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Funding
Minerals cut again

For the third year in a row, President Bush’s proposed budget for 2007 scuttled the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Mineral Resources Program. The requested cuts affect the collection of data on everything from the processes involved in mineral formation, to the extent of worldwide deposits of economic mineral commodities.

The overall 2007 proposed budget for USGS, as well as for the rest of the federal government, reflects the stated funding priorities of the current administration — terrorism, homeland defense and reducing the deficit (see Geotimes online, Web Extra, Feb. 7). This year’s proposal, released in February, marks the first in which USGS has gained some funding for basic costs such as employee salaries, but joins other federal agencies in losing funding across a variety of programs.

While the administration has proposed large cuts to the USGS minerals division in each of the past three years, Congress has usually added the monies back to the budget. This fiscal year, the minerals information corps had a budget of $53 million, with a $4.5 million cut from 2005. The proposed budget for 2007 cuts $22 million from the 2006 funding level.

If the cut is approved, says Carla Burzyk, director of the USGS Office of Budget and Performance, about 180 full-time employees would have to be laid off or moved out of the division, into another portion of USGS that remains more flush in this year of budget belt-tightening. The cuts would lead to the termination of research projects, including those on human health impacts from mercury and other metals, and support for geochemical and geophysical labs, as well as industrial minerals research.

Burzyk notes that such a loss of funding to the minerals information service also would create “a gap in the data.” USGS “wouldn’t be able to produce minerals commodity reports,” a key product of the program, she says (see story, this issue).

The users of that data include federal and private organizations, from the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Forest Service, to mining companies interested in world market trends. Burzyk also cites such users as the medical industry, which follows titanium (used for hip, ankle and other replacement parts), as well as other commodities that USGS tracks. The division regularly earns “satisfactory” marks in the presidential business assessment that all government agencies undergo.

The USGS division provides a kind of “one-stop-shopping” service, providing data on the supply and demand of hundreds of minerals, both nationally and internationally, says Leslie Coleman of the National Mining Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Other commentators have noted that the objectivity of USGS is part of what makes their product so valuable.

In proposing that USGS Mineral Resources be cut, the administration has suggested that states, industry and other groups would be able to pick up responsibility for collecting the same data, in line with the administration’s philosophy of privatization. But no other government agency or organization “would have the expertise to take their place if they could,” Coleman says, noting that some members of the Association of American State Geologists have said that they could not take over the process adequately for their own states. State geological surveys and universities do not necessarily have the capacity to perform such “comprehensive” surveying, she says.

“It takes a long time to establish rapport with international agencies,” Coleman says. “If [USGS] lost that, I would think it would be nearly impossible to recover.”

When restoring the program to the enacted level last year, Congress called the functions the division performs an “inherently federal responsibility,” and Coleman agrees. “Both the domestic data and international data are indispensable,” she says. “There really isn’t any substitute that I’m aware of.”

Naomi Lubick

Links:
"Budget blues and bonuses," Geotimes online Web Extra, Feb. 7

"Minerals consumption soars," Geotimes, April 2006

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