Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE July 1996

Report Addresses USGS/NBS Merger

In June, the American Geological Institute released a report outlining a vision for and opportunities arising from the congressionally mandated integration of the National Biological Service (NBS) into the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). This report is th e result of an AGI workshop that assembled representatives from 17 geology, biology, hydrology, and cartography societies to examine the merger and provide input to the Department of the Interior and Congress from the scientific community affected by the consolidation.

The report concludes that the integration of the two agencies can enhance the research capabilities needed to manage the nation's resources, solve environmental problems, and protect people from natural hazards. Workshop participants see the merger as an opportunity to build comprehensive, multi-disciplinary teams to collect, integrate, and analyze information on the nation's natural resources and environment. But they also express concern that consolidation could dilute the unique functions of each age ncy. For example, biologists point to the need for continued support of unique facilities such as the National Wildlife Health Laboratory, that do not lend themselves to interdisciplinary integration. Geologists do not want the merger to pull funds away from the successful National Earthquake Hazards Reduction and National Geologic Mapping programs.

The report recognizes that many of the opportunities presented by integration will have to be developed through reprogramming of existing funds. Although the USGS will have a broader mission, it will not be able to hire new scientists to fill gaps, but i nstead must rely on partnerships with other federal agencies, the states, academia, and the private sector.

The positive tone of the report is surprising given the circumstances of the merger. Whereas scientists at the workshop identified opportunities for closer collaboration between biologists, geologists, and hydrologists, creating those opportunities was n ot the motivation of the merger's congressional architects. In the fiscal year 1996 appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior, Congress required that the NBS be eliminated as a separate entity and its functions merged into the USGS, and inst ructed the department to provide a plan for this merger by October 1, 1996. The merger was included in the omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Clinton in April.

Biological research at the Department of the Interior has been a political hot potato for many years. In 1993, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the NBS (originally called the National Biological Survey), combining the biological research function s of five Interior agencies (primarily the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service) into a single entity with no regulatory responsibility. The consolidation was intended to protect scientific research from the political turmoil surroundi ng enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Ever since its inception, however, the NBS has been a target for Republicans in Congress concerned about identification of endangered species on private lands.

The integration of the NBS into the USGS was a compromise reached between Secretary Babbitt, who wanted to save the NBS, and congressional opponents, who sought to eliminate it entirely or, at the very least, return its functions to the agencies from whic h they came. Although the NBS was eliminated as a separate entity, its functions were transferred almost intact to the USGS. In contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was abolished and only a third of its functions and staff were transferred to other agenci es. The USGS thus becomes the sole scientific agency in the Interior Department.

Washington workshop
The intersociety workshop, chaired by AGI President Robert D. Hatcher Jr., was held at the American Geophysical Union headquarters building in Washington, DC. Secretary Babbitt, USGS Director Gordon Eaton, NBS Director Ron Pulliam, and other agency offic ials briefed workshop attendees who then participated in a series of breakout sessions designed to explore the scientific challenges presented by the merger.

In his opening remarks, Babbitt spoke of a "momentous time in the evolution of science at Interior." Although he disparaged Congress' need to "dangle a scalp" by eliminating the NBS, Babbitt nevertheless described the merger as an "enormous opportunity" for interdisciplinary research. Presentations by Eaton, Pulliam, and the agency division chiefs described areas where NBS and USGS scientists are already working together, such as the successful National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program and effo rts to restore the Florida Everglades and Louisiana wetlands.

Vision and Opportunities
In the AGI report, workshop participants emphasize the need for a new vision for the USGS that reflects all of its research areas and disciplinary components. The USGS must strive to supply the geological, hydrological, cartographic, and biological infor mation necessary to manage and conserve the nation's natural resources for today and the future, contributing to the health and safety of the nation's citizens and to the understanding and maintenance of the environment that sustains them. By maintaining the separation of science from regulatory authority, the USGS can continue to focus sound science on a broad range of societally relevant issues in resources, hazards, and the environment through surveys, monitoring, assessment, and research on both livin g resources and their physical and chemical framework. In order for the USGS to be effective, its vision must include a commitment to public information and outreach.

The workshop participants identify five areas of opportunity to strengthen the USGS: (1) credibility and quality assurance of scientific information; (2) integration of information across disciplines and cross-disciplinary training; (3) research agendas b ased on natural boundaries -- for example, basins or watersheds located in several states; (4) development of data collection and analysis and of information technologies; and (5) assessment of environmental "hot spots" such as the Everglades and anticipa tion of environmental problems.

In several cases, such as the NAWQA program, strong cooperative interactions have been in place for a number of years. In other areas, developing effective multidisciplinary initiatives will take considerable skill and effort.

The report recommends ways for the USGS to take advantage of the opportunities presented by integration and better accomplish its mission: (1) develop cross-disciplinary initiatives and budgets that will produce new approaches and solutions to problems; ( 2) encourage partnerships and alliances with states, universities, museums, and the private sector in order to leverage federal resources, augment staff expertise, and transfer technology into the academic and private sectors; and (3) implement regional a nd national stakeholders councils.

Further Workshops Planned
The release of the AGI report followed the first of three workshops organized by the Geological Society of America in conjunction with the Ecological Society of America. Unlike the AGI effort, which focused on the broad community, these meetings will inv olve working scientists and resource managers engaged in areas where overlap between the two agencies are most likely to occur. The first workshop was held in Washington, D.C., and the second and third workshops will be held in Colorado and California. These workshops and the AGI report should provide Congress and the Interior Department strong guidance from the scientific community.

(A copy of the AGI report is available at this site.)

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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