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Research Grade Evaluation Offers Path to Advancement, Scientific Leadership

Scientific research, development, and operations meant to help manage Earth’s natural resources are the bread and butter of work done at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

Color images of coastal elevation work
Example product from coastal hazards research, in this case an inundation probability map for a given water level increase for locations on Majuro Atoll in the central Pacific nation of Republic of the Marshall Islands.

But for 13 researchers among EROS’ 33 government science positions, there is a greater mandate. One that not only demands time spent in the scientific trenches, but also in leading conversations on ways science can better monitor and protect our planet.

The 13 are called Research Grade Evaluation (RGE) scientists, and they operate under an expectation “to motivate the pursuit of understanding, inspiration, and creativity,” says Pete Doucette, the Integrated Science and Applications Branch Chief (ISAB) Chief at EROS. Doucette provided his own thoughts on the role of Research and Development as it pertains to RGE scientists within organizational science in this earlier article.

While the word “research” precedes their titles, it doesn’t suggest any superiority over non-RGE scientists on staff, said Dean Gesch, a research physical scientist at EROS and the principal investigator for the Coastal Changes and Impacts focus area within ISAB. It simply indicates that their primary science activity is research.

“There are lot of people here whose position title is scientist, but maybe what they’re doing would be considered more operational and not so much research-oriented,” he said. “They’re doing science work, trying to improve current products. But they’re not primarily doing the research that could go into the next set of products.”

Helping to Set Science Agendas

RGE scientists, on the other hand, are helping to set science agendas, whether here at EROS, in the science communities to which they belong, and even on the larger scale of the USGS. In fact, as they move through the RGE ranks, one of the categories on which they are graded—what Gesch called the most highly weighted of four assessment categories—is a leadership component called “Contributions, Impact, and Stature.”

RGE can succeed in that category in many ways. Leading a research team, for example. It may involve participating on external review committees, or on interagency committees or groups. RGE scientists can be tapped to work with teams that define and write science strategies for different parts of the USGS. They can be invited to be guest editors on special journal issues.

“What I’m saying is, as you progress to higher ranks, higher grade levels within RGE, science leadership is a big deal,” Gesch said.

But it’s not the only deal. Career advancement for RGE scientists follows a different path than, say, government employees on a management track. Pay increases and increased responsibilities are based on a number of factors: Again, Contributions, Impact, and Stature; but also Research Assignment; Supervisory Controls; and Guidelines and Originality.

Published Work a Consideration

Land Cover Modeling images
The USGS land cover modeling team used the homegrown Forecasting Scenarios of land use (FORE-SCE) model to project scenarios of landscape change in the Great Plains. Here a future scenario near Amarillo, Texas depicts urban growth and increases in cropland (primarily wheat), as well as conversion of grassland to shrubland as the projected climate gets hotter and drier.

Published work is a significant consideration. RGEs leading science research and teams publish results on their work, and those publications are how science communities judge individuals’ expertise and learn about their research, Gesch said. But he and other RGEs at EROS are quick to add that the number of publications shouldn’t outweigh the quality.

“It’s not necessarily a numbers game,” Gesch said. “Maybe you’ve had a couple of really significant publications that are highly cited, ended up in prestigious journals, and have really changed the direction of research in your niche of the world. If those are seminal publications and are really well regarded within the community, that could score higher than somebody who maybe has many, many publications.”

When it comes to advancement within the RGE program, leadership, publications, and more are all figured into reviews that RGE scientists undergo by a panel of peers from within their particular science community. A GS (General Schedule)-12 or GS-13 has a review every 4 years; a GS-14 has a review every 6 years; a GS-15 has a review every 7 years.  A promotion to the next higher grade can happen as a result of a review but is not automatic. A common outcome of a panel review is “stay at grade.”

“As you might expect, as you get to those higher grades, there’s less and less promotions,” Gesch said. “It’s harder to go from a 14 to a 15. That takes quite a bit of accomplishment. And also, just time.”

The Possibility of Increased Pay, Stature

Though it seldom happens, a lack of progress means a candidate could even be dropped a grade. That said, with each level gained there is an increase in pay, and along with that, “Your stature, your responsibility, and your place within the USGS science hierarchy increases as well as you move up,” Gesch said.

RGE scientists are either hired directly into the program or can apply to be an RGE participant. Research Physical Scientist Terry Sohl at EROS said when he moved into the RGE program 13 years ago, it offered him what he called a clear path to advancement that was entirely in his own hands. From a leadership standpoint, he has worked as the principal investigator on land cover modeling work at the Center. He also is the Land Resources Mission Area representative for the (USGS) Earth Monitoring, Analysis, and Projections (EarthMAP) initiative.

“It’s a fairer process to me ... because you are not judged by a single manager or supervisor. You’re judged by a panel of your peers,” Sohl said of RGE. “From a professional development standpoint, there’s no limit on how far you can go. You’re not capped at any particular level, so there’s more advancement potential, and there’s no time limit involved.”

Dr. Heather Tollerud, a research physical scientist who leads research and development with the USGS Land Change Monitoring, Assessment, and Projection (LCMAP) initiative, said she may not have applied for the position had it not carried an RGE designation.

“I just like what it means as far as being able to identify the direction and focus within your scientific community, and designing the direction for research,” she said of RGE. “That was a challenge I was looking for.”

Only a year into her current position, Tollerud doesn’t come up for review for another three years. With it so far out in the future, she said hasn’t started yet to dwell on having to go through it at some point.

Color photo of Heather Tollerud with graphic from USGS LCMAP initiative
The USGS Land Cover Monitoring, Assessment, and Projection (LCMAP) initiative utilizes a time series of Landsat images.

“Honestly, I think I’ll embrace” the review process, she said. “But I’ll also worry about it. I mean, it’s an important part of any employment, to be evaluated, and this is the process by which it’s done. But I think the important thing is, hopefully, if I make good progress in general, that will show up in the review.”

RGE Success Reflects on EROS

A good review does not only just benefit her, either. The RGE program is operated through all Federal agencies that have science positions, whether it’s NASA, NOAA, the USGS, or others. Success by scientists like Gesch, Tollerud, and Sohl and others in the program reflects on EROS’ reputation as well, they believe.

And in reality, RGEs should be defining the research and the directions of their particular centers, agencies, and branches, Sohl said. “Without that kind of leadership,” he said, “your science stagnates, and you’re not moving forward.”

If he and his fellow RGEs are doing their jobs well, that’s naturally going to lead to advances within the science that EROS does, Gesch said. Publications and science leadership roles done well will also raise the stature and visibility of EROS as a whole, he said.

“Our reputation precedes us, good or bad, right?” Gesch said. “That said, I think EROS is recognized in a lot of places, in a lot of ways, as being very advanced and innovative with products. Certainly, that’s not limited to just the output of the RGE side. But I don’t think there’s any question that the RGE side does play a big role in that.”

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