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2006 Customer Listening Session: Listening Session Themes

This report is organized around the themes that emerged through the day, rather than as a chronology of the proceedings. The themes are organized to reflect participants' insights on the strategic approach and criteria USGS should use to develop its science strategy and include the cross-cutting ideas suggested for possible priority initiatives. These themes were:

An additional section, "Specific Societal Trends/Issues and Implications for Science Priorities" summarizes participants' comments on other specific topics or issues of interest.

USGS's Unique Capabilities

Participants commented that USGS has a unique set of skills, knowledge, and resources within the federal government, including the quality and objectivity of its work, its "deep bench" in fundamental science, its geospatial expertise and ability to integrate information over multiple temporal and spatial scales, and the multiple disciplines within the Survey. When identifying what programs to pursue and establishing the specific role of USGS in addressing societal issues, the Survey should focus on those areas where the agency will make most effective use of these particular capabilities. Participants also stressed that USGS needs to communicate more explicitly how its fundamental science role adds value to the important national priorities.

Data Quality and Objectivity

One of USGS primary strengths, in the view of some participants, is providing data that are considered objective and of high-quality by users and partners. USGS data are used by a wide variety of customers, ranging from academic institutions to private companies and other federal and state agencies. Several participants commented that customers see USGS as not having a specific scientific or political agenda that would bias the scientific information it provides, which makes it more credible and useful to users. For example, unbiased USGS information on coal reserves plays an important part in the national understanding of the state of energy resources and its accurate groundwater data is vital to determining levels of water use and availability. USGS also has the ability to provide objective analysis of the environmental impacts of alternative energy sources. Participants encouraged USGS to keep its focus on projects where good scientific information is central and where objective data is needed.

Geospatial Expertise

Several participants commended USGS's efforts to position the Survey as a leader in geospatial information and recommended that the Survey focus on issues where USGS GIS information can have a positive impact. Geospatial perspectives on scientific and social issues are increasingly important and because of its strong internal focus and skills in geospatial mapping and analysis, USGS is uniquely capable of meeting this demand for the priority social and natural resource issues. One participant explained that most societal problems are geospatially-based, and the way USGS thinks geospatially as an agency is of critical and unique importance, which brings it to the forefront in this field. Specific needs for place-based information include local decision-makers requirements for geospatial information to plan for future infrastructure needs and potential landscape impacts, health agency needs for global mapping of migratory bird patterns in pandemic flu research and response planning, and resource agency and researchers need for place-based ecosystem data for watershed management and ecosystem restoration. A number of participants stressed that geospatial information needs are rapidly growing in the Gulf Coast and other areas marked by recent natural disasters.

Filling Important Science Gaps for Other Agencies

Participants also suggested that USGS focus on projects that other agencies do not have the resources or scientific capabilities to support. In some cases, agencies have competing priorities in which data collection and analysis falls lower on the list, although the information would improve programs and policies. Research budgets are declining in many other federal agencies, but the agencies still need basic scientific information to support programs and policy decisions. By addressing fundamental science gaps in other agencies' core programs, USGS can ensure that it is meeting priority customer needs and providing products that will result in real benefits on the ground.

For example, wildlife management agencies lack funds for plant and animal research around biodiversity. USGS can supply this type of data that will be useful not only to the agencies, but to the farmers and ranchers who can use the information to find ways to increase productivity without compromising wildlife and habitats. USGS could also supply the Department of Defense with ecological information about its bases, assist the Department of Homeland Security in avian flu planning, and contribute information to support the Federal Highway Administration's NEPA decisions.

As another example, a participant noted that the Bureau of Reclamation benefits from USGS historical water resource data when making decisions related to dams.

In the session, one area of apparent divergence was whether USGS's primary role stands as a national science agency providing basic baseline information to customers, or an agency with a broader role in analysis, informatics, and geospatial integration of information. A few participants suggested that engineering and geospatial activities belong in other agencies, perhaps such as specialized agencies with the Department of Interior. Others noted that these two kinds of functions can be integrated well, for example to support a wide variety of ecosystem restoration problems that require both baseline information and improved modeling/forecasting methods and analysis.

Other points included a suggestion that USGS expand its international focus to address the global implications of several key societal issues, while others noted that the depth of domestic needs in an environment of limited resources limits USGS's role in international concerns.

Model Initiatives

Participants suggested that when developing its strategy, USGS consider an approach that can be modeled after programs like the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA), the National Stream Flow Information Program, and the multi-hazard pilot program in California. Participants commented that this is the type of program that the private sector is less likely to pursue and other agencies do not have the resources to support. These programs support collection of baseline data that are invaluable to a variety of analyses as well as predictive modeling, are integrative in nature, produce new knowledge relevant to societal problems, and have great value in a time of constrained financial resources.

The Value of Fundamental Science

Some participants commented that fundamental USGS science activities should not get pushed aside when looking towards new strategic areas or innovative ways of integrating programs. They emphasized that high-quality comprehensive data on soils, wildlife, vegetation, ecosystems, geochemical baselines and other features are valuable for research and policy.

Participants noted that USGS has the capabilities for the research and monitoring, while other agencies funding for these basic functions are being cut. This type of information need includes long-term stream gauging data for forecasting and additional basic precipitation data, which can provide valuable information on nutrient input to water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay. Participants also suggested that USGS geochemical baselines and backgrounds are a key component of the minerals work in the Survey and that USGS could have an important role in coordinating a national soil survey.

Baseline data collection is also important for the mapping and GIS work USGS continues to grow. Geochemical, biodiversity and ecosystem baselines were also noted as needed from management agencies and an area where USGS data and mapping could be applied. These baselines could also be used to measure the benefits of remediation projects. Other participants cautioned that ecosystem baselines may be difficult to establish because of challenges in the changing ecosystem and potential bias in measurements.

Future-Focused Capabilities and Tools

A common message from many session participants was that USGS should strengthen forecasting and prediction tools to meet current policy and planning needs. These tools can be used to forecast the environmental outcomes of various management and policy options. Activities could involve scenario building, modeling and the data collection and monitoring activities that feed these efforts. Some participants noted that this approach follows trends toward more preventative science.

Applications for Predictive Tools

Participants suggested several issue areas where USGS could strengthen its "future focus" to better address societal needs. As described earlier, these tools can be useful for natural hazard modeling and scenarios, such as earthquakes and floods. According to one participant, "more rapid, reliable, and appropriate" predictions would help planning for these disasters and for quick responses, and in some cases minimize the impacts and help prevent catastrophes.

One participant suggested that USGS develop its niche in landscape monitoring. The Survey could manage national assessments and modeling to help with scenario development in areas such as invasive species, wildlife management, and watershed restoration. For example, as the Gulf Coast region landscape changes due to natural and human-based factors such as the building of canals and pipelines, USGS could undertake scenario development based on a geographic understanding of the changes taking place.

Others suggested that USGS is in a prime position to track ecological indicators such as biological health, fish and wildlife population, and watershed characteristics over time. These indicators help plan for fish and wildlife conservation as well as water availability and quality decisions.

In the water area, some participants noted that USGS could forecast the environmental outcomes of policy options involving different water endpoints in resource development and extraction. In important watershed restoration efforts, USGS could play a key role in forecasting alternative land and water management outcomes of restoration options. Some participants recommended that USGS fully fund the National Stream Flow Information Program to maintain long-term continuous records that will provide reliable data for future TMDL calculations. Participants commented that stream data showing patterns over time is critical to state floodplain managers for forecasting and to municipalities for community planning.

USGS could also play a role in energy forecasting, particularly in emerging alternative energy sources. Others offered that USGS information could contribute to knowledge about landscape scale changes that are needed for planning and managing future energy production.

Several participants commented that USGS might lend its resources to climate change modeling and prediction, from collecting information, to helping make forecasts and predictions, to modeling potential future scenarios. Knowledge of historical climate records and in situ monitoring such as stream gauges are areas noted where USGS could provide valuable contributions.

Focus on Innovation

Participants suggested that in its science strategy, USGS's include investment in innovations for science and society. Innovations in science and technology have the potential for long-term economic and social impact. Examples include nanosensors for water quality monitoring in watersheds, ecological marking at the DNA level, and emerging energy and minerals technology.

Integrating across Programs and Temporal and Spatial Scales

Many participants touched on the need for integrated science to meet the challenges of the complex societal issues. Cross-cutting efforts are needed among natural resources issues and between natural and social science. Participants suggested that USGS, with its expertise across many science disciplines, can strengthen its multi-disciplinary approach in the research, methods, and infrastructure for providing scientific information to customers.

Ideas for Cross-Cutting Science

Several participants commented on the nexus among key areas of water, energy and climate. Integrated research and information is needed to understand the complexity of these issues and for making informed policy decisions that take into account a range of factors. For example, the problem of flooding of coal fields is an area in need of USGS combined expertise in floods, sediments, water quality and energy. Other participants noted that groundwater/surface water connections through the hydrological system coastal areas and inland/source connections within a watershed are more relevant to water management decisions than political boundaries. The relationship of biological integrity to water chemistry was also noted as a key cross-cutting link in the water area.

A participant explained that a cross-cutting USGS approach would be particularly useful for large-scale fish and wildlife management issues. To develop indicators of the long-term status of natural resources, information from biology, ecology, water distribution and quality, and landscape changes will need to be collected and integrated across species, scientific fields, and geographic areas.

One participant commented that addressing areas such as infectious disease and water infrastructure requires a combination of natural science and social science research from economics and sociology.

Another participant suggested that the carbon cycle is as a prime example of the need for an integrated scientific approach. The carbon cycle integrates water, energy, biology, and climate issues through the redistribution of carbon in natural systems. USGS can contribute understanding of the integration of information on these systems and to forecasting potential implications of system change under various scenarios.

Integrating Scientific Information

To support the cross-cutting scientific approaches suggested by customers, several participants noted that USGS has a strong capacity for integrating information across spatial and temporal scales that it should draw on as it sets its science strategy. A participant commented that information technology is a critical piece of doing business today. Investing in methods for information management and the cyber-infrastructure to support it should be considered.

Building and Enhancing Partnerships

In comments and responses to the specific framing question about enhancing partnerships, participants identified potential partners in collecting and analyzing information such as state Surveys, state and local water agencies, federal agencies, universities, and the private sector.

Partnerships can help USGS address a wider range of priority issues and enhance its impact on societal problems. Several participants from these groups noted that they are interested in pursuing partnerships with USGS. Examples noted by participants include:

Translating Data into Relevant Information for Decision-Makers

Participants recommended that USGS both design its programs and set priorities to ensure analysis and translation of data in ways that meet the needs of decision-makers. USGS has the capability to collect, integrate, and present information for agencies at the local, state, and federal level. Policy makers need this information merged and communicated in a way that shows "what the data means to them." USGS can also help improve overall scientific and policy literacy among officials through more accessible information.

Making Information Useful for Officials

Participants stated that while collecting and analyzing data is important, decision makers often lack scientific sophistication and do not have the time to fully grasp the implications of the data and are not sure how to use it in their decision-making. USGS should invest more in determining how to deliver information to officials and non-experts. This could begin by identifying what information these decision-makers need and how it is best presented. One participant noted that the multi-hazards project in Southern California in the President's budget includes consultation with stakeholders in the design phase. Another participant highlighted that emergency managers at the county and state level deal with a range of hazards and it is important to ask these officials what information they need and what forms would be most helpful. The information should be conveyed using graphics and models to assist officials in setting policies and identifying their own priorities. Other participants suggested that USGS could support efforts to establish science-based legal frameworks for states and municipalities in which data provide the foundation for rules and regulations.

What Information is Needed

Specific societal issues participants mentioned as in need of improvements in data translation include the issue of natural hazards. In this area, local officials need information on flooding, elevation, and tides for hurricane and flood planning and response. Earthquake researchers and emergency management officials need a good understanding of soils and soil classification at a state and regional level. In a response situation, USGS could translate different sets of data into messages that non-scientists in other agencies and the public could understand.

Coastal and water resource managers would also benefit from improved communication of information. Several participants commented that more relevant and accessible water information is needed at the local level, watershed level, and national level for water quality, water supply, and water allocation decisions. One participant emphasized that coastal management officials lack resources for applying basic mapping and other data to permitting decisions, while another commented that current water data systems are inadequate for the day-to-day needs of water managers.

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