Director of US Geological Survey Undermines How Scientists Study Climate Change

Published Dec 8, 2020

What happened: The US Geological Survey (USGS) Director edited the agency's operational manual to push climate models that are less likely to show the worst effects of climate change.

Why it matters: The USGS’ operational manual has major impacts on how the agency carries out its duties, and therefore this action codifies a climate model methodology that many scientists consider highly problematic. It is chilling that agency leadership wants its scientists to rely on methods that will make climate change look like a less serious problem than it is, an action that will inevitably hamper our government’s ability to use science to effectively respond to the threat of climate change.

According to Wired magazine, the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) operational manual for agency staff has a chapter edited by the Office of the USGS Director, James Reilly, that pushes a methodology which ignores the worst impacts of climate change.

Back in 2019, Reilly ordered USGS scientists to limit their climate models to only the year 2040, rather than to the end of the century as was the scientists’ normal procedure. This was highly criticized, since this methodology inevitably ignores the devasting consequences that climate change can cause decades later. This new action appears to build on this 2019 order, by defining a set of assumptions and best practices that USGS scientists can use to implement a similar highly problematic methodology. The methodology recommended in a new chapter of the USGS manual included an “initial assessment range” of potential climate impacts that stops at 2045 and it also prescribed best case and worst case scenarios that some scientists regard as far too optimistic. In regards to this action, one long-serving USGS scientist said that “I’ve never seen anything like this before. We’re being asked to follow bad science.”

On October 19, Reilly’s office sent around a draft chapter from the USGS manual, entitled, “Application of Climate Change Models to Scientific Investigation and Policy,” to several top scientists and advisors at USGS for review. The requested review was called a “fatal flaw review” and USGS scientists and advisors were only given five days to conduct the review. When reviewing, the USGS’ top scientist and other top advisors expressed strong concerns, stating that the new chapter would “cause substantial harm to both the USGS’ ability to carry out sound, peer-reviewed, impartial science, and to the USGS’ reputation.”

The reviewers had several strong objections to the new chapter. The reviewers criticized the fact that the chapter had not undergone peer review, which would undercut how scientifically valid the document was. Additionally, the reviewers felt that the new chapter did not meet USGS’ standards and that it likely violated USGS’ scientific integrity policy. Finally, the reviewers noted that chapter lacked sufficient citations and attributions, contained numerous scientific flaws, and that the chapter needed a “professional copy edit.”

According to the USGS’ website, the USGS Manual “establish[es] long-standing policies, standards, instructions, and general procedures with Bureauwide applicability.” The manual is an important document that acts as the agency’s operational handbook and includes directives and policies on a vast range of agency procedures, including fundamental scientific practices that govern the USGS’ publishing and peer review process. According to one senior USGS employee, “The Survey Manual has the force of policy. Not following it could be considered misconduct.”

USGS scientists should be granted the independence to carry out their scientific analyses without being forced to employ a high problematic methodology from a political appointee that is not in line with the scientific consensus. As the USGS reviewers noted, the draft chapter submitted by Reilly’s office likely constitutes a violation of the USGS’ scientific integrity policy and has the potential of greatly disrupting the high quality climate research produced by the USGS. We need the best available science to combat the devastating impacts of climate change, and political interference in how climate science is conducted will only impede our ability to effectively respond to this serious threat.