A bureau of the United States Department of the Interior, it is that department's sole scientific agency. The USGS employs approximately 10,000 people and is headquartered in Reston, Virginia, where the entrance to the parking lot is marked by several stones from the Devils Postpile National Monument. The USGS also has major offices in Lakewood, Colorado (Denver Federal Center), and Menlo Park, California.
The USGS is the primary civilian mapping agency in the United States, and is best known for its 1:24,000 scale, 7.5-minute quadrangle topographic maps. Their recent program, the National Map, is an attempt to be the ultimate online mapping service for the United States. The USGS also has a vigorous Business Partners program through which they encourage the reselling of their maps so that the public can have quicker, easier access to information. Many commercial sites have capitalized on this program to provide web mapping services in conjunction with the USGS.
The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program monitors earthquake activity worldwide. The National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colorado on the campus of the Colorado School of Mines detects the location and magnitude of global earthquakes. The USGS also runs or supports several regional monitoring networks in the U.S. under the umbrella of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS). The USGS informs authorities, emergency responders, the media, and the public, both domestic and worldwide, about significant earthquakes. It also maintains long-term archives of earthquake data for scientific and engineering research. It also conducts and supports research on long-term seismic hazards.
The USGS also operates the National Wildlife Health Center, whose mission is "to serve the nation and its natural resources by providing sound science and technical support, and to disseminate information to promote science-based decisions affecting wildlife and ecosystem health. The NWHC provides information, technical assistance, research, education, and leadership on national and international wildlife health issues. It is the agency primarily responsible for surveillance of wild-animal H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks in the United States.
As of 2005, the agency is working to create a National Volcano Early Warning System by improving the instrumentation monitoring the 169 volcanoes in U.S. territory and by establishing methods for measuring the relative threats posed at each site.
In collaboration with Stanford University, the USGS also operates the USGS-Stanford Ion Microprobe Laboratory, a world-class analytical facility for U-(Th)-Pb geochronology and trace element analyses of minerals and other earth materials.
The motto of the USGS is "Science for a changing world."
The USGS also runs 17 biological research centers in the United States, including the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
Prompted by a report from the National Academy of Sciences the USGS was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1879. It was charged with the "classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain." This task was driven by the need to inventory the vast lands added to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Clarence King, the first director of USGS, assembled the new organization from disparate regional survey agencies. After a short tenure, King was succeeded in the director's chair by John Wesley Powell.
In December 2006, it was announced that the rules for the publication of USGS research were being revised. Employees were informed that USGS leadership and communications staff should be notified "of findings or data that may be especially newsworthy, have an impact on government policy, or contradict previous public understanding to ensure that proper officials are notified and that communication strategies are developed.
The revision was claimed not to change existing rules, but rather to emphasize the importance of maintaining the scientific integrity of the agency's work by requiring scientists to accept comments from the public and follow administrative policies. However, scientists have questioned whether this revision is likely to facilitate censorship of their work, as has been alleged by critics to have occurred in some Federal agencies under the administration of United States President George W. Bush.
According to the authors of this policy, USGS information is given to the public after it has been through a peer review and approval process. USGS leadership and communications staff are kept informed of relevant scientific findings so they can manage the flow of information to decision-makers, who use this information to make resource-management choices. Policy makers have said these principles and practices will bolster the USGS’s scientific objectivity and reputation.