Political Scene

The Time Has Come for a USGS Coalition
David Applegate

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is a mortal condemned by the gods to push a giant boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down to the plain from whence he must push it up again, a process of futile toil to be repeated for all eternity. This story may seem a bit too familiar to those seeking to rally support for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

For two years running, the administration has requested major budget cuts in USGS programs. Each time, organizations and individuals from the geoscience community and other USGS constituencies have mobilized to urge Congress to restore the funding. In response, Congress has chosen to reject the cuts and boost the agency’s budget. In the case of certain programs that have strong external constituencies, such as the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program and the Water Resource Research Institutes, this cut and restore process has been repeated over many budget cycles. External advocacy efforts are expended on getting back to the starting line rather than on building important programs.

Congress is frustrated. Although the final Interior appropriations bill has yet to be signed, both the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the bill accompanied by choice words for the administration and in particular the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The House-passed bill would provide the Survey with $928 million for fiscal year (FY) 2003, an amount $60 million above the president’s request and $14 million above what the agency received in FY 2002. The explanatory report prepared by the House Appropriations Committee asserts: “Officials at the Office of Management and Budget seemingly believe that the Department of the Interior no longer needs science on which to base natural resource policy decisions. This is not the position of the Congress as articulated in previous Interior bills, nor is it the position of the National Academy of Sciences, which has provided recommendations on a program by program basis detailing the need to expand, not eliminate, the very programs that the Office of Management and Budget has targeted as unnecessary. The Committee strongly urges the Department and OMB to continue to fund these critical science programs in the base budget in future years.”

Far from a partisan jibe, that language comes from the chamber where the president’s own party is firmly in control. Language accompanying the Senate bill, which provides USGS with $927 million, is just as strong: “The Committee is dismayed that the budget estimate for the USGS once again recommends large reductions to valuable ongoing programs…. The Committee does not agree to the termination or weakening of programs for which there is strong support from a broad constituency, and a demonstrated value through the significant amount of non-federal funds that are leveraged through most USGS programs. In the Committee’s view, it will remain difficult to find the resources to support new directions for the Survey as long as the annual need to restore large amounts to base programs continues. As budget planning gets underway for fiscal year 2004, the Committee urges those involved in the process to bear in mind the expressed public support across the United States for the Survey’s programs.”

If OMB and the Department of the Interior are to “bear in mind” public support for the USGS, that support is going to have to be constant and compelling. Where individual efforts have failed, a better-coordinated approach may succeed. The administration is currently working on its budget request for FY 2004, and that is where we need to break the cycle.

Word is that Interior gets the message and is poised to allow USGS to request increased funding in FY 2004 (which remains confidential until the president’s budget is announced this coming February). But convincing OMB remains a formidable challenge.

At a member society leadership forum of the American Geological Institute (AGI) earlier this year, the society representatives agreed on the need for better coordinated efforts to support the Survey and called for establishing a coalition with this purpose. Such coalitions have been established for science programs in a number of federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and Department of Defense. These coalitions of scientific societies, universities and businesses have proven effective at building support for these agencies in Congress and the executive branch.

Such a coalition would support USGS through better coordination of existing advocacy efforts leading to more effective strategies. The coalition would unite organizations concerned with the geologic, hydrologic, cartographic and biologic activities of the Survey. AGI’s member societies will play a critical role in this coalition as their memberships represent some of the most important constituencies for USGS.

One of the stumbling blocks on the road to more reliable support for USGS is a misperception of the scope of its national mission. The Survey’s mission extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s public lands to encompass the homes of all citizens through natural hazards investigations, resource assessments, and other activities. That misperception has, in part, resulted in proposed cuts targeted at nationally focused programs like the National Water Quality Assessment Program and the Toxic Substances Hydrology program. Congress seems to recognize that USGS is providing the science upon which to base its policy decisions. It’s time to expand that recognition with articulate arguments supporting the Survey’s mission and advocating for programs that bring geoscience to bear on national problems. A coalition can launch that effort.

AGI is working to establish a USGS coalition this fall and seeks the broadest possible participation. If we all push together, we might just save ourselves another wearying walk down to the plain.

The full text of House Report 107-564 and Senate Report 107-201, which accompany the Interior appropriations bill, is available online. For the latest on all geoscience-related appropriations, visit the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Related Geotimes stories:
Congress chastises Bush budget for USGS
Senate boosts NSF geoscience funding

Applegate is director of the Government Affairs Program for the American Geological Institute and is the editor of Geotimes. E-mail

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