On 15 August, David Applegate was sworn in as director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Applegate, who had been exercising the delegated authority of the director since January 2021, is a natural hazards scientist who has been with the survey for 18 years.
At the ceremony, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said, “As people, wildlife and ecosystems face the impacts of the climate crisis, David’s long and impressive tenure will continue to be essential to ensuring that the Department continues to be an international leader in developing the climate science needed to understand the Earth’s past, present and future climate.”
Applegate spoke with Eos after his confirmation and shared his reflections on how the agency has evolved over the past 2 decades and his vision for the agency in the future. The conversation, below, has been edited for clarity and length.
Eos: How did it feel to receive the nomination, and what are you feeling now that you have been sworn in?
Applegate: It was tremendously exciting to take on this role not just as one who is exercising delegated authority, but to occupy it for real. I think it didn’t become real to me until the opportunity to be sworn in by Secretary Haaland. That truly was the honor of a lifetime.
When you’re exercising the delegated authority, you are laying the groundwork for who will be coming in as the next director, trying to address as many issues as you can and lay [set] the table, as it were. But it is different than when you’re in the role itself. I already felt a deep sense of responsibility for the organization but now that is doubly the case.
Eos: You’ve spent over a year setting the table. Now you’re sitting at the head of the table. What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as director?
Applegate: My big focus is on ensuring that we are delivering our science to those who need it the most. We have a wonderful mission at the USGS. We bring science to bear on an incredible array of complex environmental, resource, and hazard issues that are facing society. For us, the key is to be able to have the outlets…so that the science can be put to work.
Eos: Are there particular programs or initiatives you’re really looking forward to?
Applegate: We’ve been able to see some very significant investments in our science and in our foundational data collection through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law): almost a half a billion dollars’ worth of investment for us to both collect foundational data and also to then do the analysis and have new facilities in which to undertake our science. In particular, the investment is focused on understanding critical mineral potential and the role that that plays in supply chains for clean energy.
And there is investment in our 3D elevation high-resolution topography in geophysical data collection and in geologic mapping. This is an incredible shot in the arm for our long-standing partnership with the state geological surveys as well as with the universities preparing that next generation of geologic mappers.
Eos: In addition to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, are there ways in which the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will be another shot in the arm for some USGS projects?
Applegate: We were very pleased to see there’s about $23.5 million worth of investment in our 3D Elevation Program. This is going to help move us forward to completing national coverage of high-resolution topography data, which is one of those foundational data sets that enable an incredible array of applications. It was tremendous to see that in the bill.
We are also seeing our resource and hazard assessments being tapped into to help support a number of the other Department of the Interior bureaus. For example, the work that is being enabled with respect to orphan oil and gas wells and with respect to ecosystem restoration requires a lot of scientific understanding to prioritize and effectively undertake, so it’s great to see our science getting put to use in that regard.
Eos: What new partnerships are you hoping to pursue? What existing partnerships do you hope to strengthen?
Applegate: I like to say that partnerships are the superpower of the USGS. They’re what enable us to deliver on our mission and to ensure that our science is what is needed to address a wide range of issues. We have the regional climate adaptation science centers, which directly support the decisions that managers at the state and national levels face in addressing a changing climate. And we have long-standing university partnerships across our mission areas that help us to engage that next generation.
And then one of our strongest partnerships within the federal family is our long-standing partnership with NASA. I had the opportunity to participate in the formal transition of operational control for Landsat 9 from NASA to USGS.
NASA had launched the satellite and made sure that all systems were go, and they have now handed it over to the USGS to fly it, we hope, for decades to come. That was an exciting moment. It comes right on the heels of celebrating 50 years of Landsat data and all of the incredible applications that it has made possible…It’s a poster child for making data free and openly available.
Looking forward, we see this in the context of the rapidly developing capabilities with other countries as well as in the private sector.
Eos: What challenges do you anticipate as you move forward?
Applegate: One of the key things that we need to do is to rebuild our workforce, particularly to support those who support our science and all of those who are engaged in the business of science. How do we bring on board that next-generation workforce, retain them, and give them a workplace environment that is respectful and inclusive and where they can thrive? That is central to our ability to deliver our science to those who need it most, to be able to reach underserved communities, to be able to engage with Tribes and other users for whom we need to ensure that the science is broadly applicable and in a form that they can use.
Part of that is having a workforce that has those lived experiences and is able to help to deliver on the mission. In the area of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), we have more than a generation’s worth of good intentions, and yet we have not seen dramatic changes from a workforce standpoint. We have a tremendous amount of energy at our grassroots and across all of our science centers. We’re trying to harness that energy and turn that into tangible improvements in the DEIA space. It’s absolutely essential for our future health and viability as an organization.
Eos: You’ve been at USGS for 18 years now in a variety of roles within the organization. How have you seen the agency evolve, and how would you like to see it keep progressing in the future?
Applegate: It’s actually 18 years and one summer! I got to spend the summer after college as a part of the NAGT–USGS summer internship program and had the wonderful opportunity to be at our Geologic Hazards Science Center in Golden, Colo. I loved the mission of the agency. I loved the idea of applying the science and putting it to work on these critically important issues.
We have seen an increasing emphasis on “How do we make the science real to people?” That’s been very important to us in our hazards mission, which is where I’ve spent the past 18 years.
One of the areas that we’ve focused on is risk. We’ve done so much over the years to understand the hazards and to be able to deliver real-time situational awareness. But people don’t live in hazard space. They live in the space of how those hazards impact them. Across our mission areas, we’ve worked to strengthen our partnerships with the social sciences. Through these efforts, we can increase our own expertise, draw on extensive external partnerships, and engage with people throughout the process. I’m excited to take that approach and really expand that across the bureau.
We’re not a typical geological survey, right? We’re a geological and biological and hydrological and mapping entity. And it is that combination of disciplines that enables us to tackle these complex societal issues.
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer