An Earth Systems Science Agency

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“The United States faces unprecedented environmental and economic challenges in the decades ahead.

Foremost among them will be climate change, sea-level rise, altered weather patterns, declines in freshwater availability and quality and loss of biodiversity.”

So says a group composed of the heads of both NOAA and USGS in a recent issue of Science. NOAA, covering the atmospheric and oceanic realms, has a budget of approximately 4 billion employing 12000 employees, while USGS, in charge of the earthen and freshwater realms, is sitting at 1 billion with 8500 employees. Though NASA oversees everything but Earth, it does have a 1.5 billion space-based Earth observation program. It seems to me the main thrust for their call to consolidation is

“The synergies among our research and monitoring programs, both space- and ground-based, are not being exploited effectively because they are not planned and implemented in an integrated fashion. Our problems include inadequate organizational structure, ineffective interagency collaboration, declines in funding, and blurred authority for program planning and implementation.”

The authors propose that by combining NOAA and USGS into an Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA?), many of these problems will be circumvented and less resources will be squandered, projects will be better defined and more efficient, and communication will be streamlined. ESSA will have no direct regulatory responsibilities.

What do you think? I know several of our readers work for USGS and NOAA. Do “new agencies often arise in response to a sudden or compelling national need”, as suggested by the editorial’s authors? It seems like the government is a broken entity, but would the transformation hinder progress for too long a time while ESSA gets its feet wet? Personally, I am all for streamlining and see the creation of ESSA as a good thing. Being a larger entity gives them more bargaining power at the funding table. Many institutions are moving into an Earth Systems view of research, recognizing the interconnectedness, or ecology, of the planet.

Dr. M (1801 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.


2 Replies to “An Earth Systems Science Agency”

  1. Actually, it’s quite a good idea, and for many of the reasons you’ve identified above. Perhaps the cost-savings of a streamlined agency could be recycled, so to speak, into some of their extramural and agency-academic partnership grant programs that have suffered so much over the last eight years of the Bush “Administration” of science.

    Still, this line hints at a big problem: “ESSA will have no direct regulatory responsibilities.” While USGS doesn’t do much (if anything) regulatory, that’s not the case with NOAA — the regulatory arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service is immense in its own right. Again, I like the idea you’ve described, but it would help to further debate (and daresay progress) toward this goal if you’d identify who would take over those responsibilities. Perhaps have an Office of Regulatory Affairs at Commerce that would do it for everything researched under ESSA?

    Finally, one other issue: not everything in the marine/estuarine realm is covered by USGS or NOAA — there’s still the Fish and Wildlife Service that’s based in Interior with USGS. The link above is broken, but why didn’t they invite FWS to join in?

  2. Sorry, link fixed.

    Just to clarify, this isn’t my idea. These are the ideas of heads representing USGS, NOAA, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Secretary of the Interior, FDA, and NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth as published in a recent Science editorial.

    Regarding regulatory roles, in their words:

    “The agency should focus on research, monitoring, communication, and the advancement of applications, particularly decision support systems that inform policy-making and guide implementation.”

    There are also several paragraphs with more detail about how ESSA will work with other agencies. But there is no specific mention of how regulation will be implemented, whether it will remain completely in the realm of Department of the Interior, i.e. FDA, USDA, FWS etc. They are calling for ESSA to be an

    “independent federal agency, which would allow it to support all federal departments and agencies and would give its director direct access to the Congress and the Executive Office of the President, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget.”

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