Expert Report

International Science in the National Interest at the U.S. Geological Survey (2012)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Science at the U.S. Geological Survey is intrinsically global, and from early in its history, the USGS has successfully carried out international projects that serve U.S. national interests and benefit the USGS domestic mission. Opportunities abound for the USGS to strategically pursue international science in the next 5-10 years that bears on growing worldwide problems having direct impact on the United States—climate and ecosystem changes, natural disasters, the spread of invasive species, and diminishing natural resources, to name a few. Taking a more coherent, proactive agency approach to international science—and building support for international projects currently in progress—would help the USGS participate in international science activities more effectively.

Key Messages

  • Each of the seven USGS mission areas (in climate and land-use change; core science systems; ecosystems; energy and minerals; environmental health; natural hazards; and water) is involved in significant international activities that serve USGS and U.S. government interests, such as satellite monitoring of drought and flooding in foreign countries, or tracking of the spread of disease and invasive species.
  • The consequences of global change will likely shape USGS strategy and lead to new opportunities for international science. The report's authoring committee identified several potential new international endeavors that could benefit the USGS' strategic science directions and/or U.S. government international priorities in coming years. Taking a proactive approach to developing and executing self-generated international projects would help the USGS to anticipate and respond more effectively to requests for international input and assistance, and to anticipate new international Earth science problems as they arise.
  • USGS scientists face a variety of challenges in engaging in overseas activities and collaborations. For example, although current strategic plans at the USGS and the Department of the Interior acknowledge the importance of international work, the diverse international projects carried out by USGS scientists are not part of an agency-wide vision, endorsed at a high level, for international science. Furthermore, the mission of the Department of the Interior influences the maintaining of focused attention on the USGS' domestic role without explicit acknowledgement of the value of international work in support of U.S. national interests.
  • Other challenges to international science at USGS include the fact that some mission areas appear more positively disposed to conduct international work than others. Building an institutional culture that supports and rewards participation in international projects on the same merits as domestic work could help encourage greater involvement in international science.
  • A global, integrated understanding of the Earth sciences is of fundamental importance to enhance U.S. public health and safety and to support economic development. The USGS has a significant role to play in contributing information and knowledge to address Earth science issues arising within and beyond U.S. borders. Developing a strategic plan for international science will help ensure that the USGS is prepared to participate more effectively in international Earth science to meet national needs.
  • The report's authoring committee outlined several factors for the USGS to consider as it strengthens its international activities. For example, USGS leadership, in collaboration with the Secretary of the Interior, should fully embrace and commit to international science as a fundamental part of the USGS' aim "to help our Nation and the world" and should be open and clear about this work—both within the USGS and externally.
  • The USGS should play a more proactive role in international Earth science, building upon its present strengths and science directions. In developing this expanded role, the USGS should assess how it can serve as a collaborative, international leader to strategically address worldwide problems that impact national interests, such as shortfalls in natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, and the increasing threat of pandemics.
  • The Survey leadership should continue advancing the integration and coordination of activities across the seven mission areas, and consider using international science opportunities to motivate further scientific integration within the USGS.
  • A Survey-wide plan for international work would allow the USGS to fully embrace international activities. Such a strategy, developed by the integrated efforts of the Director of the USGS, the leaders of the seven mission areas, and the Office of International Programs, could include guidelines or mechanisms that would foster activities and collaborations; identify and prioritize key international opportunities; formulate a consistent approach to international activities across all science areas; enhance multinational coordination between USGS and other foreign Earth-science agencies; explore opportunities to collaborate internationally; encourage and reward international research activities and publication of research ; fast-track the execution of international agreements.
  • To increase public awareness of the value to the Nation of USGS international scientific activities, the USGS should promote more effective communication and outreach about non-sensitive international work. An interesting, user-friendly website focusing featuring descriptions of the Survey's current and recent international activities and collaborations would allow for greater public appreciation and understanding of these global activities.