Science Policy & Funding News

USGS Nominee Calls Scientific Integrity a High Priority

James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, told senators that resolving USGS budget challenges and maintaining the agency’s core mission are other top priorities.

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During his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the Trump administration’s choice to lead the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), James Reilly II, promised to uphold scientific integrity at the agency.

“I am fully committed to scientific integrity. Science drives good policy, and good science has to be there for good policy to be made,” Reilly testified at the hearing, where he received support from Republicans and Democrats.

Reilly is a former NASA astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions. He also is a former petroleum geologist who holds a Ph.D. in the geosciences from the University of Texas at Dallas. He currently serves the U.S. military and allied militaries as a subject matter expert on space operations and works as a technical adviser supporting the National Security Space Institute of the U.S. Air Force.

A Focus on Scientific Integrity

“Scientific integrity has got to be a key element of the USGS because, as we mentioned, it’s an independent organization that is designed to deliver unbiased science to the decision makers, to you, for example,” Reilly said in response to questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, about how he would maintain scientific integrity at the agency. “That will be one of the highest priorities that I will have as the director.” If somebody were to ask him to change a document for political reasons, Reilly said, “I would politely decline.”

Scientific integrity became a hot-button issue for USGS following revelations that a top official, Murray Hitzman, recently resigned out of concern that the agency provided final results of an assessment of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to the U.S. secretary of the interior prior to its public release. Hitzman said that providing the early look contradicted USGS policy, but the Interior Department said that the secretary was acting within his authority. Hitzman had been the associate director for energy and minerals of USGS, which is within the Department of the Interior.

Reilly said he didn’t know all the particulars related to Hitzman’s resignation but that in his other positions, he has always felt a responsibility to deliver information, particularly if it might be sensitive, to his leadership. He did so “with the understanding that the leadership would hold that [information] as tight as I would in terms of it being protected information,” Reilly noted. If, in the future, somebody told him that they were uncomfortable with such a stance, he would deal with the specific example at the time, Reilly added, “and hopefully wouldn’t get in the situation that occurred.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the committee, also weighed in on the topic. “I appreciate you mentioning the scientific integrity of the agency. I think USGS, we know, is known for its focus on seeking out the best science, the best data, and doing so in a way that is not biased and that we can certainly look to. And my hope, my ask, is that you maintain that integrity within the agency.”

Budget Woes

In response to questions from several Democratic senators, Reilly acknowledged the budget challenges facing USGS. The administration’s $857.7 million proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, which was sent to Congress in February, would cut funding for the agency by 21% and reduce appropriations for nearly all major areas within USGS. Some areas, however, such as mineral and energy resources, would see increases.

Reilly said that although he doesn’t yet know all the budget details, if he is confirmed, fully understanding the budget would be a top priority. Among his concerns, Reilly said, is “where are we sensitive [and] what are the things that we need to be discussing more with the secretary [of the interior] in terms of the budget.”

A Focus on the Agency’s Organic Act

Some senators also pushed Reilly about what they said is the need for USGS to return to its core mission as outlined in the Organic Act of 1879. That act of Congress, which established the agency, provided for “the classification of the public lands and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” Responding to Murkowski’s question about whether the agency is on the right track and where it might need to be adjusted, Reilly said he would work with senior USGS managers to evaluate how well the agency’s core missions today align with the Organic Act.

In an interview with reporters following the hearing, Reilly said his biggest priority would be “maintaining the focus on the mission statement that is identified in [the Organic Act]. That pretty much describes the USGS.”

Extracting Promises from the Nominee

Murkowski, who said she hopes the Senate confirms Reilly soon, also pushed him in several other areas. One area is mineral security, with Murkowski noting that last year the United States imported 100% of its supply of 21 different minerals and at least 50% of its supply of another 30 minerals. Reilly told Murkowski that he shared her concern and promised to review with her what USGS can do. He also committed to working with Murkowski to help her retain in Alaska a series of portable seismographs that are part of what’s known as the USArray.

Other senators, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), drew commitments from Reilly to visit their states to learn about local issues. Manchin, in an expression of support for the nominee, noted to Reilly, “It’s hard sometimes to find good recruits [for government positions], and you seem to be the best of the best.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), USGS nominee calls scientific integrity a high priority, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO094455. Published on 07 March 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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