Acting USGS chief wants agency to chase answers to ‘big questions’

By Dylan Brown | 05/05/2015 01:07 PM EDT

Suzette Kimball’s style suits the federal agency she leads: stately, if a little dry.

Suzette Kimball’s style suits the federal agency she leads: stately, if a little dry.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s acting director is, after all, the guardian of the 136-year-old research agency’s apolitical reputation, a low profile that keeps it out of the partisan crossfire.

"We’re not a regulatory agency, we’re not a management agency, we’re not an advocacy group," Kimball said in a recent interview. "We, in fact, are dedicated to the unbiased, objective science in the best sense of that term, which is a broad sense."


That said, USGS and Kimball sometimes take heat on Capitol Hill for their work on contentious topics like hydraulic fracturing, climate change and endangered species.

At a recent House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, Republicans first praised the agency’s mineral analyses, then questioned its handling of climate science and maps of greater sage grouse habitat (E&E Daily, March 25).

Suzette Kimball
Suzette Kimball, acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey. | Photo courtesy of USGS.

"The USGS needs to avoid mission creep, which only dilutes the valuable work you should be doing," Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) warned Kimball, criticizing her agency for requesting $150 million more for fiscal 2016 than this year. USGS has a $1.1 billion budget.

But Kimball won’t back down. USGS, she says, is doubling down on science in the search for answers to "big questions."

"Addressing that interface with the human dimension is something that people haven’t seen that USGS has done so much, but I think that that’s our future," she said in an interview.

While budget increases are hard to find in a tightfisted Congress, USGS has managed to avoid deep cuts endured by other agencies, but its funding has been flat for a decade.

After 17 years at USGS, Kimball believes science being conducted in nearly every congressional district can tell "a good story about the value of our work." That, she said, will help the agency weather the budget storm over the long haul.

"I’m optimistic that we won’t be a stagnant organization," she said.

If Kimball shows any irritation or frustration, it’s on the subject of her languishing Senate confirmation.

President Obama nominated Kimball to replace Marcia McNutt at the helm of USGS in January 2014. But she has yet to have a confirmation hearing.

So Kimball is carrying on as "acting" director, kicking off a "whistle-stop tour" this month of some USGS offices across the country.

The goal is to gather input from the field for what she’s calling "our next decade of innovation."

Coastal geologist

USGS is science first, and Kimball says she’s the same, even though she’s been a supervisor instead of an in-the-trenches researcher for many years.

"I still see myself as a scientist," she said.

Kimball is surrounded by scientists at the 8,000-employee agency. Her job, she said, is to facilitate "good" science.

"I don’t need to see my name in print," Kimball said. "It’s enough that we’ve got others doing it."

Born to an Army family in Washington, D.C., Kimball moved around a lot but ended up back at her "home base," Virginia. She’s married with stepchildren whom she said she is close with. She lives in a restored historic house in Summit Point, W.Va., about 70 miles outside D.C., but she spends plenty of time in a condominium near USGS’s headquarters in Reston, Va., halfway between the two.

Kimball has a doctorate in environmental sciences with a specialty in coastal processes from the University of Virginia, a master’s degree in geology and geophysics from Ball State University, and a bachelor’s in English and geology from the College of William & Mary.

After a stint with the Army Corps of Engineers leading barrier island sedimentation studies, she spent time in academia before joining the National Park Service in 1991. At NPS, she jumped to science administration, which she said would show her the importance of "connecting science to the end user."

Kimball was the Park Service Southeast Region’s associate director and chief scientist in 1998 when USGS called.

At USGS — which she says is where geologists yearn to be — Kimball spent six years as Eastern regional director for biology and then four as regional director.

In 2009, she became acting USGS director for the first time until Obama appointed McNutt, who was then leading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Kimball became USGS deputy director, a position she held until McNutt left to become editor-in-chief at the journal Science in 2013.

In contrast to the entrepreneurial McNutt, Kimball took the reins as a measured agency insider, but both CEO and public official faced the same central struggle — defining the agency’s mission to lawmakers concerned about USGS overstepping its mandate.

‘Understand the Earth’

A massive research operation today, USGS started as an amendment added in the waning moments of Congress’ budget session in 1879.

President Hayes inked fiscal 1880’s budget hours later, creating an agency to map and study the lands of a country that was still figuring out exactly what it bought with the Louisiana Purchase and conquered via the Mexican-American War.

More than a century later, USGS’s stated mission is "providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth" and to "minimize loss of life and property."

Such a broad statement has generated fierce debate in recent years as technological advances extended the agency’s research horizon.

Landsat satellites, which collect all measure of data for the Sustained Land Imaging Program, and lidar, a mapping technology using lasers to map regional geography and geology, have added new depth to scientific inquiry.

New technology helped shape USGS’s most recent science vision, which Kimball said was intentionally crafted by scientists with limited administrative control.

The resulting 2007-17 strategy shifted the agency away from a traditional academic framework toward addressing what Kimball calls "big questions."

"An important role for scientists in this day and age is to be able to forecast the big questions where we have gaps in scientific knowledge we need to fill in and to be able to do it now before the question becomes a crisis," she said.

When there is a crisis — like Superstorm Sandy or the Washington state mudslide — USGS researchers are often called to cram years of research into a few weeks of analysis. Kimball said the new research areas are designed to get out ahead of the next crisis.

"It enables us to ask questions a little bit differently, and it enables us to use different tools to do the work, but it’s really not a deviation from our mission," she said. "And that is the kind of message I’m trying to send to those who are concerned about mission creep."

While USGS critics see its work on climate change as opening a new research area, Kimball said, "It’s not really new for us."

"Regardless of where one comes down on the side of the causative factors associated with climate change, the scientific evidence is there," she said.

She added, "We’re seeing a lot of different conditions on the landscape."

Charting a course

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the rise of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas development have raised more questions for the agency.

"One of the things USGS can really contribute to the national dialogue here is where the science needs to go in the next 10 years," she said.

Part of her work in helping chart a course for the agency is Kimball’s tour of off-the-beaten-path USGS offices. She said she’s linking her visits to other work-related trips to conferences or other duties.

"We really need to invest in our scientists being out in the field, not in a lot of other travel," she said.

Kimball is also excited about "forging a different kind of relationship with the private sector."

She noted the "brain trust" surrounding the USGS office in Menlo Park, Calif., and tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.

"We want to invest in that kind of an approach, so we’re breaking out of an insular, closed federal research model into a much broader one," she said.

"People talk about the thousand points of light, how do we pull a thousand points of light into a raging bonfire."

The problem is the agency’s matches are getting old.

‘Less than optimal condition’

Infrastructure at the agency is aging fast as once state-of-the-art laboratories are stretching beyond their life spans.

Little funding has left many "operating in less than optimal conditions," Kimball said, and harmed the agency’s monitoring networks.

The stream gauge network, which monitors the nation’s water levels, has never been fully funded but is the backbone of flood forecasting for the Army Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Earthquake early warning systems, which give people in active seismic zones precious extra seconds to prepare for a temblor, are well-received in Congress as ideas but are far from reality due to a lack of concerted funding (E&E Daily, June 11, 2014).

Money is scarce, but Kimball said that "maintaining those monitoring systems is really not something you want to ignore."

"Everybody has priority needs, I don’t envy the appropriators’ job in trying to distribute those funds," she said, "but … our main core mission areas really do relate to public safety and public health."

Despite financial limitations, Kimball is optimistic even as she awaits her confirmation. At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, the public servant said she plans to continue proudly serving USGS for a long while to come.

"We can really make a good contribution, and we have for the past 100-plus years."