Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Separation of Data and Policy

In the Kansas water world agencies like the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) are responsible for scientific data collection that the regulatory and policy agencies have access to.  These guys are very well-heeled and make double sure that the data they collect and store is scientifically "top notch" (completely supported by scads of meta data) and is basically unquestionable.  While they are very good at what they do, they do NOT offer up policy recommendations or management approaches.  These decisions are in the realm of the state regulatory agencies who rely on the data to make the right policy decisions. 

This is the same with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), or so I thought.  I recently ran across a federal government sponsored (OMB) group directly under the chair of the USGS that is working on a number of data issues - including a national data procedure that will easily accept all other data the USGS can get its hands on.  While this effort is appropriate, the committee has other subcommittees that are working on issues much closer to policy-like efforts - most notably sustainable water directions.  This places the USGS out of character at the very least, and possibly in an inappropriate role. 

The committee?  The Water Information Coordination Program (WICP).  You have to look pretty deep into the group before you find the policy issues being developed.  One sub group sanctioned by WICP is the Advisory Committee on Water Information (ACWI).   This group has 8 sub committees - one of which is the sub committee (Roundtable) on Sustainable Water - whose mission statement is:

"Serve as a forum to share information and perspectives that will promote better decision making in the U.S. regarding the sustainability of our nation's water resources."

ACWI's alternate chair and two executive secretaries are USGS employees.  Why is the USGS coordinating discussion on policy issues?  There are two other sub committees under the WICP that are also expressly chaired by USGS personnel.  From the OMB resolution forming the entire shebang: 

"At the national level, the procedures shall include an Interagency Coordinating Committee for Water Information and a Federal Advisory Committee on Water Data for Public Use. The U.S. Geological Survey shall chair and provide support services for these committees. OMB shall be a member of the national committees."

I don't know what these folks are working on yet - data or policy.  It should be noted that the ACWI mission statement above does not say who will be making the better decisions their discussion will be promoting, so it's too early to break down the doors.  However, traditional separation of data and policy doesn't even come close to this arena.  Traditionally the USGS would stand completely down and develop the data required by a regulatory agency only upon direct and specific request.  Their being directly involved in the framing of the data needs would too easily allow a USGS policy agenda to manifest itself.

Anyway, this arrangement should be looked into in my opinion.  I'm not so sure the whole national water policy and sustainable watersheds efforts are not related to these activities, too.  If they are, the USGS is clearly stepping beyond its data responsibilities and is promoting national water policy.

** Update:  January 27, 2010:  From USGS Circular 1261, Anderson & Woolsley, 2005:

"The new role of science will be to support environmental decisionmaking to achieve some new level of sustainable use that will provide an assured supply of good-quality water for humans and for stream and riparian ecosystems."

Who doesn't think this statement is supporting a specific policy agenda by the USGS?

1 comment:

  1. That's a pretty perceptive comment Wayne. I know when I was a consultant I was appalled when I discovered that some colleagues ventured beyond mere data interpretation into active advocacy for clients. I'm still not comfortable with it but have accepted that that's why people hire consultants in many cases - and the other side has their own consultants to call bulls*%t when necessary.

    Now that I've "crossed over" (to some extent) from the scientific world to some nether region between science and policy I've begun to see the value of involving scientists in policy debates more extensively. There have historically been too many non-scientists dominating policy debates that hinge on good science. But, you're right that agencies such as the USGS need to be careful where they tread lest their reputation as scientists become sullied. And once the line has been crossed there is often no going back.

    Seems to me though that after what the Bush administration did with government science there's nowhere to go but up. ;)