WASHINGTON – Senators pressed former astronaut James Reilly of Colorado Springs on his commitment to scientific facts Tuesday at his confirmation hearing to lead the U.S. Geological Survey.
Reilly, 63, said throughout his appearance before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources he would maintain the integrity of the agency and refuse to bow to political pressure.
“Science really depends on integrity,” Reilly, a former geologist in the oil industry, said after the hearing. “If you don’t have the integrity in the data, you can’t generate good policy.”
The senators’ concerns about scientific integrity stem from the resignation of a USGS department head in December over fears the agency was lacking political integrity. Reilly said he doesn’t anticipate politics should interfere with his work.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with science,” Reilly said. “Science, as I’ve mentioned, is all about delivering good data.”
If confirmed, Reilly would lead the agency responsible for monitoring earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, along with other geological occurrences, including tracking river water levels though the West.
“Western water in our home states is of great regulatory interest as a critical resource,” Reilly said.
Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner introduced Reilly at the confirmation hearing, advocating for his confirmation.
“Dr. Reilly is a tremendous nominee and more than qualified for this position,” Gardner said. “Not to mention that it’s always nice to have someone with Colorado roots and ties serving our fellow Americans.”
Reilly said he doesn’t have any particular areas of concern, but needs to catch up on his understanding of the pressing issues facing the USGS.
“(My primary concern is) just getting myself up to speed and understanding what the challenges are in front of the USGS from the national standpoint,” Reilly said.
Reilly said that if he is confirmed, he would take 30 days to review the agency and meet with staff.
During his 13-year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Reilly completed three space missions, logging 853 hours, or 35 days, in space. According to his biography from NASA, he also completed five space walks, totaling 31 hours. He retired from the agency in 2008.
He currently serves as an adviser to the U.S. Air Force’s National Security Space Institute in Colorado Springs.
As a graduate student at University of Texas-Dallas, he spent a year on a scientific exploration to Marie Byrd Land, West Antarctica.
After receiving his graduate degree, Reilly worked as an explorative geologist in the Gulf of Mexico for Enserch Exploration Inc., an oil and gas company. He ended his 15-year career in 1995 as the company’s chief geologist of the Offshore Region. He left the job to be an astronaut.
If the Senate approves his nomination, Reilly will take over for acting director William Werkheiser. The USGS is part of the Department of the Interior. Reilly would report directly to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The USGS has been threatened with budget cuts under the President Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s proposed budget would cut the agency’s funding by 21 percent.
Andrew Eversden is an intern with The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.