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USGS moves into new digs

New headquarters at NASA Ames offers opportunities for scientific partnerships

Laying the groundwork for a new epicenter for research, the U.S. Geological Survey this week formally kicked off plans to relocate to a new headquarters at Moffett Field. The transition, which is expected to take three years, will eventually close the USGS West Coast science center in Menlo Park and bring its 420-person workforce to the NASA Ames Research Park.

At a July 10 ribbon-cutting event, USGS and NASA senior officials touted the possibilities the move would create for the two federal science agencies to work together. USGS, best known to Californians as the agency that monitors seismic activity, is expected to coordinate with NASA on a host of future projects, using newer technology and automated equipment to pursue its research.

"This relocation sets that stage for a quantum leap in our partnership with NASA," said USGS Southwest Regional Director Mark Sogge. "This move ushers in a new era for USGS, and for me it's an incredibly exciting future."

On paper, the move to Moffett Field made perfect sense. USGS has reportedly paid $7.5 million a year to lease its Menlo Park offices, and that rent was expected to spike in the coming years. The new NASA offices were reportedly a bargain in comparison. By moving to Moffett, USGS officials say they could also consolidate their divisions under one roof.

But it is a bittersweet transition for USGS employees, many of whom have worked in Menlo Park for decades. When the move was first announced in 2014, Sogge said some staffers were "in tears" out of concern that their jobs would be on the line if the agency left the Bay Area. News of the pending move was kept a secret until it was revealed in 2016.

The biggest challenge now facing the agency is convincing nervous staffers that the move was a good choice, Sogge said.

The new USGS center is located at NASA Ames Building 19, a 1930s structure formerly used as a U.S. Navy barracks during the site's days as a military base. More recently, the building has been partitioned and leased for a variety of research startups and outside contractors.

At the ribbon cutting this week, the new USGS offices on the building's second floor were still mostly vacant, an expanse of empty cubicles and offices. A new air-conditioning system and IT network was installed in preparation for the move.

NASA officials at the ribbon cutting emphasized the potential to benefit from their fellow scientists at USGS. The earth sciences have plenty of overlap with the study of distant planets and moons, said David Alfano, chief of NASA's Intelligent Systems Division. In the coming months, he said his team would be working with USGS to automate aspects of their field research, such as using unmanned drones to track map changes to rivers and terrain.

In turn, NASA would benefit from the immense data collected by decades of geological research. That information could be loaded into a machine-learning system to help analyze other planets' geology.

"Bringing these agencies together gives us an amazing scientific talent pool," Alfano said.

By early August, USGS officials expect at least 200 employees to be in place at Moffett, and they gave assurances the transition wouldn't cause any interruption for their research.

What will take longer to relocate is the agency's advanced seismologic gear. In some cases, this equipment will need to be rebuilt. For example, USGS officials were still looking for a new site at Moffett Field to locate an 80-foot "seismic tower," used to quickly relay earthquake data from a network of monitors across the country. A full transition for personnel and equipment won't be complete until 2022, said Colin Williams, director of the USGS geophysics division.

And the new building, is it seismically safe?

"That was one of the first things we checked," Williams said with a laugh. "Our seismologists, they wanted to see all the structural work of this building before they moved in."

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