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An Update From the Core Science Systems Science Strategy Planning Team (CSS SSPT)

CSS SSPT graphic
The developing Core Science Systems vision for a Digital Framework of the Earth facilitates scientific synthesis and analysis for societal challenges in the Critical Zone.
The USGS is focused on some of the most significant issues society faces. In the USGS Science Strategy, we are documenting specific strategies for each mission area to expand and advance the actions we can take in the next decade to contribute to the nation's and the world's well-being. Because of its role in delivering nationally focused Earth-system science and information science programs that provide fundamental research and data underpinning all USGS mission areas, the Core Science Systems Mission Area brings a unique perspective to addressing these societal challenges. The following questions were posed by Access to the co-chairs of the CSS SSPT, Sky Bristol and Chip Euliss, in late September 2011, along with their responses.

When did the CSS SSPT start its work? How often have you been meeting?
The Climate and Land Use Change SSPT began its work earlier than the rest in 2010 based on organizational transition going on at that time. The other six SSPTs began work in October 2011 with a kick-off meeting of the co-chairs and the Executive Leadership Team (ELT). The CSS SSPT was assembled after the kick-off meeting from both self-nominations and nominees put forward by the ELT members. We've met every week on the phone since that time and several times in person around the country.

Who are the other folks on the CSS SSPT?
The CSS SSPT is made up of representatives from across all mission areas to help bring about an inclusive and well-balanced view on the question of "What is Core Science Systems?" Here are the team members and their affiliations:
  • Barbara Poore (Core Science Systems, geography science)
  • Brian McCallum (Hazards and Water)
  • David Miller (Core Science Systems, geologic mapping)
  • Dean Gesch (Climate Change)
  • Jay Diffendorfer (Energy)
  • Nate Booth (Water)
  • Nina Burkardt (Ecosystems and social science)
  • Rich Signell (Hazards)
  • Roland Viger (Climate Change and Water)
  • Suzette A. Morman (Environmental Health)
Does the concept of the Critical Zone play a role in the CSS SSPTs thinking? If so, what is it?
The Critical Zone, as described by Brantley and others (2007;, factors into our thinking for the Core Science Systems vision and is mentioned within the first two sentences of the draft report, now out for review. We see it as a useful model for thinking about the necessary integration across diverse data holdings and disciplinary expertise in the USGS since it couples chemical, biological, and physical processes that sustain life on Earth.

How do the emerging trends in biological informatics and geospatial and other data collection and dissemination approaches figure into your plans?
Emerging trends are important - but more important is the fact that trends emerge and evolve over time. We don't know today what the impacts on Earth system modeling will be with the application of much more powerful computer processors ten years or less from now. What new science questions will we be able to explore given new abilities to examine much larger datasets? The report will indicate certain actions that reflect emerging trends brought forward by the CSS team and through listening sessions, but more attention is given to growing the type of workforce and inherent capacity in the USGS to respond to the trends that will evolve in the next few years.

Do the various CSS constituent groups bring distinctive approaches to this endeavor? If so, in what way(s)?
The mission area organization in the USGS brought together several distinct Programs into Core Science Systems, each with its own legislative authorization, skills mix, and culture. The name, Core Science Systems, itself evokes some thought about what the group might bring to the overall capability of the USGS, and the team spent a great deal of energy wrestling with this challenge. Much of the CSS SSPT plan seeks to show a trajectory from the core capabilities of geologic mapping, topographic mapping, and biogeographic mapping and their associated scientific research to those capabilities coupled with computer and information science and applied to the USGS as a system. Furthermore, each of the other mission areas brings its own perspectives to what Core Science Systems could mean for the USGS of the future. We heard additional answers to the "What is Core Science Systems?" question from groups we consulted outside the USGS. The team struggled to blend all of the different perspectives we heard into a set of goals, objectives, and strategic actions that are in the draft report.

Is this reflective of the integrated science approach that the USGS has seen as a priority in recent years? How would you define "integrated science"?
We have a section in the report that talks about the term integrated science, several other terms such as transdisciplinary, and how we considered the topic. In essence, we feel that integrated science comes about because of questions that demand an answer from multiple viewpoints and scientific disciplines. Many of the questions faced by the USGS and focused through the mission areas inspired by the 2007 Science Strategy are those that require complex, multidisciplinary answers. It was not our job to provide a prescription for implementation, so we don't talk about how the USGS should go about doing integrated science. We do mention that thinking larger than one discipline about a given problem and learning to work effectively across organizational boundaries is something that is not altogether natural and should involve more of the types of deliberate training and development being pioneered in places like the John Wesley Powell Center for Scientific Analysis and Synthesis.

Are you thinking about your SSPT's work vis a vis other planning teams at USGS (Ecosystems, Energy and Minerals, and so forth), or are you focusing on CSS?
All of the SSPT teams are making a concerted effort to work together on the interconnections between all of the mission areas and our forthcoming visions. The group of co-chairs, what we've called the SSPT Core Team, meets every week to work on the planning process and our connecting points. CSS team members have also volunteered as liaisons to work with counterparts in the other teams on specific parts of how Core Science Systems fits in with the other mission areas.

Are you consulting with groups outside of USGS? If so, who and why? Could you tell us about it?
Consultation with groups outside of USGS has been a major part of this process for CSS and all of the teams. We've held listening sessions both as CSS individually and with other teams and conducted personal meetings. Examples include a listening session the CSS SSPT held at a joint USGS-NSF workshop called GeoData 2011, and listening sessions with the Advisory Committee on Water Information and the Association of American State Geologists. We've also met with colleagues from other DOI bureaus and asked for peer review from some at the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in particular. All of the team members have used their personal connections in their specific fields and projects to talk with scientists, resource management partners, and many others about what we are doing as well as to solicit input on specific ideas we have been pursuing. We also took into account specific recommendation documents, such as those from the National Research Council for elements of CSS like the National Geospatial Program. These interactions are continuing with the current peer review process where we have solicited review by partners and will carry on once the Open File Report versions of all the plans are posted for public review. By and large, the input received from partners has come with an underlying message of support for the USGS in turning some focus to deliberately developing a Core Science Systems capability.

Have you identified any themes thus far while developing the CSS Science Strategy that you think will emerge in your final product?
All of the SSPTs are on the same timeline, which has had us through one major draft period with our own Associate Directors and their immediate staffs. During the month of September 2011, the entire Executive Leadership Team and peer reviewers are reviewing the drafts. We feel fairly confident that our overarching vision for core science awareness, an ability to apply the full breadth of USGS scientific understanding and data to societal challenges, will carry forward in some form. In terms of themes, you can look for something we mentioned in a previous question about more of a focus on evolving the workforce to keep up with technology changes rather than focusing too much on any one technology of today. You can also look for a commitment to continued excellence in the core foundational science of the USGS and the specific Programs in Core Science Systems, while growing capacity in meaningful integration and the application of sciences outside our core mandate to the challenges we seek to address across all mission areas. You will also see a strong endorsement for the understanding and characterization of human social systems as a fundamental part of our data and other products.

Who do you see as the primary customers of CSS data? Any secondary groups?
We might counter with the question, "What is CSS data?" The Programs in Core Science Systems are responsible for a number of major data assets that are fundamental to much other research and decision making - geologic maps and associated elements such as formation classification, topographic maps and associated fundamental layers and themes such as hydrography, Gap Analysis Program data and analyses, the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, and others. These products are used extensively in the USGS across all mission areas, and you will see them mentioned in other SSPT reports. They are also used around the world by other organizations from scientific research to decision making. The CSS plan will also highlight the role of Core Science Systems in mobilizing these and other data assets from across the USGS for much broader use in scientific analyses and decision support products. Programmatic ownership of data assets is good in that it helps to bring about long-term data management and curation, but we feel strongly that we need to work together for a corporate sense of data ownership across the USGS and in support of the larger "Web of scientific data."

For both Sky and Chip, please talk about the experience of co-chairing. What's it like? Any special challenges? Any advantages?
Co-chairing the SSPT wasn't something we volunteered to do, although it was a challenge we gladly accepted. It has been a real pleasure getting to know the group brought together to be a part of this work, learning about their perspectives and backgrounds, and developing a shared vision. It has been wonderful to meet new people throughout the USGS and to hear about their work and how it could be better supported. It has been challenging to work through the fact that no matter how much we think outside the box when it comes to our current field of computer and information science, we still tend to think inside the box when it comes to organizational theory. The work in co-chairing the team has given us a broader perspective and a longer view that should be a real advantage in whatever we end up doing next in the new organization.

For Chip, what's it like being a chair and also outside of CSS? Pluses and minuses.
The pluses and minuses of being a chair mirror the response in the previous question, but I really don't feel that I'm outside of CSS although my expertise and research assignments may suggest otherwise (currently Research Wildlife Biologist for the USGS Midwest Area). When I was asked to serve as co-chair, my first thought was why I received the invitation since I wasn't from the CSS organization and didn't even truly understand the meaning of Core Science Systems! Initially, Sky and I discussed what we felt core science was about and one of the very first tasks we posed to our team was for them to come up with their definition of core science. As you might imagine, there were several interpretations, but what emerged confirmed what Sky and I had earlier concluded - core science is both an organizational unit with a specific research responsibility and also an entity to help all mission areas achieve their scientific goals and objectives. Thus, CSS is a vehicle to achieve the goals and objectives for the entire USGS, and this factored heavily into our decision to populate our team with people who represent the diverse expertise of all USGS mission areas. This has allowed our team to think broadly about the science vision for the entire USGS with an emphasis on how the CSS mission area as an organization can help achieve that vision. Thinking about CSS from the perspective of the entire USGS has also allowed our team, including the co-chairs, to think more seamlessly across disciplinary and mission area boundaries. We hope that also helps USGS employees see themselves in our report and understand why CSS is an essential ingredient for the USGS to realize its science goals.

Sky and Chip, do you have any personal view of the science strategy and the role core science should play in it?
We're firm believers in and advocates for the Science Strategy and much of what the USGS has done so far to begin addressing the challenges therein. We still have ties to our roots in government within a resource management organization (USFWS), and we both feel very strongly that the USGS plays a vital role in providing scientific knowledge and information to other DOI organizations and society at large to help address major challenges arising from climate change; natural hazard and environmental health risks; energy, mineral, and water needs; and doing all of those things with a holistic view within and across ecosystems whose "boundaries" change with new conditions. We believe that, while the USGS will likely never be mandated to pursue fundamental research in these areas, we have a pressing need to apply computer and information science more thoroughly to our work across the USGS. We also believe that the USGS has a set of unique skills and overall outlook toward science that will enable us to make major contributions in areas of data-intensive science in the coming years and that CSS can play a key role in helping to catalyze and facilitate this for the USGS.

Any estimate on when the CSS plan will be available?
All six remaining SSPT reports will be released on the Web as Open File Reports for public comment in November 2011. These will be posted for at least 90 days and then finalized into Circular publications shortly thereafter.

What period will the final product cover; e.g., the next five years? More? Less?
In keeping with the 2007 Science Strategy, the plans are written for a 10-year view; nominally from 2012 to 2022. This slightly longer view was a challenge in communicating and writing the plans where the normal planning viewpoint is often 3-5 years. The goals and objectives in the CSS plan should be viewed on a ten-year timescale, while the suggested actions suggest stepping stones along the way, some of which can be taken immediately.

How do you measure success in this kind of an undertaking?
We'll feel successful if the plans evoke honest conversation about the future evolution of the USGS across the organization and with our partners. An open debate among everyone from researchers in the field and labs to technical support personnel to managers in headquarters about the types of things the USGS should be pursuing and not pursuing is the healthiest way to come to a workable path forward. If the CSS plan says a few things that make people scratch their heads and wonder if it's really a good idea, then we'll feel pretty good about what we've come up with.

Any plans to update your results-strategies in the future?
The science strategies for each mission area are only one more step in the process that began with the 2007 Science Strategy. Mission area leadership and program coordinators along with geographic area executives and science center directors will take some of the next steps, and we hope that principal investigators, science teams, and others will begin imagining new ways to connect their work and passion to these visions.

Do you have any lessons learned on this activity, or is it too soon for that?
We're still processing a lot of what we've learned, but here are a couple of things. We learned a bit about collaborative writing technology. Having tried everything from wiki pages, to MS Word with track changes and a versioning system, to an etherpad for real time writing, to Google Docs - they all have issues when trying to have as many as a dozen people writing at nearly the same time. There's no silver bullet, and they all take extra work to keep everything straight. We've also learned a fair bit about the difficult process of constantly lifting our heads out of the usual relatively near-term view a year or two down the road to think about the possibilities in ten years and more and the need to constantly answer the "We can't do that" statements with, "What would it be like if we could do that?"