Senators at a confirmation hearing for geologist and astronaut James Reilly of Colorado Springs sought assurances he would not allow political manipulation to interfere with good science if he is chosen to lead the U.S. Geological Survey.
"It has been my experience that good science is absolutely critical to the development of good policy," Reilly said.
Reilly, 63, was introduced at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing by Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who described him as "a uniquely qualified candidate" to lead the U.S. Geological Survey.
Gardner credited Reilly with contributing to discoveries of natural gas deposits in northwestern Colorado's Piceance Basin while he worked as a geologist. The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2007 that the Basin contains five of the top 50 U.S. gas fields.
"Dr. Reilly has a deep understanding of the issues at hand," Gardner said.
The Republican senator added, "Not to mention that it's always nice to have someone with Colorado roots and ties serving our fellow Americans."
The U.S. Geological Survey is a scientific agency that studies landscape, natural resources and natural hazards, such as flooding, earthquakes and volcanoes. It has no regulatory authority.
Its scientists are supposed to warn of impending disasters and give government agencies information about appropriate mineral use.
The Geological Survey operates with more than 8,000 employees out of a headquarters at Reston, Virginia. It has major offices at the Denver Federal Center and at Menlo Park, California.
Senators during the hearing generally were friendly toward Reilly. However, they expressed concern over how he would handle political pressure, such as a recent controversy that led to two high-ranking geologists resigning or retiring in protest in December and January.
They said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked them for information about oil reserves in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska before it was published officially. They described Zinke's request as a violation of Interior Department policy that forbids giving out commercially sensitive information before it is released publicly.
Interior Department officials denied the allegation, saying Zinke was authorized to review the information under the agency's policies even before a public announcement.
Reilly did not address the dispute directly but did say, "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. "I'm fully committed to scientific integrity."
Reilly earned a PhD in geology at the University of Texas at Dallas. He spent 17 years in the oil and gas industry, rising to become chief geologist for Dallas-based oil and gas company Enserch Exploration Inc. He left in 1994 to become a NASA astronaut. He flew in three Space Shuttle missions during his 13-year career at the space agency.
More recently, he has worked as an advisor to the U.S. Air Force's National Security Space Institute in Colorado Springs and a management consultant.
He said he would follow a management strategy at the U.S. Geological Survey drawn from one of his former NASA commanders, who would track his colleagues' progress by asking them, "Do you have a plan, is it working and are you ahead or behind?"
He also said, "I have found, however, in my management roles in the private, academic, government and military sectors that highly competent, motivated people require little direct supervision from the top and I expect that would be the case at the USGS."
In addition to integrity issues, the U.S. Geological Survey faces a budget challenge. The Trump administration proposes a 20 percent drop in the agency's budget for next year to $859.7 million. Staffing would decrease 15 percent to just over 7,000 employees, under that budget scenario.
In response to a question about whether a reduced budget might have a negative "ripple effect" through the scientific community, Reilly said, "I don't have a good answer for you unfortunately."
He asked for 30 days to speak with staff members and assess the needs and priorities of the USGS.
Some senators asked Reilly for special attention to their home state issues, such as estimates of oil reserves in North Dakota and managing invasive species in Minnesota lakes.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, predicted approval of Reilly's confirmation would move "quickly."
Members of the Colorado Farm Bureau attended the hearing.