Consolidation of Science Agencies: An Ongoing Debate

November 13th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Back in July, Science Magazine published a Policy Forum advocating the consolidation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Geological Survey (USGS), into a single Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA). The primary rationale for the argument, formulated by several authors with considerable experience in the management of federally funded science, is that such an agency would be better equipped to deliver the “well-conceived, science-based, simultaneous responses on multiple scales, from global and national, to regional and local,” required for the “unprecedented environmental and economic challenges in the decades ahead.” I recommend reading the entire piece.

Last week, Science printed a response to that article, which, to our disappointment, was not the one submitted by Roger Pielke, Dan Sarewitz, Lisa Dilling, and me. So, after consulting with the original authors, we have decided to use Prometheus as a venue for continuing this discussion. I will include our unpublished letter below, and hope that Jim Baker will post their response in the comments, and we can go from there.

The short version of our response is that: 1.) there is no reason to think that the proposed consolidation would be good for science, and 2.) whether or not consolidation turns out to be good for science is irrelevant to the question of how best to orient scientific research so that it helps to address larger societal problems.

Here is our letter:

In a July 4 Policy Forum (1), a formidable group of experts on environmental research policy proposes the creation of an Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA) by combining NOAA and USGS.

We agree that the U.S. faces “unprecedented environmental and economic challenges” at the same time as the environmental sciences have experienced declining national investments and increasing politicization.  But reducing the number of key environmental science agencies from six to five will neither alleviate the challenges of inter-agency coordination, nor create a comprehensive research capacity. Moreover, the politics of ripping NOAA and the USGS out of their home departments (Commerce and Interior) would certainly lead to bruising political battles with unpredictable outcomes.  In a time of budget constraint, consolidation could make the problem worse for science by creating more conspicuous targets for political manipulation and budget cutting (2, 3).

Even more troubling is the “science push” approach that the authors advocate. ESSA’s proposed design puts data acquisition and basic science at the core of efforts to develop decision-relevant information that is then delivered to the outside world.  Decades of experience and scholarship, including a recent NRC assessment of the Nation’s climate science enterprise (4), shows that this approach is good at advancing basic knowledge but largely ineffective at providing useful knowledge for decision makers.

The most successful environmental science programs—including those in the USGS and NOAA—have long ago moved away from a simple linear approach (“do the science, then communicate it”) to embrace an integrated model where research and engagement are tightly linked from the outset, so that research agendas and products are responsive to the needs and capabilities of information users, and users in turn know what they can expect from scientists (5-10).  What makes them successful is not the breadth of their research portfolios, but their approach to research and problem solving. A truly innovative approach to improving society’s capacity to respond to environmental challenges would focus investments on leveraging the experience and resources of agency programs with ongoing decision support and service capacity, such as hazards and water monitoring programs at USGS, and the Coastal Services Center and National Integrated Drought Information Systems at NOAA.  Absent such innovation, bureaucratic reshuffling is unlikely to improve the value of science in addressing society’s most urgent challenges.

1.    M. Schaefer et al., Science 321, 44 (July 4, 2008, 2008).
2.    D. Sarewitz, Issues in Science & Technology 23, 31 (Summer, 2007).
3.    D. Goldston, Nature 451,  (2008).
4.    NRC, “Evaluating Progress of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program:  Methods and Preliminary Results”  (National Academies Press, 2007).
5.    D. W. Cash, J. C. Borck, A. G. Patt, Science Technology Human Values 31, 465 (July 1, 2006, 2006).
6.    H. Meinke et al., Climate Research 33, 101 (2006).
7.    D. Sarewitz, R. A. Pielke, Environmental Science & Policy 10, 5 (2007).
8.    K. Jacobs, G. Garfin, M. Lenart, Environment 47, 6 (2005).
9.    S. Agrawala, K. Broad, D. H. Guston, Science Technology Human Values 26, 454 (October 1, 2001, 2001).
10.    D. Cash et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100, 8086 (2003).

2 Responses to “Consolidation of Science Agencies: An Ongoing Debate”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    Please keep in mind that my university’s library access to Science is down at the moment, so I can’t access the original Brief or printed response.

    This argument also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of NOAA. The scientific research parts of the organization are not the whole of the agency. For instance, I have a hard time seeing how any of the Fisheries Service would fit in an ESSA.

    While we’re at it, if they were really committed to putting all the earth science eggs in one agency basket, they would also call for NASA to merge with NOAA and USGS (or at least the earth science directorate in NASA).

    Do Policy Briefs get any kind of review at Science? If so, I’m disappointed if these points weren’t raised.

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  3. Ryan Meyer Says:

    Note that this discussion is under way at a later post:

    Nature Blogs have also written on this: