A global, integrated understanding of the Earth sciences is of fundamental importance to enhance U.S. public health and security, safeguard our natural heritage, and support economic development. For both the public and private sectors of the nation, global information and knowledge about Earth’s natural processes are absolutely critical for any engagement in Earth science issues either at home or abroad. Chemical modification of the world’s oceans and atmosphere has direct consequences for the United States, whether considering the direct effects on people, plants, animals, or water resources. The effects of severe weather events, droughts, inland and coastal flooding, crop failures, and sea-level rise all have an adverse aggregate impact on American life. The future acquisition of additional fresh water supplies, nonrenewable Earth resources, and a sufficient supply of inexpensive energy require attention to the changing global conditions on the Earth.
As the Nation’s leading, integrated Earth science agency, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a significant role to play in contributing information and knowledge to address Earth science issues arising in and beyond U.S. national boundaries. The USGS contributes effectively to the amelioration of such largely adverse trends, to the benefit of the public. The committee sees international work as integral to the Survey’s ability to respond to its national mandate. With this in mind, the committee has developed five recommendations based on significant findings and conclusions that outline a series of steps for the USGS to support and strengthen its international activities.
The committee’s initial overarching 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 toward international science. The committee sees compelling arguments for the USGS to play a dynamic role in international science. With an eye to the future, the development of a strategic implementation plan for international science at the USGS is fundamentally important, and the committee outlines some basic elements that could be part of such a plan. These include scientific opportunities
in the international arena with strong promise of high return value to the nation and the USGS together with strategies that may enable the USGS to bypass some of the potential impediments to engaging effectively in international science activities.
Global Earth science, including deep understanding of ecological systems, is critical, and becoming more so, as populations increase and access to resources becomes more challenging. The world is increasingly interconnected, and global environmental problems frequently impact the United States. The USGS plays an essential role in the systematic mapping, monitoring, and study of the Earth to fulfill wide-ranging 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.
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, as described in Chapter 3 of this report. Current activities include mitigating 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, technical aid, and other means. However, the continuum of global problems and issues requiring urgent attention for which the Survey has relevant expertise makes this a critical time for greater USGS involvement in international science on behalf of our national interests. The USGS is especially well positioned in terms of its multidisciplinary expertise and organizational capabilities to play either a leading or collaborative role, both in the United States and internationally, in addressing Earth science problems that will arise as conditions and processes change on our planet.
RECOMMENDATION: The USGS should play an expanded, proactive role in international Earth science, consistent with, and building upon, its present 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 in keeping with the idea that these endeavors maximize effectiveness in the use of government resources, the USGS can consider forging stronger links and collaborative efforts with a wide variety of international and domestic partners. Other nations’ geological surveys and international organizations such as OneGeology are potential partners. In addition to its collaborations within the Department of the Interior, the USGS already has strong relationships on international projects with the Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense, and the World Bank, as well as with other federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These reliable partnerships could be further strengthened and serve as a springboard for broader scientific engagement among all of the Survey’s mission areas. Examples of this kind of approach might include different USGS mission areas working in concert to develop and propose innovative international projects that serve the partners’ needs along with best practices for implementation.
The USGS has recently identified seven mission areas, which are applied to national Earth science activities. Internationally, new science opportunities exist to support these national directions; however, most of these opportunities require examining Earth processes as an interconnected system, thus requiring a systems approach. The latter is already being fostered by the USGS in its domestic science strategies. Integrated efforts, across USGS mission areas, can strengthen the Survey’s scientific capabilities, increase knowledge and understanding of Earth processes, and support informed and effective decision-making. A selected, though not exhaustive, set of international science opportunities with demonstrable potential to benefit national priorities is described in Chapter 4. Many of these offer further opportunities to evolve the institutional culture within the USGS in terms of interdisciplinary research and collaboration.
RECOMMENDATION: The Survey leadership should continue advancing the integration and coordination of activities across the seven mission areas, and consider using international science opportunities such as those outlined in Chapter 4, to motivate further scientific integration within the USGS.
From the standpoint of the structure of USGS’ international activities, 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 USGS mission areas are to be expected and are likely healthy, identification of current best practices for successful development and execution of global scientific projects is warranted and could facilitate adoption of those practices more broadly across the different mission areas. Encouraging engagement among the mission areas in developing international, interdisciplinary scientific opportunities could allow the Survey to better prepare for official project requests from external partners and could enhance readiness to explore new international science opportunities. The absence of a more proactive approach to international science activities at the Survey probably weakens the overall success of the USGS in conducting such efforts.
RECOMMENDATION: A Survey-wide plan for international work should be developed to allow 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. Elements of the plan could include guidelines or mechanisms that would
- 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.
As outlined in Chapter 5, 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 our own committee experience, information on USGS international activities is not
readily available to the public in a conveniently organized, useful, and informative way. The committee had the advantage of becoming well informed about the Survey’s international science activities from a variety of extramural as well as Survey sources, and the resulting overview led us to be impressed by the great value of such activities and partnerships, including benefits to the USGS domestic mission and clear relevance to U.S. national interests. This same value would not be evident to someone in the general public attempting to understand more about USGS international work.
RECOMMENDATION: To increase public awareness of the value to the nation that results from USGS international scientific activities, the USGS should promote more effective communication and outreach about nonsensitive international work. Effective 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 allow for 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.
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