As federal agencies go, the $1.1-billion-a-year U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tends to fly under the radar. Sidestepping controversy, its scientists quietly and reliably crank out reams of data on national concerns such as streamflow, earthquakes, and white-nose bat syndrome.
The agency likes it that way, says outgoing USGS Director Marcia McNutt. But a string of natural and humanmade disasters has placed it more often than usual in the public eye since McNutt became its chief in 2009. Back-to-back major earthquakes in Haiti and Chile were quickly succeeded by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly afterward, McNutt headed up the Flow Rate Technical Group, a dozen scientists and engineers from public and private institutions charged with estimating the flow of oil from the spill and determining what wasn't being captured. Their estimates proved critical in determining BP's liability for the spill. And last fall's Hurricane Sandy along the U.S. East Coast has kept USGS scientists hopping, assessing storm surges, the effects of erosion, and the pulses of sediment and pollutants thrust into waterways by the storm.
But, in McNutt's own words, "all good things must come to an end." Last week, McNutt announced her plans to depart USGS. Yesterday, she spoke with ScienceInsider about reorganizing USGS, the uncertain future of the Landsat Earth-observing program, and what she suspects will be the biggest headache for the next administrator.
Q: Compared with, say, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] or the Environmental Protection Agency, USGS doesn't tend to get a lot of attention or press. Is there any bitterness about that?
M.M.: [Laughs] No, no bitterness. We're happy that we don't make headlines. Compared to many federal agencies that have science in their portfolios, USGS is nearly unique in doing science without any regulatory or management responsibilities, which means that for a scientist coming in to run this agency, you get all the fun of doing science without any of the headaches of regulation or management. It means that you can bring all of your scientific integrity with you and not have to run afoul of special interest groups. In fact, USGS prides itself on giving just the scientific facts, free of policy bias. We have been approached many times by other federal agencies and by states at the same time—when the federal agency in question and the state might be in a fight about some issue. They both come to us as the neutral party to do the science, because they both trust us to give unbiased answers.
Q: Right, no controversy means no headlines.
M.M.: People don't attack the USGS! And the other thing is that so much emphasis in the USGS is on things like resiliency—making sure disasters don't happen. When disasters don't happen we don't get a headline. Like when we helped design the Alaskan pipeline to withstand a major earthquake. Well, a magnitude-8.2 earthquake happened, on the Denali fault, and the pipeline slid, on specially designed sliders, from stop to stop across the Denali fault— and not a drop of oil spilled because of that special design. And so there was no headline.
Q: So what are you proudest of from your time as head of USGS?
M.M.: There are so many things that have mattered to me on so many different levels. On a national level, one of the things that maybe made a big difference was my involvement in Deepwater Horizon. I think we showed that science made a difference and USGS science made a difference.
On an institutional basis, it might be bringing the USGS into the 21st century, in terms of how we're structured. USGS had been siloed into disciplines that operated like university departments—biology, geology, geography—and [we] remapped the organization onto problems that matter, such as energy and minerals, water, climate change, and natural hazards. That was a bold step that differentiated us from the academic environment; it said we're not just looking at the frontiers of science, but we're really focusing on immediate return for investment.
Q: So it created a sense of accountability?
M.M.: Yes, exactly. I think it's important that we demonstrate to Congress and the American people that we are really doing work on the problems that matter to them. And the third thing I would say I'm proudest of -- when I sent out that list of  accomplishments, it was posted on an internal USGS blog, and anyone could add their own comments. One of the ones that touched me the most was that one of the scientists made up his own accomplishment number 22. And it was: Even cranky old scientists in remote field stations are sorry to see you go.
Q: And what's your biggest disappointment?
M.M.: Well, I will say that it is maybe still a work in progress, and that is Landsat. We are launching Landsat 8 [on 11 February], but there is still not a plan in place for the continuity of Landsat missions. After Landsat 8 there's nothing in the hopper. I think it would just be tragic if what is now a 40-year record of land-use change and climate change were to end with Landsat 8. We just decided in December to decommission Landsat 5 because of too many instrument failures. We're hoping for a successful launch with Landsat 8, but we really need to have a solid plan for what's next.
Q: What do you think will be the toughest challenges facing your successor?
M.M.: During the years I've been here, the budget challenges have been growing ever more difficult, and I think that's going to be the biggest difficulty for my successor. The USGS mission has actually grown, and has grown more important -- we don't really do much in the way of geological surveys anymore. Our biggest mission is actually water; one of our next biggest is in the life sciences, ecosystems. And an emerging area for us is environmental health.
[USGS] has always had very close connections between water and climate change; I took the former head of the water group and put him in charge of the climate change group, because these areas are so connected. I truly believe our Achilles' heel in climate change is going to be water. So I wanted to take all of that understanding he has of the water mission and apply it to research we're doing in climate change.
Q: You were part of Obama's "dream team," and now several of you are leaving. What do you think that might mean for the future of science in the administration?
M.M.: I have to say, it wasn't long until we were hit with things like the oil spill and the Haiti earthquake, and the fact that I already knew people like [Energy Secretary] Steve Chu and [NOAA Administrator] Jane Lubchenco—to know these people and have their cell phone numbers and be able to call at a moment's notice, to have these people already know me, and not have to question motives—was such a leg up in getting off square zero and getting things done. It wasn't just that it was a team of good scientists, it was a team of people who already had a basis for mutual trust and understanding and collaboration. Even though many of us are leaving to get back to husbands who still need us, I hope that there will be another dream team that will come in and that they will have the same great experience that we had. It's customary for the National Academy [of Sciences] to weigh in on the appointment for the USGS director, and I know they have already got a committee in place, and are already hard at work.
Q: So what's next for you? There's a rumor going around that you might go to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is looking for a director. …
M.M.: [Laughs] It's so interesting to hear the rumor about Scripps—if I had thought what rumor would be going around, that's not the rumor I would have thought. All I can say is, when I first go back to California, I'm going to be unemployed. It is extremely difficult when you hold a political appointment to search for a job—it's just too much conflict of interest to negotiate with other entities. The better thing to do is just quit. My proximal plan is to accept a visiting appointment at some university while I do a job search. If I look seriously at what I think I'm best at, it was probably for my leadership. So I will probably look for a position where I can provide some kind of direction.