Wednesday, May 04, 2011

In Praise of Obscure Government Research Labs

In graduate school, I studied the esoteric of the esoteric, flow through porous media with application to understanding earthquakes. Hardly anyone else was doing this kind of work and hardly anyone else was doing the “broader” work that it was based on, groundwater hydrology. The research from my dissertation has been cited in the literature about 150 times; that’s not exactly an indication of overwhelming impact, but in groundwater hydrology it’s hitting a homerun research-wise. There are maybe 300 groundwater researchers in the world of any note and about 10,000 who work on very applied problems – water supply, water contamination and whatnot – in the field.

Why did I study something so esoteric? I liked it! Plus unlike math, it was a field with reasonable employment prospects in research. If I could manage to get accepted into a highly regarded school and do well dissertation-wise, I knew I would have a reasonable shot at a real research job or academic position. That’s exactly what happened. I took a job with an obscure government agency that offered a tremendous amount of research freedom, the US Geological Survey (USGS), well before I received my Ph.D. In fact, that agency funded my Ph.D. research.

At the time, the USGS was a research powerhouse in geology and geophysics. There were some incredible people there, smart and enthusiastic. The quality of research was, on the whole, better than you’d find in any academic institution. Some of the senior researchers were members of the National Academy of Sciences. But it was clear that the heyday of academic research in the government was coming to a close in all but the health sciences. I felt that I was a member of the last group of Ph.D. research-grade hires that would be made in the agency.

It was a plum job in a lot of ways. There was one big problem, though: with every senior researcher who retired, the place got emptier and emptier. It got to be sad just how cavernous the office was getting. In my section of the building, I walked in to turn on the lights every morning. At the end of the day, I was also the one who turned them off. I started to get the feeling that if I died behind my desk, I wouldn’t be discovered for a week.

I’m a recluse by nature, but this was too isolating an environment even for me. I took an academic position at Duke after two years at the USGS even though from a research standpoint I knew I was taking a bit of a step down.

Most of the group of hires of which I was a part stayed. They are in their 50s now. All of them could have done what I did, taken an academic job at a good to great school, but they tend to be even quieter and more reclusive than me. In fact, I was considered the outgoing and outlandish one of the bunch. It’s all relative, I guess. I’m eccentric as hell and not at all shy, but outgoing and extroverted? Um, no.

I was right in my assessment that no new hires would be made. Those 50 year old men and women that were hired with me are still the “young people”. In another fifteen years, they will collectively turn out the lights of the place.

Will anything be lost with the demise of the USGS? Its employees are doing esoteric research in an organization known by almost no one. At face value, the answer to my question is a definite no. But that surface-based assessment is undoubtedly wrong. Here is an example why.

Last year as everyone knows, a BP well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. At first the engineers at BP tried to get a handle on plugging the hole on their own. They didn’t know what the f*ck they were doing. The government intervened. Who did they bring in as experts? People who knew about drilling wells and about flow in porous media. In fact, they brought in friends of mine from the USGS, those obscure researchers from an obscure research agency.

One of my friends got a call from Houston while he was on his way to Nome, Alaska to do research. “We need you here to stand up to these jerks from BP,” he was told.

My friend declined. “Well hydraulics isn’t really my area of expertise,” he said. “You need Dr X.”

“But Dr. X won’t be able to stand up to those assholes. Sure he knows his stuff, but he’s too quiet and shy. They’ll never listen to him.”

“He knows more about that field that anyone. If they don’t listen to him, they’re idiots.”

“Are you sure, you can’t come?”

“Yeah, call Dr. X.”

“If this doesn’t work out, we’re calling you back and flying you down here.”

The end result was that the government people from Houston, with great hesitation, flew Dr. X in. Dr. X really does, in fact, understand well hydraulics as well or better than anyone in the world. He is quiet, it’s true. But he is also very smart, very articulate, and works like a demon. He sat at the table with all those jerks from BP and even they seemed to realize that this man knew what he was talking about and knew far more than they did.

A critical juncture in the BP disaster occurred when a temporary cap was put on the well. Pressures in the well did not recover as expected. This was horrible news. It meant that at face value, the well was still unstable. It could potentially explode again; if it did there was zero chance that the gusher could ever be plugged permanently.

Dr. X was back in Menlo Park, CA at the time. The situation in Houston was extremely tense. The experts had to make a decision about what to do with the temporary cap. The evidence they had suggested that the cap should be removed. The night before the decision was made, Dr. X decided to do something highly unusual. He went back to his office, took a computer model written for groundwater flow and modified it for oil. Then he stayed up all night and used that model to simulate oil production in the oil reservoir tapped by the BP well.

Dr. X wasn't allowed access to BP data to check his model results with real world numbers, but someone essentially stole what was needed by taking a picture of some data with a cell phone camera. With those data, Dr. X could feel confident about what he had done. His results indicated that the pressures were low in the well because the reservoir had already been partly depleted by prior pumping from other wells.

In his opinion, the temporary well cap was doing its job. The BP well was stable. The cap could stay until a permanent one was fabricated.

Without Dr. X’s work, the temporary cap would have been removed and oil would have gushed out of the BP well for I don’t know how many more weeks. There would also have been doubts that a permanent cap could be effective. Dr. X’s all-nighter of computer modeling saved the day.

Take away that obscure researcher from an obscure government agency, and I know the outcome would have been far worse. Suppose, in fact, there had been no USGS at the time of the BP spill. The government likely would have had to bring in an academic to counter the cowboys of BP. They would have brought in someone like me. Would I have done what Dr. X did? Would even my friend working in Nome, Alaska done what Dr. X did? The answer is undoubtedly no.

It’s not just a matter of expertise. It’s also a matter of mood and attitude. I know what would have happened had I been in Houston. I would have gotten caught up in the emotion of battling those cowboys from BP. I would have been steaming too much to go into reflective mode, sit in my office, be creative, and just do the work necessary to show what was really happening in the well. You needed someone quiet and calm for that job, someone relatively egoless. People in academia, including me, just aren’t like that.

Dr. X’s real name is Paul Hsieh. I’ve known him for decades. My hat is off to him. And when they shut down research at the USGS in another fifteen years or so, this nation definitely will be poorer for it.


Ralph said...

As I've mentioned here before, although I'm not really a hydrologist, I did some consulting work while I was in graduate school for which USGS streamflow measurements spanning several decades were indispensable. Even if that were all I knew of the agency, I would hold it in high regard.

The declining support for the USGS is typical of the present period of self-inflicted senility in the United States. Even so, it surprises me a little. The work of the USGS has presumably been of considerable value to mining interests, including oil companies. I don't know whether an individual company would even be capable of mounting a private research effort of equal quality, and it would surely be expensive. One might therefore suppose companies like BP, which exert vast influence on the United States government, would encourage continued support for the USGS, but perhaps this supposition credits the leaders of such companies with an undue degree of foresight and prudence.

fortyquestions said...

The USGS won't go away. But the research arm will disappear. The agency will continue to do data gathering and applied problem solving, essentially operating like a consulting firm for the government on water/carbon/biological resources.

The number of Ph.D.'s working in the USGS was always small and they were a tiny part of the budget. But without those people, critical societal issues that require brainy researchers will not be addressed appropriately.