Robert E. Gropp
The mission and responsibilities of the US Geological Survey (USGS), an agency once recognized almost exclusively for giving the public information about geologic hazards, have grown over the years. Now, as the natural resource science and mapping bureau for the US Department of the In- terior (DOI), USGS conducts cutting- edge research into a variety of biological, geological, and hydrological issues, research that contributes to the public's safety and well-being on a daily basis. However, science policy experts warn that the USGS budget is inadequate to support its expanded mission, which could lead to scientific stagnation if conditions do not change.
Since the mid-1990s, when Congress directed DOI to consolidate its science programs, the biological sciences have been a core component of USGS. Operating through the Biological Resources Discipline, biology is a sister division to geography, geology, and water programs. "As interior's science agency, USGS conducts research critical to managing the nation's natural resources," according to Nadine Lymn, director of public affairs for the Ecological Society of America.
Many scientists view USGS as a vital research partner. Louis Pitelka, director of the Appalachian Laboratory at the University of Maryland and president of the Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, points out that data from stream gauges deployed by USGS across the country "are essential for watershed research. With these data now available in 'real time' over the Web, it is possible for ecologists to schedule fieldwork and sampling based on actual water flows." Additionally, USGS is the distribution source for NASA imagery and a variety of other resources, such as the digital elevation maps that many biologists use every day. USGS also supports 39 cooperative research units (CRUs), which are located on university campuses across the United States; CRUs conduct research on renewable natural resource questions, contribute to graduate student education, and provide technical assistance to resource managers and decisionmakers.
Over the past 8 years, federal spending on nondefense research and development has risen from roughly $37 billion to nearly $55 billion per year. Unfortunately for scientists at USGS and those who rely on their data and services, USGS has not benefited from this federal largesse. The USGS budget has remained nearly flat for the past 8 years. Although some programs, including some biology initiatives, have periodically received modest budget increases, others have been trimmed and the overall budget has languished.
Many science policy experts speculate that USGS budget stagnation is the confluence of myriad factors, mostly external to USGS. David Applegate, director of governmental affairs for the American Geological Institute, contends that USGS is unlike other science agencies: "It is not an independent entity like NSF or NASA, or a major component of its parent department." Indeed, USGS must compete with other bureaus in DOI even before the struggle to become a budget priority at the White House can begin. And unlike other bureaus in DOI, USGS has a mission that extends beyond the public lands, which has created a mission "mismatch," according to Applegate. Although a core responsibility of USGS is to serve the science needs of its sister bureaus, it also must serve the public by providing services such as water-quality assessments, invasive species research, and geologic hazard assessments.
Contending that new investments are required to strengthen USGS partnerships and to assure that USGS can appropriately meet its commitments to DOI bureaus and the public, Applegate began working in January 2003 to establish a cross-disciplinary coalition to advocate for USGS funding. Since then, more than 40 organizations representing the breadth of USGS programs have coalesced to form the USGS Coalition (www.usgscoalition.org). Coalition activities will focus initially on information sharing among member organizations and communicating the value of USGS programs to budget officials. The group hopes to have an early impact by improving USGS's treatment in the president's fiscal year 2005 budget request, which is currently being formulated by the administration.
The USGS Coalition has some powerful allies. Despite repeated administration proposals to cut the USGS budget, some members of Congress have worked in a bipartisan manner to restore base funding for popular USGS programs and services. In fiscal year 2003 appropriations legislation, the House Appropriations Committee urged the administration to "continue to fund these critical science programs." For its part, the Senate Appropriations Committee urged the administration "to bear in mind the expressed public support across the United States for the Survey's programs."
Even with such backing for the agency, the USGS Coalition sees much more work ahead. Lymn cautions, "Success will depend upon staying focused on a few clear goals and the commitment of a core group of people."
Robert E. Gropp (rgr...@aibs.org) is AIBS's
senior public policy representative.
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