The U.S. Senate has confirmed a former astronaut and petroleum geologist as the next director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Senate approved James F. Reilly by a voice vote on Monday to be the director, taking over from William Werkheiser, who has served as acting director since 2017.
Reilly testified at his 6 March confirmation hearing that the agency’s budget and its scientific integrity would be among his top priorities. “I am fully committed to scientific integrity,” he said at that hearing. Reilly, who flew on three NASA space shuttle missions and holds a Ph.D. in geosciences from the University of Texas at Dallas, explained that he would emphasize scientific integrity in his new role because USGS “is an independent organization that is designed to deliver unbiased science to the decision makers.”
Arriving After a Budget Scare
He joins the agency at a time when it has just received a reprieve from potential budget cuts. The omnibus spending bill that U.S. President Donald Trump reluctantly signed into law on 23 March reversed the administration’s plans to sharply reduce funding of federal science agencies, including USGS. The spending bill provides USGS with $1.15 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2018, compared with $1.09 billion appropriated by the FY 2017 omnibus bill and $922 million in the administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget.
Reilly takes charge also not long after an incident raised some questions about the ethics at the agency. A few months ago, former USGS associate director for energy and minerals Murray Hitzman resigned out of concern that USGS provided final results of an assessment of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to the U.S. secretary of the interior before its public release, although the Interior Department said the secretary acted within his authority. USGS is within the Department of the Interior.
Former Directors Weigh In
U.S. National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt, who served as the USGS director from 2009 to 2013 during the Obama administration, told Eos that Reilly won’t have to micromanage the agency because “the staff are really great and the agency really runs itself” but that he will have a very full portfolio.
McNutt, who from 2000 to 2002 was president of the American Geophysical Union, publisher of Eos, said that she worked hard as USGS’s only political appointee and its liaison to the political infrastructure at Interior and the White House. She noted also expending great effort developing relationships with congressional appropriators on both sides of the political aisle and occasionally shielding her staff from “perhaps well intentioned, but scientifically or ethically unacceptable, requests from political appointees who had not thought through the implications of their requests.”
Add to that the demands of disasters. “I was the front for the agency on a number of disasters,” McNutt recalled. Today, “with the accelerated pace of changing climate, the USGS role in responding to drought, flood, fires, storm surge, landslides, and other disasters could increase in pace. The new director will need to do all of these things.”
Charles G. “Chip” Groat, who led USGS from 1998 to 2005, told Eos that Reilly has a “commendable” professional record and “having been an astronaut gives him an aura of sorts.” However, he expressed concern about how much Reilly will be “expected to hew [to] the Trump and Zinke lines on government agencies and services.” Besides taking aim at the USGS budget, the Trump administration “has moved some of the climate change leaders into other areas,” Groat noted.
Although the director of USGS is a presidential appointment, that so far “hasn’t resulted in directors who were perceived by the science community as ‘political,’” Groat said. “I hope Dr. Reilly will continue in that mode.”
Mark Myers, who served as USGS director from 2006 through 8 January 2009, during the George W. Bush administration, said that Reilly’s number one responsibility will be “to protect the quality of the science and the objectivity of the organization.”
“It is a more politically charged environment than I was in. So that’s going to be a big challenge for him, and he’s going to have to figure out how to deal with it,” Myers said. “You try to look at the science objectively, but you have to be able to convey that in a politically charged environment.”
Other challenges for Reilly include making sure that the organization maintains an adequate budget and its interdisciplinary nature and getting well acquainted with both how the agency is organized and its people, he added. Myers said he would want Reilly to know that “you’ve got an incredibly brilliant group of scientists you work with” at USGS.
Reilly’s Initial Outlook
Reilly told Eos after his confirmation hearing last month that what most excites him about the position is “working with [thousands of] professionals who love the job as much as I will.” Asked why he thinks the administration chose him for the position, he responded, “Good question. I don’t know, but I’m damn glad they did.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer
Correction, 13 April 2018: This article has been revised to more accurately reflect comments by Marcia McNutt.
Update, 13 April 2018: After this article published, James Reilly, the new director of USGS, provided Eos with a comment about his Senate confirmation. He told Eos, “I’m honored to be confirmed by the Senate as the 17th Director of the USGS. I truly appreciate the trust shown in my nomination by Secretary Zinke and President Trump and look forward to an exciting term of office working closely with the dedicated scientists and staff of the Bureau. This is a great honor and I’m really looking forward to getting down to work as soon as possible.”