority of the Secretary of the Interior to have the USGS address international tasks, when in the national interest, was formalized in legislation in 1962.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the White House National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), and the Department of State (DOS) have all cited specific international priorities for science that explicitly call upon USGS expertise and information (1) to address scientific and technological issues associated with a changing climate, constraints on energy resources, and environmental degradation; and (2) to establish national goals for U.S. science and technology investments that ensure economic prosperity, public health, environmental quality, and security. Similarly, the DOS/U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Strategic Plan lists the USGS as an essential partner in fulfilling U.S. foreign policy objectives in strategic priority areas such as energy security and the environment. USAID and organizations such as the World Bank have engaged USGS expertise in predictions of pending drought, assessments of water quality, and responses to natural disasters. The Department of Defense (DOD) has also called upon the USGS to help address U.S. government needs. In addition, the USGS works in partnership with other federal agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on international activities of complementary interest. The USGS
also works with international governments and organizations: at the time of writing this report, the Survey is currently entered into 256 international agreements with 75 countries and 12 international organizations.
USGS international work is supported financially through two means: (1) federal appropriations that may be used for international Earth science projects, provided the projects support U.S. policy or benefit the Survey’s domestic mission and the American public; and (2) reimbursable funds from other U.S. agency partners, international organizations, and foreign governments.
CURRENT INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE AT THE USGS
The Survey’s primary international activities, as they relate to its domestic mission and broader national interests, are summarized below with reference to each of the seven mission areas. All of these international activities help to support U.S. diplomacy and capacity building, as well as other federal agencies in their missions and responsibilities.
Climate and Land-Use Change
The DOI Strategic Plan recognizes the need to engage internationally in climate and other mission areas as a core mission responsibility, and identifies key activities and strategies related to sustainable resource management. The USGS priorities for climate and land-use change include improving the understanding of
- past global changes;
- the global carbon cycle;
- land-use and land-cover change;
- droughts, floods, and water availability;
- coastal response to sea-level rise, climatic hazards, and human development; and
- biological responses to global change.
In addition to the Survey’s international projects to support these six priorities, the USGS management of the Landsat system is an important asset that enables monitoring and data collection to support an enormous range of decisions about the environment, climate, natural resources, and natural hazards.
Core Science Systems
All Survey activities have a strong spatial component and require a comprehensive mapping capability and infrastructure, which fall under the USGS Core Science Systems
function. Maps are of fundamental value as the basis for theories, measurements, and analysis and are useful for assisting those who engage in land-use planning, natural hazard assessment, resource development, and environmental planning. This function is carried out through the Biological Informatics Program, National Geospatial Program, National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program, National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program, USGS Libraries, and Core Science Informatics.
The Ecosystems mission activities include examining the state of the nation’s terrestrial, freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems; studying the causes and impacts of ecological change; and the monitoring and development of methods for the protection and management of biological components and processes of ecosystems. International science activities in this mission area focus on wildlife disease research, invasive species studies and border monitoring, conservation programs, and research on river deltas and Arctic ecosystems.
Energy and Minerals
The objective of the Energy and Minerals mission area is to identify and understand the occurrence, size and extent, and genesis of energy and mineral resources. Data and information from this research are directed toward informing decisions about domestic land management and use, management of supplies of energy and mineral resources, international trade, national security, and economic development. Information about global and domestic resource distribution and overall availability also informs decisions about risks associated with import dependence on energy and mineral resources and about possible actions to mitigate supply risk. Among the mission area’s ongoing international activities are the World Petroleum Assessment; gas hydrate research; geothermal energy; global mineral resource assessments; and global mineral commodity summaries and life-cycle analysis.
Environmental Health research at the USGS encompasses the study of relationships among the quality of the physical environment, the health of the living environment and human health, and provides information on such issues as the effects of water, air, and soil contaminants on environmental health. This work directly supports monitoring of the spread of disease and invasive species and corresponding efforts to mitigate impacts on environmental health. International activities have included study of the transmission and prevention of a vector-borne pathogen commonly found in parts of Africa and the use of satellite telemetry to track waterfowl movement in support of avian influenza surveillance programs.
Activities in the Natural Hazards mission area involve the continuous collection of accurate and timely information from Earth observation networks, assessment of areas of risk from natural hazards, and research to improve hazard predictions. Related international activities, with global implications or scope fall under one of six programs:
- Earthquake Hazards
- Volcano Hazards
- Landslide Hazards
- Global Seismographic Network
- Coastal and Marine Geology
In this mission area, international projects—including, among others, global hazard monitoring and notification (earthquakes, volcanoes, geomagnetic disturbances), rapid response to foreign hazard crises, and collaborative science—enable USGS scientists to stay at the forefront of the state of knowledge and best practices in monitoring, modeling, and mitigating natural hazards.
The mission of this science area is to quantify, forecast, and secure freshwater for the nation. The USGS has a number of international research activities that contribute to understanding of large river systems, flooding, and groundwater availability and contamination, and to technology development and aquifer assessments. This work increases USGS capacity to fulfill its domestic responsibilities in determining freshwater availability, identifying water sources, and forecasting outcomes for water availability to inform land-use practices and decisions about the development of mineral and energy resources.
STRATEGIC INTERNATIONAL SCIENCE OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE USGS
A systems approach to scientific surveys of global Earth processes addresses a particular problem or issue as a part of a “system.” This kind of approach is an effective way to examine the complex spectrum of interconnected, interdisciplinary challenges that affect the Earth, the environment, and the human population. The USGS is already promoting a systems approach in developing many of its science activities, enabling the Survey to exploit the breadth and depth of its existing expertise and capacities to monitor, analyze, and provide
a better understanding of a range of Earth processes. The USGS mission areas are cross-cutting, problem-based, and interdisciplinary and can effectively support a systems approach to the study of Earth science issues.
The committee has identified a series of international science opportunities for the USGS to consider pursuing, either on its own or in cooperation with U.S. agency partners and/or other domestic and foreign collaborators (Box S.1). These opportunities readily
USGS Opportunities in International Science
Opportunities that Complement Existing International Science Activities
1. Global natural hazards planning and response. Strategic opportunities lie chiefly in increasing the level of USGS involvement in three areas:
a. The Global Earthquake Model (GEM) international partnership
b. The Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) in concert with other global volcano-hazard initiatives
c. Global earthquake monitoring and rapid notification activities
2. Energy and mineral resource assessments. Six areas emerged as particularly compelling for the USGS to pursue, building upon the Survey’s current, successful international activities through
a. Continuing to define and plan new oil and gas resource assessment projects in international onshore and offshore areas
b. Continuing research in global gas hydrate occurrences
c. Continuing research on location and development of global geothermal resources
d. Quantifying the supply and demand for, and foreign dependence on, important minerals, with targeted application of mineral life-cycle analysis
e. Conducting research on the global location, geological origins, age, size, production, and consumption of conflict minerals
f. Capacity building: providing scientific assistance to nations to enable them to identify and develop mineral resources in ways that are sound for human and environmental health and economic development
3. Water sustainability research in desert regions and tropical areas. Many areas of the world, including the United States, have regions where the hydrologic cycle operates at extremes, with either very low or very high precipitation. Continued research can aid in understanding the extent and effects of cyclic changes that have resulted from climate and land-use change and to determine how to manage water resources.
1. Use of climate and land-cover science for decisions on climate adaptation and natural resource management. Adaptation to climate change and effective natural resource
lend themselves to a systems approach, engagement among multiple mission areas, and partnership with other federal agencies. Furthermore, the opportunities meet the following criteria: (1) they demonstrate clear means both to leverage and benefit the scientific strengths and directions of the USGS and to complement ongoing, domestic activities; and (2) they indicate strong potential for project results to increase the Survey’s ability to meet needs of the U.S. government and the American public.
management are thoroughly intertwined. Climate and land-use change research contribute to informed decisions in both realms, particularly when viewing landscapes as systems.
2. Understanding the influence of climate change on ecosystems, populations, and disease emergence. As climate changes, the distribution and abundance of plants, animals, and insects will shift in response. Such changes could directly impact biological resources in the United States and play a role in disease ecology and emergence.
3. Clarification and development of invasive species work using trade patterns, refugee situations, and changing climate and environment. As global trade and travel continue to increase, research on the influx of invasive species can inform decisions about mitigating the impacts of such species on the United States.
4. Quantitative health-based risk assessment using hazard identification, exposure assessment, dose-response assessment, and risk characterization. When focused on a particular ecosystem, ecological risk assessment can help identify vulnerable resources and the adverse effects of human activities and pollutants on the ecosystem.
5. Ecological and quantitative human health risk assessment analysis based on contaminant exposure levels. Especially in regions from which food products are shipped to the United States, such assessments could support the evaluation of health risks to U.S. citizens and inform decisions about regulations.
6. Research in water contamination and supply. Strategic opportunities include new levels of USGS involvement in three areas:
a. Reduction of water contamination risk from natural and anthropogenic causes
b. Water supply management
c. Modeling and management of fossil aquifers in vulnerable environment
7. Water and ecological science in cold regions sensitive to climate change. Warming in areas of permafrost may have impacts on the climate. Mitigating these impacts requires research on the interactions and feedbacks of water, ecosystems, and climate.
8. Comprehensive enhancement of, and accessibility to, essential topographic and geologic map information. Two specific endeavors would support achievement of these aims:
a. Improved and accelerated global coordination and enhancement of topographic mapping
b. Rapid acceleration of the reconciliation and accessibility of geologic mapping
IMPEDIMENTS TO INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH AT THE USGS
The committee identified the following obstacles to more effective Survey participation in international science activities: (1) lack of an overall plan for USGS international science, exemplified in various ways including fragmentary documentation on the USGS website of its international activities; (2) domestic mission pressures in the DOI and the USGS; (3) uneven disposition among the Survey’s mission areas to undertake international work; (4) an institutional culture not yet predisposed to implement international and cross-disciplinary activities across the entire Survey and a suitable reward system for participating in such activities; (5) a need for greater Survey coordination with international partners; and (6) availability of resources.
FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The USGS plays an essential role in the systematic mapping, monitoring, and study of the Earth to fulfill national needs for information on diverse Earth systems. Although the committee noted caution on the part of the USGS in fully promoting its numerous and broad-ranging accomplishments in the international arena, the USGS can be justifiably proud of its widely recognized and successful international activities in global Earth science. The committee sees compelling arguments for the USGS to play a dynamic role in international science.
The committee’s first recommendation, directed to the USGS leadership and with the clear acknowledgment and support of international work already under way, concerns the benefits of a more proactive approach to international science. The development of a strategic implementation plan for international science at the USGS is also fundamentally important, and the committee outlines some basic elements that could be part of such a plan.
RECOMMENDATION: As a necessary first step to strengthen and enhance USGS international science activities, USGS leadership, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Interior, should fully embrace and unequivocally commit to international science as a fundamental part of the USGS aim “to help our Nation and the world” (Gundersen et al., 2011, p. 3) and should be open and clear about this work—internally and externally.
The committee found that USGS scientists are conducting excellent work in international science. Current activities include the mitigation of humanitarian crises through technical assistance in natural disaster response and in local capacity building, the advancement of science through interdisciplinary and international collaborations, natural resource assessments, and the promotion of national interests through science diplomacy and technical
aid. The continuum of global problems and issues requiring urgent attention makes this a critical time for greater USGS involvement in international science.
RECOMMENDATION: The USGS should play an expanded, proactive role in international Earth science, consistent with, and building upon, its current strengths and science directions. In developing this expanded role, the USGS should assess how it can serve as a collaborative international leader in strategically addressing a range of urgent worldwide problems that affect U.S. interests. These include, but are not limited to natural-resource shortfalls, escalating human and economic losses from natural disasters, a degraded biosphere, biodiversity loss, the increasing threat of pandemics, and accelerating global environmental change.
As part of this broader international role, and recognizing that these endeavors maximize the effective use of government resources, the USGS can consider forging stronger links with a variety of international and domestic partners. Other nations’ geological surveys and international organizations (e.g., OneGeology) are potential partners. Domestically, in addition to collaborations within the Department of the Interior, the USGS already has strong relationships on international projects with DOS, USAID, DOD, and the World Bank as well as with other federal agencies such as NASA, NOAA, and the CDC. These reliable partnerships could be further strengthened and serve as a springboard for broader scientific engagement in all of the Survey’s mission areas.
New international science opportunities can support the USGS national mission. Most of these opportunities require examining Earth processes as an interconnected system, thus requiring a systems approach. Integrated efforts across USGS mission areas in international science can strengthen the Survey’s scientific capabilities, increase knowledge and understanding of Earth processes, and support informed and effective decision making.
RECOMMENDATION: The Survey leadership should continue advancing the integration and coordination of activities across the seven USGS mission areas, and consider pursuit of and engagement in international science opportunities such as those outlined in this report to motivate further scientific integration within the USGS.
The committee noted that international work seems to be managed very differently in different mission areas and identified marked contrasts in the support, reward structures, and planning for such efforts. Although some differences among mission areas are to be expected, identification of current best practices for successful development and execution of global scientific projects is warranted. Encouraging collaboration among the mission areas
in developing international scientific opportunities could also enable the Survey to better prepare for official project requests from external partners and could enhance readiness to explore new international scientific opportunities. The absence of a more proactive approach to international science activities at the USGS probably weakens the overall success of the Survey in conducting such efforts.
RECOMMENDATION: A Survey-wide plan for international work should be developed to enable the USGS to fully embrace international activities. Such a strategy could be developed through the integrated efforts of the Director of the USGS, the leaders of the seven mission areas, and the Office of International Programs. The overall goal of the plan should allow the USGS to provide a dynamic, proactive response to the challenges of global geoscience problems. The plan could include guidelines or mechanisms to
- foster activities and collaborations that anticipate and address impending global crises;
- identify and prioritize key international opportunities that support domestic and global science goals and address U.S. government priorities, including opportunities for international collaboration with other federal science agencies;
- formulate a consistent approach to international activities across all USGS science areas, with internal and extramural mechanisms to provide feedback on and evaluate the success of international projects;
- enhance coordination between USGS and other foreign Earth-science agencies;
- explore opportunities to collaborate internationally with academic institutions based in the United States and overseas;
- promote the development of a new organizational culture that encourages and rewards international research activities and publication of research in peer-reviewed journals; and
- fast-track the execution of international agreements.
The reciprocal benefits to the nation of USGS global activities are not fully appreciated and do not generally make their way into public perception. From the committee’s experience, information about USGS international activities is not readily available to the public in a conveniently organized, useful, and informative way. Although the committee became well informed about the Survey’s many successful international science activities from a variety of extramural and Survey sources, the value of these activities would not be evident to the general public.
RECOMMENDATION: To increase public awareness of the value to the nation of USGS international scientific activities, the USGS should promote more effective communication and outreach about nonsensitive international work. Such communication can convey the importance, benefits, and rationale of the Survey’s international science activities to the public, other stakeholders, and potential international and domestic partners. An interesting, user-friendly website focusing on global Earth science and featuring brief descriptions of the Survey’s current and recent international activities and collaborations, with reference to more detailed information elsewhere on the USGS website, would help promote greater public appreciation and understanding of these activities.
Gundersen, L.C.S., J. Belnap, M. Goldhaber, A. Goldstein, P.J. Haeussler, S.E. Ingebritsen, J.W. Jones, G.S. Plumlee, E.R. Thieler, R.S. Thompson, and J.M. Back. 2011. Geology for a changing world 2010–2020—Implementing the U.S. Geological Survey science strategy: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1369, 68 p. Available at pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1369.