November 1999

A New Vision for the USGS:

An Interview with USGS Director Charles Groat

Part II

This fall, as the U.S. Geological Survey waited for approval of its Fiscal Year 2000 budget, director Charles G. Groat started implementing changes to the survey’s administrative structure. Groat says these changes should help the USGS realize some of his broader visions of changing USGS culture, creating a survey that responds to the need for interdisciplinary science and helping the science organization respond quickly to deliver information about Earth and natural hazards.

In this second part of an interview with The American Geological Institute (AGI), Groat discusses the survey’s FY 2000 and FY 2001 budgets, along with changes he sees in the survey’s future. In August, Groat announced significant changes to the science bureau’s organizational structure, which he discussed in the first part of this interview (Geotimes, October 1999).

AGI: In the congressional appropriations process
for the Fiscal Year 2000 budget, scientific agencies, particularly NASA and even NSF, have had rough sailing. How’s the USGS doing?

GROAT: We expect to receive about $18 million above our base as new money, which will mainly cover cost-of-living increases for salaries. We don’t expect big hits.
At best we’re holding our ground and we probably won’t lose anything. It’s a survival budget, but there’s no growth or enhancements.

AGI: In recent years the USGS basically had survival budgets or small increases from Congress, in part due to what appears to be a mismatch between administration and congressional priorities. Is that inevitable, or can more be done to bridge the gap between the priorities of the Department of the Interior and the Office of Management and Budget and those priorities reflected in Congress, or what Congress is willing to fund?

GROAT: You’re right. Quite often, particularly with a Republican Congress and a fairly liberal Democratic administration, many things the administration puts forward are just knocked off the base for that reason.
Watch 2001. That’s going to be interesting. Our budget’s going to look different than it’s ever looked before, in terms of how we present it and how we’ve framed it. The Secretary of the Interior and the Office of Management and Budget are both interested in substantial increases to the USGS budget. We earned that approval in large part because we framed the budget in a way that, in a broad sense, followed administration priorities. But we’re building on our traditional strengths to follow those priorities. We tried to marry the two, and I think we’ve been successful. I think that strategy is going to be something that will play on the Hill as a growth in programs. They want to see us grow in our traditional strengths, like seismic monitoring and stream gaging and resource surveys. And the administration, because we’ve tied those traditional strengths into things like livable communities and lands legacy and quality of life for our citizens, sees us as playing—and we are—in things that interest them. It’s an attempt to walk that tight rope between our traditional strengths and the administration’s goals. The tradition has been to take one side, and not to play on the other, with the assumption that they’re oxymorons. But we have played both sides this time and we think we’ve got it.

AGI: That brings us to an area you’ve shown as a priority and one that also interests Congress: real-time hazard warning and monitoring systems. There’s a critical need for upgrading the current infrastructure, and this need is generally recognized. Could you discuss that initiative, which is in the Fiscal Year 2000 budget request?

GROAT: Yes, it’s in 2000 and will be significant in 2001. When Congress reauthorized NEHRP [National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program] and recommended a significant amount of money for seismic monitoring in the future, that was a good signal that the appetite is there for real-time warning and monitoring. Real-time hazards is one of the things I think we can make substantial increases in over the next few years: That is, expanding and enhancing our ability to deal with hazards in a real-time fashion. And that means upgrading the hardware, which is pretty old in some cases; upgrading the software that analyzes it; and upgrading the distribution of the sensors themselves, whether they be stream gages or seismographs. The real science part of that is in the real-time, which implies that yes, we can predict floods, based on streamflow; although the idea
of being able to predict earthquakes is a touchy subject. But with advances in technology, I think our science should not only
be organized so that we can “cover the ground” better and respond as quickly as possible, but also so that we can better understand the processes and, in fact, be able to do a better job of predicting them. So real time means real time, in that sense. Big change.

You talk about broad, societal applications: Who isn’t affected by some kind of hazard? The more we can do on the front-end to understand and predict hazards, and on the back-end to mitigate and deal with their effects, the better off everybody’s going to be. And that’s a strength we need to play to.

AGI: The USGS has always played an important role in preserving geoscience data and thus offering a historical perspective on understanding Earth processes and changes. How do you see that role today and in the future?

GROAT: I think data preservation is a community issue—for the entire geoscience community, and for the bioscience community, however you look at it. There needs to be more cooperation among organizations preserving data. And I don’t think we can become the data preservers for the world. I don’t think any one organization can do that. But for an organization that values history of the Earth and history of processes, the data are critical. Preserving data is a high priority.
The most effective and economically efficient way to preserve data is to share the responsibility. I think we need to enter
into more partnerships with other organizations that are interested in data preservation, find ways we can work together. The other part of data preservation is just the interest in gathering data itself. I’m really concerned that in this era, when everybody wants immediate gratification for information, they’re not willing to invest in the preservation of data from the past, or in the gathering of new data, which is monitoring. If we don’t see a greater appreciation for the need to preserve data and the need to gather data, the science is going to suffer. So it is a critical issue, both past and present and future. And our well-being
is tied to it. Without information, without data, we don’t have good science. And that’s one of the things most valued from the USGS: its record of data and its information systems. Protecting and extending that record is a very high priority.

AGI: There’s been much talk in recent years about changing the culture of the USGS. Do you see that happening and what changes do you see in the future?

GROAT: I think that’s happening more than people appreciate. And the basic culture change that’s taking place is not whether we should be doing good science and how much of it should be directed toward societal needs. And it’s not whether there’s a conflict between doing that kind of science and doing curiosity-driven kinds of science. In some cases, there is a conflict. But there is not necessarily a trade-off in the quality of the science or the usefulness of the science if it has some applications. So I think, more and more, the bureau has recognized, not just in the past few months but in the past few years, that it needs to justify the science it does in terms of real-world needs. That culture change is already taking place.

The culture change that’s needed in the future is one of recognizing, as I’m trying to do with these recent changes, that we need to be flexible in how we apply our science and how we organize to conduct the science that’s needed. Because science is becoming more interdisciplinary, more integrated, we need to change the culture so that we see the science as the most important thing, not the organization, in order to facilitate bringing scientists together, particularly now that we have a biological resources group. We’ve got all the ingredients to take very holistic looks at important systems to the the nation—to the world, for that matter—and the culture needs to change to recognize that.

This idea brings us back where we started, talking about the reason for change. Change is to make the science more useful. And the other part of the culture that’s changing is the recognition that communication is important, that we have to be able to communicate our science effectively. And that needs a boost now and then, and I’m trying to give it one.

AGI: In August you distributed a list of your priorities for the survey to USGS staff members. One of the priorities you describe is recruiting young scientists into the USGS. How do you plan to do that and why?

GROAT: That’s probably the most frustrating and difficult issue we face. As you mentioned earlier, our budget growth has been mainly cost-of-living sorts of growth. The difficulty that trend has placed us in is that, because salaries increase as people become senior, when they retire, instead of filling their positions in many cases, we keep the money to pay the increased costs of our existing people. As a result we get older, we decrease the amount of money we have to operate, and, by not hiring replacements, we cut off the supply of young talent. That’s gone on long enough that we have this imbalance. We’re a very gray, aging organization.

Freeing up the resources to hire young people means making some very difficult program decisions. We will either need to stop doing some things in order to free up money to hire young people, or we’ll need significant budget growth. Neither option is easy, but the most desirable one is to budget growth. So we’re hoping that the 2001 budget becomes a vehicle to allow us to add some young scientists. Short of that, we’ll have to make some program decisions that allow us to hire people, because we’ve just got to do it. We cannot continue on our current path. Intermediate measures, or measures that will go on regardless of how many people we hire, include doing a lot more cooperative work with universities and with agencies having people who provide expertise or having younger people, for that matter: a strong post-doc program, for example, where we bring people into the survey, or temporary-hire programs. All these options are useful; but what they don’t add is that institutional memory you gain when a young scientist starts with the survey, remains through a good part of their career and adds a lot of value. That’s where we’re hurting. It’s a big challenge.

AGI: That leads us to another question you’ve been touching on in some of your answers. We talked about the role of research in the USGS, and also you’ve talked about the survey’s role as a kind of public-service entity, supplying information that people need. How do these two roles mesh?

GROAT: I’ve said over and over again, and I firmly believe, that what the USGS delivers, above all, is quality science that’s objective. If we ever stray from that, then we’re going to be in trouble, because when you ask the Hill, and when you ask constituents, the one thing they value about the USGS is that we don’t come from any particular point of view. Our science can be trusted; our records can be trusted. And when you get into the privatization argument, there are those who don’t want some work done by a contractor, they want it done by the USGS. So the role of science—basic, objective, quality science—is critical.

The second critical aspect of the science is the understanding that you gain in the scientific enterprise. If the interpretations come from a neutral and objective scientific organization, then they tend to be believed. So the fact that we’ve done research on a subject and have come up with a conclusion sometimes might give that conclusion more credibility than if similar research were done by a regulatory agency such as the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].

The difference is how we get that science out there, and how we communicate the science: quality science effectively communicated. And it’s the “effectively communicated” part that’s posing the greatest challenge to us—making sure that the products of the science are in a form that’s useful to the customer. Understanding how to format the science so that it’s useful is a big change for some of our organizations. And taking that as a serious role is a big change, even on the Hill, where if you start talking about communication and information, they see it as a deviation from what the USGS should be doing, which is the
science. Yet if you say, well isn’t our science supposed to be useful? They’ll argue, well, of course it is. If you ask, then shouldn’t it be put into your hands? They’ll say, well of course it should. Then if you say, well doesn’t that mean we ought to put a fair amount of emphasis on information technology and communication? They’ll say, well, yes, but no, particularly if it’s an administration initiative. Then they’ll say, go somewhere else.

I don’t think there’s any tension between science and information. I think if we ever sacrifice the science and become just another Web site or another translator of other people’s information, then we will have lost what gives us value and what makes us useful. But, if we don’t use the technology to communicate our science, we’re not going to be as appreciated or as useful as we might be. So they go together.

AGI: In that spirit, what does the USGS look like in 2005, the end date for the survey’s current strategic plan?

GROAT: In some cases, the path we’re on will lead us to where the strategic plan will take us. The real increased emphasis on customers, on making our science relevant, is a path I think we’re on. The 2005 landmark for me would be that we truly do value our programs and the useful role they can play, as our first priority. And that we will have evolved into an organizational structure that allows us to be very flexible, be responsive and to allocate our resources and our people to meet changing needs. The science vision is easier to accomplish than is the organizational vision to be responsive. So I think that if we’re going to make real progress in being a science organization, then we have to make real progress in being a responsive organization.
The next millennium is certainly going to be a golden opportunity for the earth and life sciences. There are resource issues and environmental issues on everybody’s plate; every science, as the population grows, is becoming more critical, to more people. We have a wonderful opportunity to make a difference, if we’re responsive. So we have a great incentive to try and position
ourselves—not just the USGS but the whole earth science community—to do that. And I think our strategic plan will help us get there and I think if we make the right changes, we can be a more significant player.

Kristina Bartlett
Managing Editor, Geotimes. E-mail: <geotimes@agiweb.org>.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs, American Geological Institute. E-mail: <govt@agiweb.org>.

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