Science Policy & Funding News

Administration Plan Would Cut USGS Budget by More Than 20%

The plan emphasizes priorities such as energy and mineral independence and security. However, the sharp funding drop means that the agency won’t be able to support its full scientific portfolio.

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The Trump administration’s proposed $859.7 million budget for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which it sent to Congress on Monday, chops funding for the agency by 21% for fiscal year (FY) 2019 compared with the FY 2017 omnibus bill (see Table 1), which was the most recent comprehensive spending bill passed by Congress.

The plan reduces appropriations for all major areas within USGS, except for the facilities line item. Among the big losers—some by more than 30%—are the ecosystem, water resources, core science systems, natural hazards, and climate and land use change budget activities. The plan restructures funds formerly allocated to “climate and land use change” into the new “land resources” line item; the newly renamed activity is funded at 31% less than the current activity and focuses on a narrower set of scientific activities.

Notably, the budget eliminates some programs, including the USGS’s Environmental Health Mission Area and its Cooperative Research Units program, under which USGS currently partners with universities and others in 38 states.

The plan has some fiscal bright spots, however, such as increased funding for “mineral and energy resources” (increasing to $84.1 million, up from $73.1 million) and a new initiative on 3-D mapping to provide information for mineral resource development. The budget also supports a planned FY 2021 launch of the Landsat 9 Earth-observing satellite to replace the aging Landsat 7 and maintain the current Landsat program’s 8-day repeat coverage of everywhere on Earth. In addition, continued funding is included for the nationwide stream gauge network and many other core programs.

Table 1. Proposed FY 2019 Budget for USGSa
Program FY 2017 Enactedb FY 2019 President’s Budget Requestb Changeb Percentage Change
Ecosystems 159.7 96.1 −63.6 −40
Land Resources (formerly Climate and Land Use Change)c 149.3 103.2 −46.0 −31
Energy and Mineral Resources and Environmental Health 94.3 84.1 −10.2 −11
Natural Hazards 145.0 117.3 −27.7 −19
Water Resources 214.8 164.9 −49.8 −23
Core Science Systems 116.1 92.3 −23.8 −20
Science Support 105.6 89.3 −16.4 −15
Facilities 100.4 112.5 12.0 12
Total appropriation 1,085.2 859.7 −225.5 −21

aSource: U.S. Geological Survey 2019 budget in brief.
bValues reported here in millions of U.S. dollars, rounded to the nearest hundred thousand for clarity.
cThe administration’s FY 2019 request renames and restructures the Climate and Land Use Change program, reappropriating its functionality into other areas, including a new Land Resources program. Source: USGS fact sheet for Land Resources Mission Area.

Funding Concerns

“The request emphasizes science supporting energy and mineral independence and security, hazard monitoring, and support of decision making by resource managers and policy makers,” according to USGS budget documents.

Nonetheless, with such a large budget cut, USGS acting director Bill Werkheiser acknowledged funding concerns during a budget briefing on Wednesday.

“At those levels, we are no longer able to support the full range of our scientific portfolio. We had to make some very, very tough decisions to actually cut out entire programs,” he said. “To face the prospects of not having that full range of [scientific] portfolios is very concerning,” Werkheiser said, noting that all of the portfolios “are important in their own right and each [has] a strong constituency.”

USGS is “hopeful that some other agencies will be able to help us out and pick up some of those activities that we are no longer able to do,” Werkheiser added. “We’ll have to see how that moves forward through the congressional process.”

Looking Toward Congress for Help

Scientists and constituents of USGS said the proposed budget cuts threaten the ability of USGS to do its work.

“The budget proposal and its cuts to science programs are concerning, as the need for science in public policy decision making has never been greater,” Elizabeth Duffy, chair of the USGS Coalition, an alliance of more than 80 organizations, told Eos. “While the President’s budget request sets the tone of the Administration’s priorities, it is hoped we can work with Congress to adequately fund the USGS to ensure the continuation of the vital role the Survey has in protecting the public from natural disasters, assessing water quality, providing geospatial data, and conducting the science necessary to manage the nation’s living, mineral and energy resources.”

“It’s hard to imagine that a 20% reduction in funds won’t hamstring the USGS’s mission to ‘improve the Nation’s economic well-being, reduce societal risks to hazards, and support and inform natural resource stewardship,’” Michael Conway, senior research scientist with the Arizona Geological Survey at the University of Arizona, told Eos.

Allyson Anderson Book, executive director of the American Geosciences Institute, told Eos that the proposed large cuts to USGS are troubling. Book called out the proposed elimination of the agency’s environmental health mission area, which would transfer a small fraction of its work to another budget area within USGS. She called the elimination of the mission area “regrettable and short-sighted. Studies of the fate, transport, and effects of contaminants and toxic substances in our water and environment are of critical importance as we try to understand how people are impacted by their surrounding environment.”

A Call for More Focus on Natural Hazards

A USGS geologist uses a laser rangefinder to measure the depth of the lava lake at the summit of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano.
A USGS geologist uses a laser range finder to measure the depth of the lava lake at the summit of Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano. Funds for natural hazards would drop 19% under the administration’s proposed USGS budget for FY 2019. Credit: USGS, CC BY 2.0

Book also expressed concern about cuts to geological mapping, the USGS library system, and the agency’s natural hazards mission areas. “Research in this mission area is a core USGS function that will only become more important to the nation as our population increases, particularly in more vulnerable regions,” she said.

During the USGS budget briefing, John Haines, the agency’s acting associate director for natural hazards, said that “the budget strategy is to preserve the essential functions that fall to the USGS in the areas of hazard warning and disaster reduction.” Haines said the highest priority is for USGS to maintain its current capabilities and capacities across its earthquake, volcano, landslide, and coastal marine programs.

However, volcanologist Simon Carn, an associate professor in the Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, told Eos that more needs to be done than what USGS can do with this budget. The proposed cuts to the USGS Volcano Hazards program jeopardize the implementation of the National Volcano Early Warning System to adequately monitor all high-threat U.S. volcanoes, he said.

Carn, who was a member of a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that highlighted challenges and opportunities in volcano forecasting, added that the costs of responding to unanticipated, destructive events like volcanic eruptions are much more expensive than the costs of forecasting and preparing for them. “Funding for natural hazard mitigation in the U.S. should be commensurate with its status as one of the world’s most volcanically active and earthquake-prone countries,” he said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Administration plan would cut USGS budget by more than 20%, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO093299. Published on 16 February 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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