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What's At Stake If NASA's Earth Science Work Is Ended?

Dozens of fires burning in the Rocky Mountains in Montana were detected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite on the afternoon of August 19, 2003. In the image, fire locations have been marked in yellow. The fi
Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Last week a senior advisor to President-elect Trump said funding for NASA Earth sciences work should be cut dramatically, or just ended. Former Pennsylvania Congressman Robert Walker made those comments in the Guardian newspaper.

For perspective on what that would mean, Amy Martin talked to the chairman of the Earth Science Subcommittee for NASA’s Advisory Council. The chairman is Steve Running, who is a regent’s professor of ecology at the University of Montana. She asked Running if big cuts to NASA Earth sciences have been proposed in the past.

Steve Running: I've never heard that kind of proposal before. Now the NASA Earth Science budget goes up and down not only from year to year but certainly from administration to administration. But I've never heard anyone suggest that NASA should cut Earth Science – or even cut it way back in the sort of magnitudes that these interviews he's giving seem to be implying.

Amy Martin: So this was quite startling to you.

SR: I guess startling might be the right word. I think it's important to recognize not to overreact to this either. We really are at the point, at the moment, of just reacting to you what you'd almost call political gossip.

AM: Yes, yes. And that's partly why I wanted to you as someone who’s been involved with this at a pretty high level for a long time – do you have a sense of how much support — you know if this were a formal proposal — how much support it might be able to garner in Congress?

SR: Well I would start with the basic principle that I'll bet every single person in America wishes we had better weather forecasts; whether they're Republicans, Democrats non-voters. Everybody wants better weather forecasts that forecast out farther into the future. And the engine behind the weather forecasts we have today are NASA and NOAA-operated satellites that are looking at the Earth's climate system continually every three hours. And so I don't think when it became clear to either the public or to Congress that some of these budgetary suggestions would measurably degrade our weather forecasting capability, I doubt that they'd get much support. You look at hurricanes. We see the hurricanes coming days in advance. It didn't used to be that way before satellites.

AM: And can you talk about some other ways in which NASA Earth data are used?

SR: Things like wildfire monitoring is done by satellite. Agriculture of course — drought monitoring is something that goes on continuously. Anywhere on earth where there might be some military interest, which as we know can be literally anywhere; it’s of high importance to know where the soil's firm and where it's muddy, where the permafrost has melted and where there's ice and snow and where there's not. Things like the ocean temperatures can be important for various things. And you know, these are all routine measurements done by NASA Earth Science.

AM: Well, and that kind of point us toward the elephant in the room here. When we start talking about snow and ice and permafrost, that leads us into climate science. And from Mr. Walker's comments it appears that climate science in particular is his bugaboo. He said that said that climate research is necessary but it's been "heavily politicized." What is your response to that?

SR: Well as a climate scientist none of us feel worse than anybody about how much our science has been politicized. I mean we simply got into this field to try to understand the Earth system and try to take very exact measurements as best we can. And it's to our horror that people turn this into a political football when we're just trying to deliver facts. And we, as much as he or more so, wish we could de-politicize the basic facts and recognize that these facts are facts, and move the discussion into what we're going to do, which very rightfully has lots of different opinions and lots of controversy. But the controversy should not be about the facts. And so if I'm interpreting what he's saying on this level I agree with him completely.

I think there's more acknowledgement of the of the climate science than appears in the media. It's kind of too bad that in the Republican Party they've kind of been forced to make a certain public posture on climate science. And yet you talk to individual Republican politicians and they'll quietly say, "yes, we know this is real, we just aren't in a position to move forward yet." And so the real the real controversy is what we're going to do about it. But I wish we would frame it that way.

AM: Another quote from the Guardian article with Mr. Walker said Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission. He talks about how he thinks NASA should be looking in the other direction – out into space instead of back at the Earth. Is there any validity in that? I mean, should we go ahead and do this research, but do it through NOAA or some other agencies?

SR: In fact you go back and look at the original charter of NASA, and there are very clear words directing NASA to study both the earth and outer space, and of course provide manned space flight to outer space. But the earth component of NASA's mission has been there from the very first day.

NASA works hard to get the right balance of where to invest the money that Congress sends it. And this is done with rocket scientists, the real rocket scientists, the best rocket scientists in the country sit there and think, "How do we best use these dollars for this mix of amazing, mind-blowing planetary sorts of science, and then on the other hand, Earth science right here at home for very critical information that we need every day of the week." Competition within NASA has gone on forever and will continue, and I like to think that the best decisions are made by the people that know the most details on what's possible and what's potentially the next round of science that NASA can offer the country.

AM: I know we've focused really heavily here on NASA Earth, but I can't let you go without asking in a general way – what are some of the things on the top of your agenda that you're watching during this political transition related to environmental policy.

SR: The biggest thing I see overall, and fear, is that we start sliding back on our shift to non-fossil energy sources that we're now just really getting momentum on. And what I fear from this sort of speculation you read around this new administration is that they would turn some of that back. And I think on a worldwide basis the momentum is already strong enough that any one country can’t turn it back. But we certainly could make the U.S. less competitive in the global energy market of the future if we decided to go backwards right about now in energy policy.

But this speculation has just gone into overdrive. I guess I would hope everybody maybe calms down a bit before we go too far over the edge in wild speculation of things that may not ever even be a formal policy recommendation.

AM: So take a deep breath and wait and see?

SR: Yep.

AM: Sounds like good advice thanks. Thank you I really appreciate your time.

SR: All right. Yeah thanks.

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