Consolidation of NOAA and USGS continued…

November 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A couple of weeks ago we posted a letter in response to a Policy Forum in Science Magazine proposing the consolidation of USGS and NOAA to create and Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA). Here is the promised response, written by Mark Schaeffer and D. James Baker:

14 Nov 08

We believe that Ryan Meyer, Lisa Dilling, Roger Pielke Jr, and Daniel Sarewitz have missed the point here when they focus solely on the “science push” in our article.  We all know that NOAA and USGS both have excellent research linked to user needs; hazards at USGS and drought at NOAA are two examples that they cite.  It’s our view that these and other excellent programs would thrive in a joint agency by being closer together. We’re not trying to drop these links – we’re trying to find ways to enhance them.

The point of our article was to express the views of those who have actually managed these agencies and who have seen how hard it is for these agencies to work together.  Sometimes maintaining existing organizational structures and trying to leverage the experience and resources of agency programs are not enough. Our experience would say that simply adding coordination mechanisms and improved decision support capacity to the existing organizational structure will never be as effective in meeting national needs as actual agency merger.

We, like Meyer et al., would like to get to an integrated model that links research and engagement so that research agendas are responsive to user needs. But the current arrangement artificially separates ocean and atmospheric sciences from terrestrial and freshwater sciences in two agencies in two different departments and makes such responsiveness harder to develop.  As we state in our article, we believe that addressing the unprecedented environmental and economic challenges the nation is facing requires that we realign our public institutional infrastructure.

In the end, the magnitude of the challenges we face demands that the federal government and states be much more innovative in developing and implementing policy responses to environmental and economic challenges at multiple scales.  The core mission of the proposed ESSA would be to align and integrate research and monitoring programs that are closely linked to users to meet this pressing need.  Our proposed organizational change with true program integration and major advancements in government-university collaboration is critical to meeting national needs.

We should not shy away from the pursuit of necessary change out of concern about budgetary and political uncertainties.  These uncertainties are minor in comparison to the benefits that would result from enhancing the nation’s environmental research and monitoring capacity.  We understand that President-elect Obama is considering a fast-track plan for government reorganization, and we are urging Congressional hearings on the ability of the government, through NOAA and USGS, to meet the new challenges.

By taking on this problem of responsiveness squarely, we can ensure that federal environmental programs are more comprehensive and integrated and more closely connected with the expertise in the nation’s universities, and that they maintain strong links with users in all sectors.  The challenge is to make this happen.  Agency merger is the best way, and we’d like to see the process started.  If it fails, the very fact of consideration will have helped us move on the path towards better responsiveness.

It would be interesting to continue this conversation along those lines – how can a new merged agency best operate to meet the needs that both we and Meyer et al. have identified, and if the merger fails, what processes can be put in place that can really make a difference?

3 Responses to “Consolidation of NOAA and USGS continued…”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    Well, my concerns that I mentioned the first time Ryan posted about this are still valid. Given the background of some of the authors, I’m disappointed that they are suggesting such an unwieldy (politically and organizationally) proposal. They should know better.

    There are segments of NOAA that are not connected to the Earth sciences research mission that the authors of the Policy Forum outlined for this ESSA. The Fisheries Service is the one line agency within NOAA that is probably the most distinct from the Earth observation message, and I don’t know what the authors plan to do with it.

    Organizationally the outlined structure is flawed in that it’s a merger of NOAA and USGS, but a collaborative bridge to NASA’s Earth sciences program. Why? If the authors think a reordering of priorities for NASA’s Earth observation program is necessary, why stop short of incorporating it into the new agency?

    With the possible exception of stronger coordination of the associated research programs (ocean, atmosphere, terrestrial, freshwater, etc.), I think all of the coordination functions assigned to this new agency can be done by the OSTP and associated coordinating councils, mostly the National Science and Technology Council, an executive branch interagency group associated with OSTP in some administrations. The heavy lifting necessary to do what it would take in Congress to create a new agency does not seem worth what added benefit an ESSA might provide. I also think there’s little chance of this happening, unless Congressional champions have already been cultivated and are hiding out on this issue.

    The problems with declining attention to Earth observation and Earth sciences appear much more budgetary than organizational, and the proposed structure of ESSA seems unlikely to address the issues with Earth observation at NASA. The failure of the last great science policy ’success’ – the America COMPETES Act – is on the budgetary side, and challenges to discretionary spending are one of many reasons an ESSA will remain an academic exercise.

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  3. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Check out a continuation of this discussion over at Nature Blogs:

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  5. Ryan Meyer Says:

    “We, like Meyer et al., would like to get to an integrated model that links research and engagement so that research agendas are responsive to user needs. But the current arrangement artificially separates ocean and atmospheric sciences from terrestrial and freshwater sciences in two agencies in two different departments and makes such responsiveness harder to develop.”

    This passage of the response encapsulates the logic of the original piece in Science, and is precisely the reason for our letter. There is no reason to think that the artificial separation referred to here is a significant obstacle to the “integrated model” that we have put forward. The obstacle is traditional model of science funding, which is driven largely by scientists, and not the communities science is supposed to help.

    Yes, NOAA and USGS have had more success in building problem-driven research programs than have other agencies. But such programs remain small, isolated examples that persist despite a broader institutional culture focused on the “linear model” of science, which is generally driven the priorities of the scientific community. It is that broader institutional culture that will have to change if we want more of our research dollars to actually address the major looming problems that Schaefer et al. mention.

    It is possible that the transition to ESSA would present an opportunity to push in this direction, but it will not happen automatically. It will require serious pushing. Without a concerted effort to change the model through which science is funded, and orient programs to be more problem driven, ESSA will just be more of the same.