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Reimagining our Scientist Emeritus Program

The USGS Scientist Emeritus (SE) Program is a bureau-wide resource presently comprised of 544 retired professionals.

“One of the remarkable successes of the USGS Volcano Program has been its ability to benefit and thrive by complementing Congressionally-funded science with the efforts of its emeriti, who serve as enthusiastic, experienced, and venerable volunteers.” This recent assessment by Jacob Lowenstern applies equally across the entire USGS. The USGS Scientist Emeritus (SE) Program, which originated in 1986 as part of the USGS Volunteer for Science Program, is a bureau-wide resource presently comprised of 544 retired professionals. Emeriti provide more than 300,000 uncompensated hours to the USGS each year. The SE Program is overseen by the Director of the Office of Science Quality and Integrity (OSQI) and is locally administered at the science center level. The program is open to all scientists and technical experts who have demonstrated leadership qualities and contributed to the goals of the USGS during a productive career.  

Being recognized as a Scientist Emeritus is an honor for the individual and a benefit to the USGS through retained expertise, talent and wisdom. The SE Program offers retirees the opportunity to continue their professional association with the USGS and sustain institutional and scientific knowledge in our workforce. Key emeritus activities include advising and program development, mentoring, outreach and stakeholder engagement, research and development, data rescue, and records management. At low cost, emeriti also conduct high-risk scientific investigations not readily associated with regular workplans, budgets, and progress reports. Emeriti are generally offered office space, a computer and IT support, and can receive additional support from their science centers or ongoing scientific projects, as well as from mission areas and programs, if warranted.  

Thorough reviews of the SE Program, including emeriti and supervisor questionnaires, cost-benefit analyses and recommendations, were completed in 2005 and 2015. The 2015 review found that most emeriti serve three years or fewer, and a third stay seven years or more. In 2015, the return of investment was one and a half times to nearly double the cost of supporting an emeritus. Emeriti author hundreds of publications and deliver hundreds of presentations each year. They provide service to the government, general public, academic institutions, professional societies and journals. They also garner external awards and honors, which increase the visibility of the USGS. The 2015 review recommended extending the SE Program to other professional series; improving communications and access; and re-establishing and stabilizing the Bradley Scholar Fund, a competitive small grants program for emeriti.  

More recently, USGS Director Jim Reilly asked the Council of Senior Science Advisors (COSSA) to solicit additional comments and policy recommendations from the current Emeriti corps in the bureau. Through discussions with the director’s office, reimagining the SE Program might start with the following steps: 

  1. The USGS regards the SE Program as a shared bureau resource and supports it with a relational database that can quickly match emeriti talent and skills with evolving program needs.  
  2. The USGS adopts flexible practices from sectors where emeriti are thriving and avoids practices in sectors where they are being poorly executed or received. 
  3. The Bradley Scholar Fund is stabilized with a focus on mentorship that maintains activities critical to the USGS mission, completing legacy work, and conducting new basic or applied research that can be continued by others. 
  4. USGS experiments with extending emeritus status to other professional series. 

Why should the USGS continue to support and better utilize emeritus completing legacy work? Tightening budgets, hiring constraints, and fast-evolving scientific, societal and institutional challenges argue strongly for more efficient and strategic marketing, recruitment, and use of emeriti across the whole bureau. Emeriti represent a relatively inexpensive but highly qualified, dedicated, and productive workforce that broadens the multigenerational scope of the bureau. In the words of notable USGS scientist and new emeritus Jim Cloern, “We have made life-long commitments to science for a changing world. That commitment doesn't end when we retire!”  

Check out the Employee Shoutout that features Dr. Gary Wedemeyer, Scientist Emeritus at the USGS Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC) in Seattle and winner of the 2020 Dallas Peck Outstanding Scientist Emeritus Award. Stay tuned to @theCore and the NeedToKnow for more information on the program and the emeriti. For additional information on the SE Program, contact Wilma Aleman-Gonzalez and Laurel Bybell at scientist-emeritus@usgs.gov

Author: Julio Betancourt