Scientific Opportunities Created by the Newly Consolidated U.S. Geological Survey and National Biological Service


In October 1996, under congressional mandate to consolidate the scientific activities of the Department of Interior, the National Biological Service (NBS) was transformed into the new Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The mission of the biological division is "to work with others to provide the scientific understanding and technologies needed to support the sound management and conservation of our Nation's biological resources." This is consistent with the USGS mission of providing "the Nation with reliable, impartial information to describe and understand the Earth." Fulfillment of these goals will require a new system of scientific research and information management that encourages the application of integrated scientific knowledge to understanding the complexity of earth's ecosystems.

In an effort to further development of this vision, the Geological Society of America, the Keystone Center, and the Ecological Society of America sponsored two workshops designed to identify and prioritize new or expanded interdisciplinary scientific opportunities complementary to the objectives of these recently merged agencies. Workshop participants included scientists and managers representing diverse disciplines in academia, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and the private sector. Each of the workshops generated a report 1) discussing the broad issue of how to cultivate interdisciplinary scientific opportunities; 2) outlining a series of specific interdisciplinary research initiatives based on enhanced scientific capabilities; and 3) addressing overarching issues associated with completing these endeavors.

Cultivating Interdisciplinary Science

Successful consolidation of these agencies requires integrating the expertise of many scientists from diverse disciplines and research areas. This will involve disassembly of the current administrative, professional, and intellectual culture of the sciences, which reinforce disciplinary boundaries. As this type of change is not easily accomplished, assessment of other interdisciplinary projects and organizations may help the USGS define the characteristics of past failures and successes. Workshop participants identified a range of organizational attributes that could help to create a truly interdisciplinary approach:

  • Solid research leadership, augmented by explicit mandates for integrated, interdisciplinary planning and results.
  • Standardized data management protocols that allow for an inclusive survey of physical and biological attributes and the integration of multidisciplinary data sets.
  • Organizational demand for studies leading to general, as opposed to case specific, principles.
  • Organizational demand for comprehensive baseline and trend information to support environmental assessments and predictive modeling efforts.
  • Effective communication between researchers and those utilizing information, including full articulation of the uncertainties inherent in ecological research.
  • Problem-oriented interdisciplinary research teams to provide solutions for specific and immediate problems. This will require cooperation between physical and biological scientists and possible co-location of staff and facilities.
  • Participation by engineers and social scientists in an effort to better measure and respond to ecological change caused by humans.

Proposed Interdisciplinary Initiatives

Workshop participants identified and described several high-priority interdisciplinary research initiatives, many of which are already recognized as crucial by the USGS. These initiatives conform to the mission of the recently merged agencies by integrating the unique strengths of the new biological component with the well established geological, hydrological, and cartographical divisions. For the purposes of this article, the initiatives developed during the two workshops have been grouped into four broad categories. Order of presentation does not imply relative priority among the initiatives.

General Scientific Needs and Opportunities

  • Define thresholds of sustainability for high-use terrestrial habitats by designing a pilot effort for monitoring biological and physical attributes of terrestrial and aquatic systems. This would include identifying a diverse set of at-risk habitats and conducting a survey of existing data and current efforts.
  • Evaluate the impacts of major land uses such as mining and grazing on local and regional biogeochemical cycling by measuring the effects of various land uses on a variety of habitats.
  • Determine future implications of physical and biological boundaries on ecosystem management and work to develop flexibility to address scientific questions about natural resource management at whatever spatial and temporal scales may be necessary.
  • Gather information on the potential impacts of stressors and the combined impacts of multiple stressors so that ecological risk assessment methodologies can weigh the comparative risks of diverse stressors.
  • Develop in-stream flow methodologies that address impacts of various uses of rivers and streams on local hydrologic and physiographic conditions.

Maintaining Viable Ecosystems

  • Restoration of damaged ecosystems is imperative to sustaining biological and economic productivity and maintaining the ecosystem services necessary for society's welfare. USGS must provide leadership for the development of restoration science and work to answer questions about issues such as minimum threshold repair levels and realistic restoration endpoints.
  • Anticipation and response to natural disasters, including monitoring efforts during ecosystem recovery.
  • Develop a fully integrated study of the hydrology, biology, and engineering affecting flood plain management.
  • Form an understanding of the interactions among geologic, hydrologic, meteorologic, and biologic processes critical to soil formation.

Responding to Biological Threats

  • Improve understanding of the relationship between ecosystem processes and the health of humans, wildlife, and vegetation, particularly the impact of physical and social factors on emerging diseases.
  • Determine invasion dynamics, management implications, and treatment options for problematic non-indigenous species, including an examination of the relationship between human activities and species invasions. This involves basic science and monitoring efforts, leading to expanded management options.

The Environmental Knowledge Base

  • This merger provides an uncommon opportunity to develop an integrated and synthesized information infrastructure, which will be integral to the success of new interdisciplinary scientific endeavors. USGS will be instrumental in forming a national database, at a scale appropriate to determine spatial distribution of biological and physical attributes, for existing and newly acquired data.
  • Comprehensive baseline data on biological communities must be established and available to land managers, planners, and policy makers. USGS must support acquisition of baseline data, surveys of species distribution, identification and density of organisms, and training of systematists so that information gathered may be effectively utilized.

Overarching Issues

Ecological problems are intrinsically interdisciplinary; by providing the opportunity for increased collaboration, the newly merged agency is in a unique position to address complex issues while continuing to provide unbiased scientific information to its clientele. To guarantee successful completion of the initiatives outlined above, workshop participants identified five overarching issues that must be addressed:

  • The combined agency must recognize the importance of adaptive resource management as a guiding principle, insuring that sound science underlies all management decisions.
  • USGS must lead in the development of the baseline ecosystem and watershed data that is necessary for successful natural resource management.
  • A comprehensive policy must be established regarding data acquisition, storage, retrieval, and archiving that allows for integration, quality control, appropriate allocation of resources for new data collection, and wide spread dissemination.
  • Many of the new initiatives outlined earlier can combine, build on, and leverage existing programs, allowing for complete integration of scientific functions.
  • Effective lines of communication with the biological community must continue to be cultivated and maintained.


The merger of the USGS and the NBS provides a rare opportunity to develop an enhanced understanding of earth's intricate natural systems, the health of which is fundamental to a sustainable society. It is believed that interdisciplinary cooperation fostered by the consolidation will lead to improved evaluation and new solutions to complex issues.

The multidisciplinary workshops were part of an ongoing effort by the scientific societies to help guide the agency integration process. The ideas formulated during these workshops demonstrate the benefits of bringing a variety of stakeholders together to discuss common issues. Though the reports generated from the workshops are necessarily general documents, they serve as a springboard to further discussions about the specific steps involved in implementing a successful merger, as well as providing continuing input from the scientific community.

As an extension of these activities, several workshop participants were recently invited to brief representatives from each of the four USGS divisions on the workshop reports and conduct a general seminar for all interested employees. In addition to efforts currently being undertaken by the USGS, the Geological Society of America and ESA will continue to work together in sponsoring a number of workshops and symposia designed to advance an interdisciplinary approach to natural resource management.

Workshop Participants

Craig Allen, National Biological Service
Mary Altalo, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
James Beach, National Science Foundation
Jane Belnap, National Biological Service
Paul Brouha, American Fisheries Society
Randy Brown, California Dept. of Water Resources
Cheryl Ann Butman, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
Michael Collopy, National Biological Service
Thomas Dunne, University of California, Santa Barbara
Milt Friend, National Biological Service
Leonard Gaydos, U.S. Geological Survey
Sarah Gerould, U.S. Geological Survey
David Graber, National Biological Service
Gordon Grant, U.S. Forest Service
Clifford Greve, Science Applications International Corp.
Douglas Growitz, Bureau of Reclamation
David Hart, Academy of Natural Sciences
John Haugh, Bureau of Land Management
Robert Hirsch, U.S. Geological Survey
Harry Hodgdon, Wildlife Society
George Homberger, University of Virginia
Dave Kirtland, U.S. Geological Survey
Richard Kropp, New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection
Arthur Lachenbruch, U.S. Geological Survey
John Lehman, University of Michigan
Steve Lewis, Exxon Biomedical Sciences
Charles Logue, Unified Sewerage Agency (OR)
Edgar Lowe, St. Johns River Water Mgmt. Dist. (FL)
Eugene Mancini, ARCO
Lindsay McClelland, National Park Service
William Michener, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center (GA)
Eldridge Moores, University of California, Davis
Nancy Morin, Missouri Botanical Gardens
Thomas Muir, National Biological Service
Gordon Orians, University of Washington
Margaret Palmer, University of Maryland
Richard Poore, U.S. Geological Survey
Jonathon Price, Nevada Geological Survey
Karen Prestegaard, University of Maryland
Maureen Raymo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
James Reichman, National Biological Service
Mark Schaefer, U.S. Dept. of Interior
Bruce Schmidt, Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Marvin Shasby, U.S. Geological Survey
Peter Stine, National Biological Service
Mark Sylvester, U.S. Geological Survey
Kenneth Turgeon, Minerals Management Service
Alfred Vang, South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources
Geerat Vermeij, University of California, Davis
John Williams, University of California, Davis
Kenneth Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
E-an Zeng, University of Maryland

Lori Hidinger
Program Manager
Sustainable Biosphere Initiative
Ecological Society of America
Washington, DC

(From: Kearns, F.R. 1997. Scientific Opportunities Created by the Newly Consolidated U.S. Geological Survey and National Biological Service. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 78(2):157-158.

Dr. Elizabeth Stallman
Program Manager
Science Program
Ecological Society of America
Washington, DC

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