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Capacity assessment for Earth Monitoring, Analysis, and Prediction (EarthMAP) and future integrated monitoring and predictive science at the U.S. Geological Survey

November 29, 2021

Executive Summary

Managers of our Nation’s resources face unprecedented challenges driven by the convergence of increasing, competing societal demands and a changing climate that affects the stability, vulnerability, and predictability of those resources. To help meet these challenges, the scientific community must take advantage of all available technologies, data, and integrative Earth systems modeling capacity to better inform resource and risk management decisions. This is the overarching goal of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Monitoring, Analysis, and Prediction (EarthMAP) vision: “By 2030, the USGS will deliver well integrated observations and predictions of the future state of natural systems—water, ecosystems, energy, minerals, hazards—at regional and national scales, working primarily with federal, state, and academic partners to develop and operate the capability” (U.S. Geological Survey, 2021).

Providing more integrated Earth systems science and actionable information to decision makers, stakeholders, and the public requires a better understanding of the depth and distribution of existing capacity (capabilities, tools, and techniques) across the Bureau. Identifying existing capacity is also a critical first step toward gap analysis and targeted investments to increase capacity over time. The USGS formed a Capacity Assessment Team (CAT) and charged it with (1) conducting a Request for Information (RFI) to identify existing USGS expertise and activities supportive of integrated and predictive science to inform decision making, (2) developing a strategy and proof-of-concept for a continuously updated capacity assessment capability, and (3) identifying lessons learned to inform development of best practices for future capacity assessment efforts.

The RFI took the form of a survey, with content guided by the science and technology needs identified in a USGS report titled “Grand Challenges for Integrated U.S. Geological Survey Science—A Workshop Report” (Jenni and others, 2017). The 44-question survey provided respondents the ability to rate their level of experience with a suite of priority disciplines, analysis and modeling approaches, technologies, and stakeholder engagement strategies and to enter optional narrative text for supporting context. An introductory portion focused on general science capacity assessment, followed by three sections targeting capabilities related to the foundational components of EarthMAP: (1) data and information integration, (2) integrated predictive science, and (3) actionable information.

The survey results provided a high-level snapshot of USGS capacity in the targeted areas. Respondents (1,035 individuals) represented approximately 13 percent of the USGS across all mission areas and regions. Seventy-four percent of the respondents held a science-focused position title and the remainder had position titles in information technology, computer science, management, administrative, or other (contractors, volunteers, emeritus, and unknown). To provide greater insight into respondent capabilities and activities, information from the U.S. Department of the Interior and USGS enterprise information systems were used to further characterize topical expertise and organizational associations of survey respondents. To address the ongoing need to assess the Bureau’s capacity to address integrated predictive science priorities, the CAT developed a software-based proof-of-concept called the Integrated Science Assessment Information Database (iSAID) for assembling various information sources together toward making the full extent of USGS capabilities and scientific assets available for routine capacity assessment. This proof-of-concept is intended to serve as a catalyst for further development. The process of implementing the EarthMAP capacity assessment survey, analyzing survey responses, and developing the proof-of-concept resulted in lessons learned, findings, and recommendations. Example scenarios throughout the report demonstrate how capacity assessment data can inform science planning. Three overarching findings and recommendations are:

(1) Finding: Capacity is limited in some critical disciplines, skills, and technology applications, but “sufficient” depends on the question and the need relative to availability at a given point in time.

Recommendation: Develop an on-demand capacity assessment framework that enables rapid identification and evaluation of existing and available expertise to support decision needs as they arise.

(2) Finding: Institutional barriers and lack of awareness constrain the ability of USGS staff to adopt new technologies, collaborate across administrative boundaries, and deliver actionable information to stakeholders in a timely manner. However, these barriers are not universally experienced.

Recommendation: Pursue more targeted inquiries to clarify which institutional barriers are obstructing the adoption of new technologies and approaches or the sharing of expertise and equipment across organizational and regional boundaries. These inquiries should inform USGS leadership, mission areas, and regions whether policies can be revised or whether a lack of understanding is creating perceived obstacles. Highlight cases when staff have successfully adopted new technologies and approaches to advance EarthMAP priorities and provide actionable information in a timely manner to spread awareness of how perceived obstacles can be navigated and overcome when appropriate.

(3) Finding: Examples of people and projects integrating across disciplines and scales and applying advanced approaches to meet complex stakeholder needs exist. Such examples provide transfer value across the spectrum from approach to decision making. Many projects, already underway, appear to meet elements of the EarthMAP vision, and the USGS has people who can provide leadership in multiple types of specific integrated science efforts.

Recommendation: Use these findings as a starting point for near-term strategic planning for integrated science. Highlight, incentivize, and build on existing interdisciplinary predictive science and information delivery activities across the USGS to advance toward further realization of an EarthMAP capacity.

The CAT efforts to develop and assess existing USGS capacity to advance the EarthMAP vision revealed a fundamental challenge for not only this effort but any effort to assess existing capacity: A considerable amount of thought, time, and effort is required to survey and assess capabilities and tools available to support a given need, yet best results are still likely to provide an incomplete assessment. To better meet the frequent need to assess capabilities, tools, products, and projects that address an expressed strategic priority, the CAT proposes the concept of an on-demand capacity assessment framework supported by a software package that dynamically pulls and integrates information from existing USGS information systems and public domain registries. Although existing USGS enterprise information systems currently lack the structure, cross-system consistency, interoperability, and stability to support a continuously updated capacity assessment capability, we identify reasonable near-term steps to improve the utility of information gathered on expertise and project capacity and to improve the consistency and completeness of information and the ability of USGS systems to share that information. The ability to search and characterize this information will make future assessments of capacity faster, more complete, more efficient, and more targeted. This approach would grow the Bureau’s capacity knowledge over time, iteratively improving the ability to access, leverage, and synthesize existing capabilities and assets as well as identify and fill critical gaps. The greatest promise for developing integrated science could lie in linking across existing projects and expertise to create a multi-project capacity for addressing large, complex environmental issues.