James Reilly flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2001.


USGS nominee vows to insulate science from political pressure

Former astronaut James Reilly II pledged today to prevent undue political interference in U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientific research if he's confirmed as the agency's 17th director.

In an easygoing confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Reilly repeatedly reassured lawmakers that he would protect the integrity of what one senator termed the Interior Department's "premier science agency."

"If someone were to come to me and say, 'I want you to change this because it's the politically right thing to do,' I would politely decline," Reilly said, adding, "I'm fully committed to scientific integrity."

The hearing lasted less than an hour and showed that the 63-year-old Reilly enjoys widespread bipartisan support. His confirmation now appears all but assured, although with Senate procedures and potholes being what they are, the timing can't be guaranteed (Greenwire, Jan. 30).

"It's good to finally have a geologist nominated to head the USGS," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the committee, adding that she hopes to move Reilly's confirmation "as soon as possible" along with several other stalled Interior nominees.

At the same time, Democratic senators illuminated issues that will confront Reilly once he takes office. Repeated questions about scientific integrity, for instance, set Reilly up for answers that seemed targeted as much for USGS's 8,200 employees as for the handful of senators.

"It's an independent organization that's intended to deliver unbiased science to the decisionmakers," Reilly said of USGS, "and that will be one of the highest priorities that I'll have as the director."

The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, asked specifically about two geologists who left USGS following what they say was an improper request for energy information from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The former USGS officials say Zinke breached scientific integrity policies when he sought information on the energy potential within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska prior to its official publication (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

Reilly offered a nuanced answer, citing his past experience.

"I always felt I had a responsibility to deliver information to my leadership, particularly if it had an impact in how the leadership was supposed to respond to it ... with the understanding that the leadership would hold it as tight as I would."

I have found … that highly competent, motivated people require little direct supervision from the top, and I expect that would be the case at the USGS.

James Reilly, former astronaut

Budget pressures, too, will challenge Reilly, as several Democrats noted.

The Trump administration has proposed an $859.7 million budget for USGS in fiscal 2019, a 20 percent cut from the current year's level. The proposed budget anticipates full-time agency staffing falling 15 percent, to 7,040 workers.

Climate science comes in for an even bigger cut under the president's proposal. Funding for USGS's National and Regional Climate Adaptation Science Centers would shrink in half, while "climate research and development" funding would also fall to pay for what the budget request calls "higher priorities" (Greenwire, Feb. 8).

"The first thing I would do when I get there is I would spend the first 30 days really just talking to everybody in the mission areas, and then finding out where are the places we can cut without seeing any significant impacts," Reilly said.

Reilly was accompanied by his wife, Allison, who is a science teacher, and two of his children.

He was born in Idaho and resides in Colorado Springs, Colo. An avid fisherman, he earned three degrees in geosciences from the University of Texas, Dallas, with his 1995 doctoral dissertation titled "Geological Controls on the Distribution of Chemosynthetic Organisms in the Gulf of Mexico."

"My history with the USGS began in the early 1970s," Reilly recounted, noting that at a "scientific conference in 1976, I came upon a display of USGS literature which contained a publication on the first results of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite."

Reilly explained that he was "fascinated in seeing imagery of the geology and ecology of our planet at scales that were impossible to achieve previously."

The organisms Reilly studied rely on underwater oil and gas seeps, requiring him to spend 22 days in deep submergence vehicles. Earlier in his career, he took part in an expedition to Marie Byrd Land, West Antarctica, where the March temperatures hover around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Reilly spent 17 years in the oil and gas industry before joining NASA in 1994. Flying aboard the space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour, Reilly amassed more than 853 hours in space and completed five spacewalks before his 2008 retirement from NASA. Today, he drew some management lessons from his astronaut career.

"I have found ... that highly competent, motivated people require little direct supervision from the top, and I expect that would be the case at the USGS," Reilly said.

He currently provides "corporate training/team building" services through a Colorado Springs-based entity called Mach 25 Management. Clients have ranged from Lockheed Martin to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, according to his financial disclosure statement.

As often happens at confirmation hearings, senators tended to focus their questions on uniquely home-state issues. Today, these ranged from invasive species problems confronting Minnesota lakes to the work of a West Virginia research center and oil drilling-related concerns off the Louisiana coast.

Reilly offered to visit the relevant states.