Merging NOAA and the US Geological Survey

Big problems require big solutions - and, apparently, big government agencies. Writing in the latest issue of Science, seven former government officials - including several one-time agency chiefs - argue that to get a proper handle on climate change, the next president should merge the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) into a single super-agency, tentatively dubbed the Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA), with over-arching responsibility for all federal earth science research.

There’s a certain intuitive appeal to the officials’ proposals, which would create a streamlined clearinghouse for all earth, air, and water research. That would allow researchers to present a united front to the public and to policymakers; it might also have more clout in inter-agency disputes, helping to ensure that other government bodies stick with the game plan. (That could be especially helpful in bringing NASA back down to earth: Besides its vital earth-monitoring satellites, the space agency runs earth-science programs worth about $1.5 billion, but has a tendency to get distracted by its more headline-grabbing missions to Mars and Mercury.)

The super-agency might be able to win extra funding for earth-science research; it would also shake up the way in which federal funds are allocated. The officials suggest that at least a quarter of ESSA’s $5 billion budget should be set aside for private or academic R&D and, intriguingly, call for the creation of a DARPA-style office to promote blue-sky thinking and foster potentially game-changing new technologies.

That sounds good; still, the merger wouldn’t be without its risks. A beefed-up agency might also mean beefed-up bureaucracy, tangling existing research programs in an additional pile of red tape. And much of the fine detail of the plan remains to be worked out. Would NOAA’s commercial fisheries programs remain part of the new agency, for example, or be farmed out to another agency? And given that ESSA is envisioned as being a non-regulatory body, what would happen to NOAA’s substantial regulatory apparatus?

Such details can be thrashed out later; for now, it’s worth remembering that the last agency to be created out of nothing, back in 1970, was the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a sign of this idea’s potential - and, given the EPA’s recent problems with executive-branch interference and political meddling, a warning. Institutional reforms are all well and good - but they won’t achieve much unless they’re accompanied, at the highest levels of government, by a genuine desire for change.

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