Meet Mark Myers
USGS Head Faces the Challenges
U.S. Geological Survey Director Mark Myers, an AAPG member who was nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2006, heads up an entity that has more than 10,000 scientists, technicians and support staff.
The Survey, which has a budget of more than $1 billion, is located in nearly 400 offices in every state and in several foreign countries and partners with 2,000 agencies of state, local and tribal government, the academic community, other federal allies, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.
Myers’ predecessor was Charles G. “Chip” Groat, now director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Groat also is president of the AAPG Division of Environmental Geosciences.
The USGS is known for its field investigations, direct observations of natural science processes and phenomena, and monitoring and data collection.
Before coming to the Survey, Myers served as survey chief for field programs in the MacKenzie Delta (Arco, 1985), and Alaska’s Cook Inlet (State of Alaska/USGS, 1997) and North Slope (Arco, 1999). He also served as sedimentologist for 13 other North Slope field programs.
Past president and board member of the Alaska Geological Society, Myers is an AAPG certified petroleum geologist as well as a certified professional geologist with the American Institute of Professional Geologists and a licensed geologist with the State of Alaska.
And it was during his time as director of Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas that he received some notoriety for resigning his position when he thought a gas pipeline deal that then-Gov. Frank Murkowski was pushing would short-change the state.
While he wouldn’t talk about it for this interview, he said in his resignation letter, "Staying in this position would require me to compromise my values as to what is right, both legally and ethically, and what is in the interests of the state. I cannot continue as director and watch silently as the state’s interests are undermined by creating barriers for the new oil and gas participants that are so vital to the economic future of our state.”
It is a testament to his ability to build coalitions that Murkowski supported his appointment to the USGS.
In his confirmation hearings, Myers addressed the sensitive subject of scientific independence, while underscoring the independence of the USGS.
It's incredibly important that the science is unbiased, that it is peer reviewed and objective.” And then added, “That’s the way it needs to be so the Survey can deliver objective information.”
The EXPLORER asked Myers recently for his take on a range of issues, from research to funding to the tricky areas of politics and science. While careful not to address the contentious issue of whether or not the work of scientists has been muffled or distorted by the Bush Administration on issues that run counter to its political objectives, he does affirm the independence of both the USGS and his commitment to it.
EXPLORER: Why (how?) did your joining the USGS come about? Had you worked closely with the USGS during your time in Alaska?
MYERS: As a state geologist, I was no stranger to the work of the USGS and always held its work in the highest esteem, both in terms of the breadth and scope of the science and the unbiased information it provided.
I had been involved in joint field research projects with USGS scientists on the North Slope and Cook Inlet regions of Alaska. As a resource manager in Alaska, I often faced a balancing act in trying to reconcile both sides of issues. USGS data was critical in the decision-making process and an invaluable resource because of its objectivity and reliability.
You’ve been a member of AAPG since 1979; what do you think should be the ideal relationship between the USGS and AAPG? How can each organization best help the other?
Yes, I have been a member since 1979, serving as a member of their House of Delegates prior to joining USGS. I hold AAPG in the highest regard and value their mission to foster scientific research, advance the science of geology, and promote new technology. It is a premier geoscience organization that not only provides wonderful opportunities for current and future geoscientists, but it also helps to educate the general public on issues related to energy resources.
We have a synergistic relationship – both organizations bring a national and international perspective to the critical issues around energy.
The strength of USGS is its ability to provide unbiased technically accurate information on energy resources, particularly with respect to quantifying undiscovered resources on a regional, national and international scale.
We have a long-standing tradition for developing methodologies of doing natural and international assessments for undiscovered and technically recoverable resources.
You once worked for Arco; can you compare/contrast the experiences of working in the private sector vs. government?
There are similarities in large organizations whether they are government or private sector. However, the goal in the private sector is to bring profit back to the shareholders, while in government our goal is to serve the public.
To be successful, a large scientific organization such as the USGS must employ advanced technology as well as have a strong research component. The USGS is a scientific research organization that provides information to decision-makers at all levels of government so they can address and resolve complex natural resource problems.
Additionally, as a federal research agency with a non-advocacy role, USGS processes require a level of transparency and peer review of science different than that of a large corporation.
In thinking about becoming USGS director, what kind of preparation did you experience prior to being nominated for the post?
I actually spent very little time preparing.
Even though the process of nomination is a long one, the initial interview stage was very short. For a job that is so broad – such as this – it’s just kind of “come as you are.” I did do a lot of soul searching – thinking about whether I was the best person for this job and could serve this country well. I wanted to make sure that I made a positive contribution to the organization.
I also had conversations with my family to get their feelings on such a move, as it would certainly be a significant change in lifestyle moving from Alaska to Washington, D.C.
How are you defining your duties/role as director of the USGS?
In my mind the duties or role of the director is very clear – to be a leader in moving the organization forward and better positioning the organization for the future as well as ensuring that the USGS continues to live up to its promise of providing sound science for citizens and decision makers.
What are your top priorities for yourself, and for the Survey?
My top priorities are to chart a course for USGS where it can thrive in the future.
We have a long history of providing unbiased scientific research and information to decision makers, and I believe that need will only increase as our nation continues to address issues related to climate change, natural hazards, energy resources, water quality and availability, human health and ecosystem conservation.
In an effort to focus on societal challenges related to those areas we have crafted a USGS Science Strategy for the coming decade that defines challenges within these areas and opportunities where USGS science can serve the nation’s pressing needs; unites all of our capabilities; takes advantage of our strengths and our unique position as non-regulatory federal science agency with national scale and responsibilities; and will help us to focus our science capabilities to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
As the new head of the USGS, you will be in charge of funding for various projects. Where will you be receiving your input to make those decisions? How does that process work?
As director it’s my responsibility to ensure that the USGS stays fiscally and scientifically healthy. I work very closely with my executive leadership team, program managers and senior scientists from across the organization to define priority areas and opportunities to serve the nation’s pressing needs. I also work closely with other Department of the Interior and administration officials to ensure that our goals and science planning are complimentary and in support of their mission and goals.
And of course, ultimately, Congress will have the final say on USGS’s budget.
USGS data is often cited as various experts, geological and otherwise, wrestle with the question of "peak oil." What is your position on "peak oil?" Do you think this a topic needs a higher public profile and awareness?
The USGS doesn't take a position on this issue.
There is certainly a need to better understand the true endowment of conventional and unconventional resources to understand when and where peaks might occur, but one needs to take a number of things into consideration when discussing or projecting peak oil, such as economics, markets, transportation and energy efficiency.
What role can you and the Survey play?
The USGS role is in understanding and assessing geologically based energy resources, both conventional and unconventional, characterizing those resources and understanding where they occur globally.
What challenges do you face with/because of the current USGS budget?
We need to be able to prioritize our science activities and ensure that we are providing science that is relevant to the needs of the nation.
We also need to continue enhancing our collaboration and partnership efforts with others in order to enhance the use and value of our science.
In light of the budgetary and political arena, how would you describe morale at the USGS? Does it feel it has the support and faith of Congress and the current administration?
Overall I believe that the morale of employees is good. Our employees are among the most talented and dedicated professionals to be found in any organization. They are very proud of their outstanding history of public service and scientific advances.
While we have been faced with declining budgets over the past several years, the USGS continues to be a leader in collecting, monitoring, analyzing and providing scientific information and understanding about our nation’s landscape, natural resources and the natural hazards that threaten us.
Speaking of the public, do you have a "feel" for how the USGS is perceived by the American people? To a more specific area, with the 2008 national elections already starting to make headlines, do you see the USGS's expertise and perceptions of the U.S. and global energy picture as making an impact?
The USGS provides critical science information on energy resources, both domestic and internationally. One of our strengths is our ability to provide unbiased, peer-reviewed information and make it broadly available to everyone.
What is the best thing that government can do to enhance and invigorate the scientific work that USGS does?
The high quality scientific research that USGS conducts can’t be done in the short-term, but requires long-term continuity. We need to look into the future now and start planning from both a budgetary and work force perspective.
The key to any successful organization is its work force, and we must ensure we have the ability to hire the best and the brightest in order to continue to conduct the high quality scientific research needed to address the societal issues of the future.
USGS has an aging work force and recruitment is a challenge for us. We need to have the ability to work collaboratively with other geoscience organizations such as the American Geological Institute and AAPG to educate and recruit future scientists.
The USGS is, in a sense, where the country goes for its earth science education. What do you think is the most important scientific horizon out there and, by the same token, the least understood?
There is hardly a field of science today that does not have exciting and enormously promising research areas. Just by way of example:
- Research at the USGS involving seismic imaging, tomography, interferometry, laser altimetry and GPS positioning is helping to interpret structure and dynamic processes from deep within Earth to its surface.
- PCR-based DNA fingerprinting is helping to understand and, in some cases, restore genetically diverse habitats.
- Satellite, broadband transmission of real-time discharge from our nationwide stream gage network is allowing our scientists to develop mapping methods that deliver on-line flood maps – including time of arrival, depth and extent of flooding – before a storm hits.
The new areas of fruitful study in the earth sciences is near limitless. However, because Earth itself is made up of countless interconnected and dynamic systems, it requires a kind of broad focus to begin to understand it.
As I see it, the ability to look for and find linkages, to establish relevant connections is the important scientific horizon out there and, by the same token, the least understood by way of the required research need and level of complexity. Debates engendered by issues over a range from global climate change, water availability and quality, species and habitat preservation or energy resources availability, must be informed by a "systems" approach and understanding.
This is not an easy task, for, historically, science disciplines have extended a great deal of knowledge through division and abstraction. “Isolation and abstraction” is still an important way by which most disciplines extend their knowledge, but they have their limitations. Recent research in earth systems has shown, quite poignantly, that when one tries to pick out anything by itself, it is found “hitched” to everything else.
To be involved in cutting-edge science today requires viewing Earth as a synergistic physical system of interrelated phenomena, governed by complex processes involving the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. It centers on relevant interactions of chemical, physical, biological and dynamical processes that extend over a huge range of spatial scales from micron to planetary size, and over time scales of milliseconds to billions of years.
The Earth system approach is the critical framework and important scientific horizon from which to pose disciplinary and interdisciplinary questions in relationship to the important needs of humankind.
You're taking over the USGS at a time where the line between science and politics is a murky as ever, especially in light of reports that some scientists were pressured recently to alter their findings on some particulars concerning their work with global warming. Assuming that politics and science need their own wall of separation, how do you plan to build it?
I wouldn’t characterize it as building a wall. The USGS prides itself on being an unbiased scientific organization, which has no regulatory or management mandate.
We have long-standing peer review processes in place that have been the basis of scientific practices at USGS and only underscore our commitment to excellent science.
Under a new USGS policy, a USGS employee must submit scientific documents for a peer review before publication – a review that may involve scientists either inside or outside the agency and must consider what the directive calls, "potential high visibility products or policy-sensitive issues." Your opinion?
Peer review is not new. In fact, it is the bedrock of processes in any credible science organization, as it ensures scientific conclusions or findings are robust, independent and objective. The USGS has had such processes in place for many years. As with any science enterprise, policies are periodically reviewed and updated to keep pace with changes in the organization.
Our recently revised policy has been developed by scientists and science managers – not political appointees. Research supervisors are charged with ensuring all USGS scientists have addressed peer comments and are in compliance with USGS policies and those of the federal government.
The new policy standardizes the peer review processes between our various disciplines. This standardization was necessary for the interdisciplinary science publications that are increasingly more critical to furthering scientific understanding of complex systems.
In the past year, when you consider the debate over tsunami prediction and preparedness, global warming and avian influenza, to name a few examples, give the USGS a report card on how it handled those and other challenges.
The USGS has been a major contributor to understanding the issues you’ve mentioned here as well as many others. USGS has an extensive and well-regarded history in studying climate change and its impacts.
Many within the climate science community rely on our unique ability to provide essential ground-truthing across multiple scientific disciplines in a wide variety of spatial and temporal scales. Many of our scientists are conducting monitoring and research that provide insight to global climate change issues such as the monitoring of:
- Streamflow and ground-water levels in order to access drought, flooding and water use.
- Thawing permafrost in the sub-arctic and arctic regions of Alaska.
- Migration of plant communities proliferation of invasive species in response to climate change.
- Changes in snowpack and stream runoff.
- Retreat of alpine glaciers.
- Coastal wetland change related to subsidence and sea-level rise.
- The interplay between land use, land-cover change and climate.
- The changing distribution of and impact of human and animal diseases.
We are engaged with other scientists from around the world through international committees and working groups such as the International Panel on Climate Change to address the scientific issues related to global climate change.
We also have been a key player in the monitoring and surveillance of avian influenza in wild migratory birds. We also have been working successfully with the USDA to develop a national strategic plan for early detection of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), specifically highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in migratory birds.
Our main role within this plan is to sample and test high priority migratory bird species for HPAI. During 2006, the USGS processed over 16,000 samples from wild birds.
The USGS has been working in partnership with NOAA to improve the nation’s domestic tsunami detection and warning system by increasing our ability to detect global earthquakes, both through 24-7 analysis of earthquake events and through improvements in the Global Seismographic Network. These changes enable us to provide NOAA with more accurate estimates of earthquake location and size.
We have the unique ability to investigate past tsunamis, identify potential tsunami sources, map tsunami-prone coasts and create simulations of tsunami inundation. This information will be useful to the public, policymakers and emergency responders as they decide how best to reduce losses from future tsunamis.
Coming from Alaska as you do, do you feel you bring a special sensitivity to environmental issues?
One of the highlights of my career as a field geologist has been the ability to work in the beautiful remote areas of Alaska. As an Alaskan, I very much value and appreciate our natural environment. I recognize that there needs to be a balance between human needs and the natural world.
Because of this, I have a heightened sensitivity for the need to find that balance between nature and humans and try to live in harmony. But I also recognize that the nation has a great demand for natural resources in order to sustain our human needs and lifestyle.
USGS brings a multidisciplinary approach and scientific expertise to understanding that balance. As a non-advocacy agency with broad skills in geology, biology, water and geographic sciences, the USGS is uniquely positioned to provide the expertise to seek that harmony.
How does the future look for the USGS?
The future of USGS looks very promising, as the need for our scientific data and information and understanding have never been greater. Our strength lies in our ability to bring a multidisciplinary approach to tackling some of the challenges this nation faces in the future.
We are optimistic that our Strategic Science plan – our 10-year science vision – will enhance our ability to conduct interdisciplinary and interagency research and result in USGS making significant contributions toward helping the economy remain strong and the environment healthy, while helping to retain the present quality of life in the United States.