Feeding Frenzy at the Wildfire Research Trough: Science Committee Wants More For “Premiere” Science Agencies

I’m seeing a trend here. Yesterday I posted that folks at CEQ and NSC (!) seemed to be making decisions that formerly would have been made by agencies.  Well, the Democratic Science Committee seems to have produced a bill to organize the wildfire research trough without USDA and DOI.   Sure,  they are looking out for the agencies they are responsible for (they aren’t responsible for other science agencies).. but it sounds a bit like a takeover bid  for research long done by USDA and DOI.   Maybe legislators need to organize/collaborate in a way that coordinates budgets and responsibilities across committees?

For some of us, when the Science Committee says “premier science agencies” we wince a little, since we know that doesn’t mean us at USDA and USGS. It means Big Science or the Science Establishment which are, of course, the agencies the Science Committee works with.   It seems like not much has changed since I was OSTP in 2000. I may have told this story before, but we have many new readers, so here goes.

For those who haven’t worked with the DC Science Establishment, you would be surprised how much of it is about getting more research money for their institutions; and for the Big Science agencies, that means Big Bucks.  I worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at the Old Executive Office Building, now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.  It is a terrific building to work in, very historic, fossils on the floors, boarded up fireplaces and so on. They had old-sized offices, which meant that we Agency folks detailed there (known as Agency Representatives) had desks right next to each other. Mine was next to a nice gentleman from DOE.

At the time, the Los Alamos fires were big news.  Sure enough,  folks from Los Alamos came in and gave their spiel about how it had been brought to their attention that wildfire is a thing, and they needed lots of bucks to study it.  This happened in our office, so of course I asked innocently “doesn’t the Forest Service study wildfire?”.  At the time, I was working for Forest Service R&D, and the wildfire research folks were in my group, in fact my Forest Service boss at the time was Bill Sommers, a fire/atmosphere/climate scientist.  The Los Alamos folks just looked at me.. as if to say “they don’t really count, don’t you get it?”

I once had lunch with a Stanford physicist who was my boss’s boss in the OSTP chain of command.  He said that the problem with USDA (no joke) was that they had capped indirect costs.  Which was ironic given the Stanford yacht and weddings apparently procured with indirect costs..   He said “you can’t get the best minds working on something with a cap like that, no one from MIT would touch it.”  I can’t really imagine MIT folks working on wheat breeding, for example, in Kansas.  I was polite, since he was my boss’s boss, there but.. the lesson is that people really thought this stuff, and it sounds like they still believe their own hype (I thought that was the occupational hazard of politicians, but..)


I’ve noticed a generalized splatter of wildfire-ish funding patterns in the last few days.   The webinar yesterday at University of New Mexico on Chris Marsh’s work studying reforestation practices to help people planting trees was funded by NIFA, a USDA agency that funds extramural work, in this case via the AFRI competitive grant program.

Another useful study I ran across at NAU  on understanding peoples’ perceptions of wildfire was funded by NASA:

For her part, Grimm, who is the principal investigator on the project, got to work developing a survey to find out how people were getting information about wildfires and what information they might be missing.

“The purpose of the project is to really understand Flagstaff community members’ experiences — the challenges they might have experienced with wildfire communication,” Grimm said.

She wants to look at what people learned about operations such as fire mitigation, property defenses and evacuation preparedness. Then she wants to examine communication during an event — actual messaging about evacuation and on-the-ground firefighting efforts. Lastly, she seeks to research the qualitative experiences of individuals after a fire — how and if people learned about flood risk, insurance and funding availability.

I know it sounds somewhat like Katrin Edgeley’s social science work also at NAU, so I looked to see who was funding Katrin.  It looks like JFSP, NCAR and NSF (NCAR is what I call the Temple of Climate in Boulder, and is funded by NSF). Here’s what we know-wildfire is already a funding free-for-all among agencies.  And the D’s on the Science Committee want to increase the food at the trough for their favorite pigs.


But  maybe instead of more bucks, there should be a panel of the current science agencies and potential research users (imagine that!) to 1) figure out current overlaps and gaps and 2) require coordination among the agencies. Before any of them ask for more money.  Just a thought. But that would be a bill by the “Good Government” party which currently doesn’t exist. NSF’s budget for 2023 was 10.99 billion, while JFSP’s was 4 million.  Wouldn’t it make sense for some committee or board across agencies to recommend funding for agencies to do the research that they’re good at? And coordinate so research isn’t duplicative? And involve the communities that would be using the science in what are the problems and priorities?


Looking back through my career, it seems like there has been a tendency to move research from “what people say they need help with” to “what scientists want to tell higher level decision makers to do.”  There’s also been a tendency to move from the specific and local to the abstract and international.  And coupled a tendency to leave out local practitioners from involvement in priorities and in some cases having a voice at all.  Check out this paper about practitioners and the IPCC.

With lots of remote sensing and machine learning, I fear that people will be left out of the equation.  They may become the target of social science to see how they get the right “messages” via NSF’s “disinformation” research, and aren’t given agency in making decisions about what is studied and how.  Missing that link, science may lose trust and legitimacy among ordinary people.  What we see is anecdotal, what they tell us they’ve observed from a satellite is “science.”  The time to strengthen those connections. between the people and what should be their science, is now. IMHO.


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