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Geological Survey Chief Steps Down

After more than 3 years of overseeing the nation's biggest natural resources research and mapping agency, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) director Gordon Eaton yesterday announced his retirement, effective 1 October.

Eaton oversaw a tumultuous period in the history of the $746 million agency, when it went through drastic downsizing and reorganization while weathering threats from Congress to shut it down. Many of Eaton's changes have been controversial. His emphasis on applied research in the survey's Geological Division, for example, raised worries that basic research in areas such as earthquakes and geochronology was being eroded. And some USGS scientists have charged that a massive layoff in that division in 1995 was conducted illegally.

Yesterday's announcement also fueled speculation that it was related to yet another controversial action: a memo from Eaton 3 weeks ago ordering the survey's western headquarters in Menlo Park, California, to move to a cheaper location. Although the request originated with Eaton's boss--Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt--many USGS staffers say the announcement wasn't handled well. "My read is, he's being nudged," one scientist said. But in a lengthy memo yesterday to employees, Eaton noted that he was 65 when he became director and explained that "from the beginning it was understood that my tenure would be relatively short."

David Simpson, president of Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, notes that geological surveys around the world are under budgetary pressures as their old mission--inventorying mineral resources--becomes obsolete. "There is validity in [Eaton's] claims that they've at least survived the threat of annihilation," Simpson says. "I hope he's been able to set the stage for a stronger USGS." An acting director will be appointed by the end of the month.