Impediments to More Effective USGS Participation in International Science Activities
The influential and effective involvement of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in international science activities over many years has included numerous successful projects with demonstrated benefits to U.S. government priorities and the USGS mission (see Chapter 3). Despite this established history of accomplishments in international science, USGS scientists, collectively and individually, face challenges in engaging in overseas activities and collaborations. The challenges and impediments identified in this chapter are based on information gathered through presentations made to the committee and from conversations with Survey representatives, individuals who have worked as primary collaborators and advisers on international projects with the Survey, and other professionals with direct knowledge of USGS international work (see Appendix C). Although fact finding and reporting in an assessment of this type involve some subjectivity, the challenges described here are significant, in the opinion of the committee, and thus are worthy of attention.
Various factors pose obstacles for more effective Survey participation in international science activities. As discerned by the committee, these relate chiefly to (1) the lack of an overall plan for USGS international science; (2) domestic mission pressures within the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the USGS; (3) uneven disposition to undertake international work among the Survey’s mission areas; (4) an institutional culture not yet predisposed to implement international and cross-disciplinary activities across the entire Survey or to implement a suitable reward system for participating in these international activities; (5) a need for greater Survey coordination with international partners; and (6) availability of resources. Each of these factors is discussed in subsequent sections.
Lack of an Overall Plan for USGS International Science
The diverse international activities carried out by USGS scientists described in Chapter 3 are not presently part of an agency-wide plan or vision for international science. Although the current strategic plans of the USGS and the DOI do acknowledge fundamental trends such as globalization, climate change, and the importance of understanding the Earth as a system (DOI, 2011a; USGS, 2007), the plans do not explicitly address USGS participation in international science activities. High-level endorsement in these planning documents of the importance of USGS involvement in international science activities—especially those activities serving national interests and benefitting both the USGS and DOI domestic missions—would be consistent with the level of international work already being conducted by the Survey and, in the opinion of the committee, could mitigate some of the other challenges and roadblocks described below (see also Box 3.1).
DOI and USGS Domestic Mission Pressures
Under the Organic Act of 1879, the USGS was charged with “the classification of the public lands and examination of the geologic structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” The Congress in 1962 expanded authorization for the USGS to pursue similar activities outside the national domain, although this authority was not given directly to the Survey but rather to the Secretary of the Interior, who may exercise that authority through the USGS (see Box 2.1).
The mission of the DOI significantly influences the USGS to maintain focused attention on its domestic role. For example, domestic agendas and performance measures are outlined in the DOI’s new five-year strategic plan (DOI, 2011a). The key roles to be played by the Survey in this framework are emphasized in a press release accompanying the unveiling of the strategic plan (USGS, 2011a).
Although USGS international activities are allowed under the Organic Act, the guiding authority of the Secretary of the Interior suggests the need for compelling arguments to undertake such activities—whether these activities are advanced within other parts of the Executive Branch or from within the USGS. One starting point for the USGS is to demonstrate reciprocal benefits to the United States of its international science work in support of the Survey and DOI domestic missions. These benefits can be readily documented (see Chapter 3) but in general, in the committee’s observations, they do not appear to have been adequately or consistently communicated over the years in the USGS or the DOI, or to the public. Some systematic and consistent basis for an evaluation of the benefits of these international projects could play a useful role as part of the Survey’s documentation of these activities. To the committee’s knowledge, no consistent internal or external evaluation mechanisms are currently in place at the USGS for their international work. Lacking
a more universal recognition of the benefits of USGS strategic international science to the Nation or internal and extramural mechanisms to provide feedback on and evaluate the success of international projects, the Survey’s domestic mission tends to be emphasized and narrowly interpreted.
Uneven Disposition to International Work among the Survey’s Mission Areas
In the committee’s information gathering, we were struck by a remarkably uneven response when asking representatives from the Survey’s various mission areas about international science activities. The responses ranged from ready descriptions of ongoing international activities, to ambivalence about such projects, to disinclination to undertake overseas work. In the latter case, various factors have contributed, including the perception that the USGS lacks a congressional mandate to extend activities into the international arena; this perception makes some USGS scientists and program managers reluctant to undertake these activities, particularly when setting priorities for resource allocations (see also sections below). Correspondingly, the interests and aspirations of individual Survey scientists toward international work or foreign travel to international meetings do not appear to be universally encouraged or strategically incentivized. Our observations suggest that the uneven disposition to international work among the Survey’s mission areas may be the combined result of perceived constraints on international work vis-à-vis the USGS domestic mission, the relatively small number of congressional mandates clearly calling for the USGS to conduct international work, and the absence of an agency-wide plan for USGS international science. For reference, a compendium of congressional authorizations for USGS activities, both domestic and international, is available in DOI (2011b, Part T).
The Survey’s institutional culture poses an assortment of challenges to encouraging more universal engagement of USGS scientists in international activities. For example, similar status and respect for international as well as domestic work in merit review for USGS scientists would be consistent with an overall acknowledgement of international science as an integral part of the USGS project portfolio. This kind of recognition could entail support for presentation of scientific results of global work at international conferences and publication in premier journals (see, for example, Appendix E). The committee’s observations did not indicate that international science conducted by USGS scientists is presently given equal status to domestic project work throughout all of the science mission areas.
Interdisciplinary work—potentially aided by use of a systems approach to certain scientific investigations—can strengthen the information and analysis provided from scientific research and aligns well with the variety of international scientific opportunities and issues
that fall within the USGS mission (see Chapter 4 for a selection of some of these opportunities; also Box 3.11). In an international project, carefully planned interdisciplinary work can also maximize the value and return from invested resources (including costs for preparation, field and analytical time, staff support, travel, and other logistics associated with international campaigns). The USGS has, through its recent reorganization, attempted to enhance the interdisciplinary nature of its scientific thrusts. International science is a useful vehicle for the Survey, armed with its remarkable interdisciplinary competencies, to embrace and encourage effective collaborative research in the investigation, quantification, and amelioration of the effects of global change on the nation.
The rapid development and evolution of information technologies also poses a broad institutional challenge. To its credit, the USGS is building new capabilities in informatics as part of its restructuring. For more effective participation in international science activities, notably where vast datasets are involved, individual Survey scientists are likely to need assistance in improving technical skills in order to use those informatics capabilities more efficiently.
The new Environmental Health mission area faces a distinct challenge arising from the restructuring of the USGS. Survey activities that enhance and support the Environmental Health mission area cross with all of the other USGS mission areas. Essential to the success of this mission area—particularly in the international arena—will be the establishment of strong linkages and cooperation with the other USGS mission areas, including identification of shared priorities and complementary capabilities. Ultimately, strategic planning in the Environmental Health mission area will require a thoroughly integrated systems approach.
Need for Greater USGS Coordination with International Partners
Effective engagement in international science activities requires efficient, wisely arranged coordination with foreign partners. Bilateral arrangements on a case by case basis have great utility in many situations. Multilateral arrangements, however, can also be appropriate for projects that are directed toward a broad set of shared objectives; they can also be effective in accommodating the different capacities and strengths of partnering agencies, and potentially address a wider array of scientific questions. Some existing international coordination mechanisms offer the opportunity to engage more effectively in multilateral arrangements to conduct international science. The USGS does not, in the committee’s opinion, avail itself of these international coordination mechanisms to the degree that it could.
These arrangements occur at the institution level and to some extent can be built on existing provisions maintained by USGS administrative units. Tri-national coordination in North America, for example, can influence and be influenced by regional multinational geological survey agency coordination mechanisms elsewhere, including EuroGeoSurveys, an organization
of 33 European Geological Surveys,1 the Coordinating Committee for Geoscience Programmes in East and Southeast Asia,2 and federal models such as the Chief Government Geologists’ Committee in Australia.3 Geological survey agency delegates at the 2008 International Geological Congress in Oslo also discussed ways to further develop the organization of the International Consortium of Geological Surveys (ICOGS) (IGC, 2008). New arrangements for coordination are also emerging, such as the OneGeology project,4 which has recently led to greatly improved collaboration among geological surveys around the world.
Availability of Resources
Because the USGS is the premier Earth science agency in the United States, Survey scientists and administrators receive numerous requests for assistance to other countries and for involvement in international cooperative activities. They face a tension between (1) their inclination, as scientists, to do more international work, and (2) their duty, as public servants, to discern the appropriate level of such commitments and the benefits both to U.S. taxpayers and the USGS domestic mission. A constant factor in considering international engagements is understaffing—even to handle domestic responsibilities. For example, in the Earthquake Hazards Program, staffing has been reduced from a high of over 400 full-time equivalents in the 1980s to fewer than 250 at the end of 2009, despite increased responsibilities for monitoring, data analysis, and providing real-time information products (SESAC, 2010). Foreign travel also poses a challenge because commonly it is expensive.
International activities, insofar as they are supported by external funding, provide a diversified source of financial support for some USGS science centers. However, the committee was informed that restrictions on sources of funding and means of funding (for example, in-kind contribution, repayment to a USGS account, payment directly to the traveler) have increased in recent years, making it more difficult to organize repayment of foreign travel costs for Survey scientists. Questions about how to assess overhead on refunds of travel costs have also been raised, with potential to impact the availability of funds originally intended for carrying out USGS scientific work. These issues may, in turn, affect the effectiveness of and terms upon which agreements are negotiated with potential project sponsors within the federal government (e.g., the U.S. Agency for International Development) or by institutions such as the World Bank. The committee also observed the challenges associated with making longer-term plans for multiyear international projects within a federal system currently structured toward annual funding appropriations.
1 See www.eurogeosurveys.org/.
2 See www.ccop.or.th/.
3 See www.geoscience.gov.au/ggic.jsp.
4 See www.onegeology.org/.
The committee acknowledges that resource limitations, both in professional staffing and funding, can impede any agency’s ability to undertake new efforts, whether domestic or international. Perhaps the use of some of its available appropriated funds may offer some option for the USGS to judiciously support selected overseas work, adding to the support provided for international projects as requested by external partners and managed through reimbursable funds.
The impediments to more effective USGS participation in international science activities are varied. Action for change presupposes a high-level commitment to the proposition that international science activities are not just accommodated and ancillary to the Survey’s mission but truly a fundamental part of the Survey’s aim “to help our Nation and the world” (Gundersen et al., 2011: 3). Impediments that relate to mission pressures within the DOI or to the flexibility of the USGS to undertake more international science activities, while still ably performing its domestic mission, will continue to pose significant challenges. The impediments most amenable for the USGS to overcome are those relating to an overall plan for global science activities, cooperative and otherwise, and to the Survey’s present institutional culture. If USGS participation in international science activities is to be more effective in the future, then an overarching Survey-wide plan for such activities would represent a solid starting point. As with most federal agencies, increased funding may arguably be a requirement for growth—but not for significant change.
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 pp. Available at pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1369.
IGC (International Geological Congress). 2008. General Proceedings of the 33rd International Geological Congress, August 6–14, Oslo, Norway. Available at www.33igc.org/coco/filepool.aspx?t=downloads%3a+publications+and+updates&containerid=10728&parentid=5002&entrypage=true&guid=1&lnodeid=0&pageid=5001 (accessed October 28, 2011).
SESAC (Scientific Earthquake Studies Advisory Committee). 2010. Report for 2008–2009 of the Scientific Earthquake Studies Advisory Committee to the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, 15 p. Available at earthquake.usgs.gov/ aboutus/sesac/reports.php.
DOI (U.S. Department of the Interior). 2011a. Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2011–2016, 44 p., available at www.doi.gov/bpp/data/PPP/DOI_StrategicPlan.pdf.
DOI. 2011b. Budget Justifications and Performance Information, Fiscal Year 2012, U.S. Geological Survey, 498 p., available at http://www.usgs.gov/budget/2012/greenbook/greenbook_2012.pdf.
USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). 2007. USGS Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges: U.S. Geological Survey Science in the Decade 2007-2017: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1309. Available online at pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2007/1309/ (accessed September 29, 2011).
USGS. 2011a. “Science Earns Prominent Focus in the Department of the Interior’s New Five-Year Strategic Plan.” U.S. Geological Survey Press Release, January 26. Available at www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2687.
USGS. 2011b. Geology for a Changing World 2010–2020: Implementing the U.S. Geological Survey Science Strategy, USGS Circular 1369, 68 p.