A couple of weeks ago, Science published a short 2-page paper that could have long-term, far-reaching effects on federal science agencies. In a nutshell, the paper lays out a persuasive argument to the next U.S. President to merge NOAA and the USGS into a new independent federal science agency called the Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA). One reason this paper got everyone's attention is the fact that every co-author has held a senior position in government science agencies:
  • Mark Schaefer - Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, USGS Director (acting)
  • D. James Baker - NOAA Administrator
  • John H. Gibbons - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, Science Advisor to the President
  • Charles G. Groat - USGS Director
  • Donald Kennedy - FDA Commissioner
  • Charles F. Kennel - NASA Mission to Planet Earth Associate Administrator
  • David Rejeski - Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Environmental Quality
The paper's top recommendation is to merge NOAA and the USGS and build "a strong policy, administrative, and collaborative research bridge to NASA's Earth sciences program." This would effectively fix the mistake made 38 years ago when NOAA was formed from a combination of agencies not including the USGS (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Weather Bureau, and Bureau of Commercial Fisheries). Some programs in the Coast and Geodetic Survey went to the USGS at that time, but unfortunately an opportunity was lost to fold in the USGS as well. The missions of NOAA and the USGS are so intertwined that keeping them apart for this long has hurt both agencies. Level funding of the USGS in particular has led to an erosion of that agency's ability to grow. As a NOAA employee who works very closely with the USGS, I can attest to the organizational and beaurocratic barriers to cooperation. There is also a lot of unnecessary duplication between the missions of both agencies, particularly as it relates to earthquake monitoring.

Although the paper recognizes that other earth and environmental science activities are carried out by the NSF, EPA, DoE, USDA, and NIH, it doesn't propose these be folded into ESSA. The paper also calls for a restoration of the NASA earth systems science budget as an agency priority and a concentrated effort by ESSA+NASA to shore up our ailing remote sensing satellites. NASA's earth science program has suffered dramatic budget cutbacks following the agency's reorganization and renewed interest in manned space exploration beyond Earth orbit.

I find it interesting that the proposed acronym is "ESSA" because that name was already taken by the former Environmental Science Services Administration (1965-1970), which was formed to oversee climate and weather activities of the government. It re-named the Weather Bureau to the now familiar National Weather Service and became NOAA when it was formed in 1970. From 1966-1969, ESSA launched 9 polar-orbiting weather satellites to complement NASA's 10 TIROS satellites; the last ESSA satellite was decommissioned in 1977.

If you don't have access to the original Science paper, I've pulled out the high points here:

Federal environmental research, development, and monitoring activities are not presently structured to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

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 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.

The executive and legislative branches of the federal government and of the states will have to transcend bureaucratic boundaries and become much more innovative in developing and implementing policy responses.

The most pressing organizational change that is required is the establishment of an independent Earth Systems Science Agency formed by merging the NOAA and the USGS.

We propose that [ESSA] be formed by combining NOAA and the USGS and by building a strong policy, administrative, and collaborative research bridge to NASA's Earth sciences program.

Although some NASA elements could be incorporated into ESSA, most of NASA's Earth sciences research and observation program should remain in its present organizational location to allow it to continue to capitalize on NASA space technology. ... However, NASA should be directed both to restore Earth systems science as a prime agency mission and to work collaboratively with ESSA.

The core mission of ESSA should be to conduct and sponsor research, development, monitoring, educational, and communications activities in Earth systems science. It's portfolio should include ocean, atmospheric, terrestrial, cryosphere, freshwater, and ecological processes and the interactions among them. ESSA should 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.

We call on the next U.S. President and Congress to act quickly to realign federal Earth sciences R&D programs, provide them adequate funding, and ensure that they are closely linked to the wealth of talent in the nation’s academic institutions.


Anonymous said…
Hi Brian, I actually remember your name from way back when. I was looking at Wash. U. in St. Louis for grad school and talking with Dr. Wysession then. I remember seeing you listed then as a grad student there. Anyway, it was surprising when I stumbled upon your blog today and then read this post about ESSA. I now work for the USGS in Golden, CO at the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC). I had no idea something like this was maybe in the works. Anyway, thanks for the info and hi!

BrianShiro said…
Hi Jeff, it's a small world after all. I'm glad you found a good fit at CO School of Mines. NOAA PTWC and USGS NEIC work closely together, so one of these days you might see me in Golden.

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