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The USGS Director's Newest Job Description: Maintaining 'Scientific Integrity'

There was a recurring theme during former astronaut James Reilly's confirmation hearing to become the new USGS director: the importance that he prevent the agency from corruption.
James Reilly, pictured here aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2001.

James Reilly, pictured here aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2001.

The United States Geological Survey covers a wide variety of research, from mapping mineral and oil deposits in the U.S., to predicting and mitigating natural disasters, to monitoring the country's fresh water, to studying climate change. But in the Trump administration, the agency's director has yet another role to play: scientific bulwark.

During Tuesday's confirmation hearing with the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources for James Reilly, President Donald Trump's nominee for USGS director, congresspeople emphasized that Reilly would have to protect the scientists in his agency and maintain a sort of firewall between their scientific work and any political agendas. "My hope, my ask, is that you maintain that integrity within the agency," said Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee chair. Murkowski's sentiment was later reiterated to Pacific Standard by outside science advocates.

"I would not say they have ever been asked to be some sort of buffer or barrier between the [Department of the Interior] and scientists ever before," says Lexi Shultz, vice president of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union, a professional group for Earth scientists. The union estimates that a bit less than 600 of its members work for the USGS. "That is not something that we have seen," Shultz says.

The idea of the USGS director as an ethics go-between seems to have taken hold because of a recent controversy within the USGS. Last month, Mother Jones reported that two USGS scientists had resigned in response to what they saw as political pressure on the agency to violate its own policies about sharing sensitive data. Officials at the Department of the Interior, under which the USGS is housed, had asked to see results of a study of oil and gas in Alaska before the study would be publicly published, Mother Jones reported. The USGS had been prepared to give the information over, triggering scientist Murray Hitzman to resign. Because the Alaska deposits could have economic value, Hitzman thought releasing it early violated a USGS policy that forbids the pre-sharing of data that "could result in unfair advantage or the perception of unfair advantage." There's no evidence that anyone at the Department of the Interior used the information improperly or even read the study early, according to Mother Jones.

The Department of the Interior actually has a "very strong scientific integrity policy," says Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that rated agencies' policies. "The scientists there know what their rights are, they know what processes should be followed, and so Dr. Reilly better be ready to respect those processes and people."

The new emphasis on safeguarding science also comes after a series of Trump nominees who have worried advocates because of their conflicts of interest. Among its science nominees alone, the administration has faced criticisms of its suggestions for leaders of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (who was confirmed, then later resigned), and the Department of Health and Human Services (who also eventually resigned because of a controversy unrelated to his conflicts of interest).

In comparison, there has been little criticism of Reilly's nomination. "He seems extremely well qualified. I have heard no complaints about him from any of our members," Shultz says. Reilly worked for many years as a geologist for an oil and gas exploration company, and was also previously an astronaut who performed five spacewalks. A quick look at the USGS's page of past directors suggests that, recently, like Reilly, they have been doctorate-level geologists and some have worked in private industry. "He has a fairly diverse background and I think that will serve him well as he leads this diverse agency," Shultz says. During his hearing, Murkowski said she hoped to confirm Reilly to his position quickly. Other members of the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources didn't bring up any serious opposition.

The USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

The USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

Yet it's hard to read too much into Reilly's answers to senators' questions about scientific integrity. When Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) asked about the Mother Jones story specifically, Reilly replied: "I'm not certain of all the details there. I can only offer a qualified opinion on it and that would be: Based on my experience in my other occupations, up to this point, I always felt like I had a responsibility to deliver information to my leadership." But he said he would listen to his scientists, if they said some data-sharing request made them uncomfortable: "Then we would, of course, deal with that specific example at the time and hopefully we wouldn't get into the situation that occurred here."

Overall there was a strange sense of relief around Reilly's nomination. "It's good to finally have a geologist nominated to run the USGS," Murkowski said in her opening statement.

"I think there's certainly different standards under this administration," Goldman says. "The fact that he has a relevant scientific degree is automatically far above many of the nominees that we've seen for other science agencies." The nominees to head NASA and the NOAA have business degrees, for example, while Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has a bachelor's degree in animal science and spent most of his career in politics.

In recent years, these positions—the top spots in NASA, the NOAA, the USGS, and the Department of Energy—have typically gone to people with science and engineering backgrounds. But the head of a science agency always has to have more than just the science skills. They testify before Congress, decide budget priorities, make the case for their agency before the government—and now, perhaps, they'll have to push back harder than ever against intrusions on their scientific integrity.