Does USGS encourage public policy activism?

One must question that must be asked is if the USGS the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAQWA) organization recognizes and encourages policy advocacy.  There are several documents written by USGS employees that show that they acknowledge and encourage advocacy  This is done for the sake of organizational change.   Organizational change is not necessarily a bad thing but considering that USGS is science-based organization and the change may jeopardize scientific creditability, this may present a serious problem.

Why USGS felt that change was necessary

Graffy (2008) details the need for organizational change at the USGS’s NAWQA due to three reasons.  The first reason was the perception of USGS management that policy makers were unwilling or unable to use USGS generated science.   The second reason for change occurred in 1994 with Congress’ Contract with America, which called for the reduction in size in government in general.  It was purported that one of the agency’s slated for elimination was the USGS (Graffy, 2008).  The final reason was the introduction of the Government Results Act of 1993, which allows for greater accountability and elevated expectations for federal employees (Graffy, 2008).  Another recent  reason for the organizational change that was not explored is the ongoing discussion of merging USGS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into a single Earth Science Agency (Barnett, 2008). 

What kind of change was necessary?

The greatest change of the organization was that USGS scientists needed to be more involved in the public policy-making process (working with politicians).  USGS formulated The Functions of Scientific Information (FOSI) model provided a heuristic model to scientists linking public policy and science(Graffy, 1999, 2008). 

Evidence that USGS is becoming value-based over being objective

Conspicuously absent from FOSI model is any guidance pertaining to the agency’s position on policy advocacy.  This omission is especially glaring considering USGS scientists will be put into situations working with policy-makers where the possibility of advocacy could occur.  Graffy (1999) explains that “mainstreaming of environmental concerns into American values and policy-makers promoting science-based policy is thrusting scientists into the policy-making process” (p.293). Ironically, this statement is value-laden and could give the impression that the USGS is becoming more normative- friendly (value-based and not objective).  A second piece of evidence comes from is how NAWQA measures its organizational success.  Metrics for success included media coverage and number of hits to the NAWQA website (National Research Council, 2012).  Again, this suggests that USGS is becoming more value-based and less objective.

Reiteration about problems with policy advocacy

  When scientist chose to advocate a policy position, they may be expressing their opinion towards certain policy choices.  Issues with advocacy and policy-making arise when the politician depends upon the objectivity of the scientist.  Without objectivity, policy decisions would be based on biased information.  Problems associated with policy advocacy includes confusing or misleading policy-makers, being unethical, and loss of credibility for science and scientists (other scientists and themselves) (Blockstein, 2002; Lackey, 2004; Ruggiero, 2010). 


 Barnett, A. (2008). Whole-earth agency proposed. Nature Reports Climate Change, 2, 101-101. doi: 10.1038/climate.2008.74

Blockstein, D. E. (2002). How to Lose Your Political Virginity while Keeping Your Scientific Credibility. BioScience, 52(1), 91-96. doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0091:HTLYPV]2.0.CO;2

Graffy, E. A. (1999). Enhancing policy-relevance without burning up or burning out:  A strategy for scientists. Paper presented at the Science into policy:  Water in the public realm, Bozeman, MT.

Graffy, E. A. (2008). Meeting the Challenges of Policy-Relevant Science: Bridging Theory and Practice. Public Administration Review, 68(6), 1087-1100. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6210.2008.00957.x

Lackey, R. T. (2004). Normative Science. Fisheries, 29(7), 38-89.

National Research Council. (2012). Preparing for the Third Decade (Cycle 3) of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press.

Ruggiero, L. F. (2010). Scientific Independence and Credibility in Sociopolitical Processes. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 74(6), 1179-1182. doi: 10.1111/j.1937-2817.2010.tb01237.x

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