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Attn Obama: Earth science agency merger

There’s a line around the block to give advice to Barack Obama, the latest offering being a 400-page environmental policy paper backed by 29 NGOs (hat tip to Climate Progress). Amid the many recommendations, a proposed bureaucratic shake-up of US Earth science has also resurfaced.

The idea is to combine research programs at NOAA and the USGS into a new, streamlined Earth Systems Science Agency, or ESSA. Published as a Policy Forum in Science this past July (subscription required; also see NRCC story and blog), it is now very much dwarfed by buzz about a possible National Energy Council complete with a czar to be crowned. But ESSA hasn’t fallen entirely off the radar of influential democrats – more on this below. And there’s just been an interesting dialogue over at Prometheus on whether the NOAAUSGS merger makes sense.

The proposal’s rationale, of course, is improved cooperation between researchers – erasing institutional boundaries that get in the way of work on a seamless Earth system. Its equally obvious threat is the tumult of transitioning to a new agency. In a letter to the proposal’s originators that went ignored by Science and was posted on Prometheus, Ryan Meyer and three co-authors argue that there’s no clear scientific benefit to outweigh the political carnage:

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.

ESSA’s backers – former USGS acting director Mark Schaeffer and a gaggle of other ex-heads of US science agencies – counter that they know from experience NOAA and USGS are screaming for a merger.

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.

That back-and-forth about whether a new agency is worth the hassle is similar to what I heard from scientists when the proposal first came out. But Meyer et al. have a more provocative point: the answer to Earth’s problems isn’t better data. It’s wrong to assume, they say, that “a simple linear approach (‘do the science, then communicate it’)” will translate improvements in basic science programs to improvements in policy.

Instead of integrating agencies to get more comprehensive research, they emphasize integrating the work of scientists and policymakers:

The most successful environmental science programs … 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. What makes them successful is not the breadth of their research portfolios, but their approach to research and problem solving.

Research on drought at NOAA and hazards at USGS are touted as great examples of the approach – as Shaefer et al. are quick to agree (though they maintain an agency merger would facilitate more work in this vein).

Calls for researchers to tailor their studies to policy needs, instead of just funnelling information down to decision-makers, are being heard more and more widely. The IPCC is concerned about it. And before ESSA, researchers had proposed a National Climate Service to kick off this type of change within NOAA.

Meanwhile back in Washington, Obama’s in-tray runneth over. A video address last week made it clear that climate and energy issues are near the top of the heap; shuffling of Earth science agencies is surely further down. But any ESSA obsessives out there should note that it is in the pile, at least semi-officially. The gossip about energy czars is born of a recent policy manifesto published by the Center for American Progress, a leading democratic think tank, and co-edited by CAP’s John Podesta, who’s heading Obama’s transition team. CAP’s 300,000 word blueprint for the new administration does take a moment to recommend – in a chapter on space science policy, far removed from the attention-getting energy proposals – that “Consideration also should be given” to the ESSA idea.

Shaefer et al. add:

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.

Anna Barnett


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