A couple of weeks ago we posted a letter in response to a Policy Forum in Science Magazine proposing the consolidation of USGS and NOAA to create and Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA). Here is the promised response, written by Mark Schaeffer and D. James Baker:
14 Nov 08
We believe that Ryan Meyer, Lisa Dilling, Roger Pielke Jr, and Daniel Sarewitz have missed the point here when they focus solely on the “science push” in our article. We all know that NOAA and USGS both have excellent research linked to user needs; hazards at USGS and drought at NOAA are two examples that they cite. It’s our view that these and other excellent programs would thrive in a joint agency by being closer together. We’re not trying to drop these links – we’re trying to find ways to enhance them.
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. Our experience would say that simply adding coordination mechanisms and improved decision support capacity to the existing organizational structure will never be as effective in meeting national needs as actual agency merger.
We, like Meyer et al., would like to get to an integrated model that links research and engagement so that research agendas are responsive to user needs. But the current arrangement artificially separates ocean and atmospheric sciences from terrestrial and freshwater sciences in two agencies in two different departments and makes such responsiveness harder to develop. As we state in our article, we believe that addressing the unprecedented environmental and economic challenges the nation is facing requires that we realign our public institutional infrastructure.
In the end, the magnitude of the challenges we face demands that the federal government and states be much more innovative in developing and implementing policy responses to environmental and economic challenges at multiple scales. The core mission of the proposed ESSA would be to align and integrate research and monitoring programs that are closely linked to users to meet this pressing need. Our proposed organizational change with true program integration and major advancements in government-university collaboration is critical to meeting national needs.
We should not shy away from the pursuit of necessary change out of concern about budgetary and political uncertainties. These uncertainties are minor in comparison to the benefits that would result from enhancing the nation’s environmental research and monitoring capacity. 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.
By taking on this problem of responsiveness squarely, we can ensure that federal environmental programs are more comprehensive and integrated and more closely connected with the expertise in the nation’s universities, and that they maintain strong links with users in all sectors. The challenge is to make this happen. Agency merger is the best way, and we’d like to see the process started. If it fails, the very fact of consideration will have helped us move on the path towards better responsiveness.
It would be interesting to continue this conversation along those lines – how can a new merged agency best operate to meet the needs that both we and Meyer et al. have identified, and if the merger fails, what processes can be put in place that can really make a difference?