Update | Here’s my ProPublica article on NASA and President-elect Trump’s advisors.
Donald J. Trump’s advisors have been pushing for a reboot of the mission of NASA, focusing more on exploration of extraterrestrial
space and less on studying the one planet we know is inhabited by 7.35 billion people, with at least a couple of billion more coming along before humanity’s puberty-style
growth spurt shifts to something new past 2050.
Media coverage so far has focused on the prospect of the Trump administration killing off NASA’s research on climate change,
but the issues are much broader.
The advisors are Peter Navarro, an economist and professor of business at the University of California, Irvine, and Robert Walker, a former member of Congress from southeastern Pennsylvania who was chairman of the House Science
Committee from 1995 to 1997 and chairman of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, which issued a final report in 2002.
Their view is most succinctly articulated in this line from a Spacenews.com commentary on Oct. 19: “NASA
should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.” Walker stirred things afresh with comments on the “politicized”
nature of NASA climate science in The Guardian last Wednesday and on CBC Radio.*
For starters, their argument presumes that “Earth-centric work” is best handled by other agencies. Read on for more on that point, including input from a variety of analysts, including former NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati (now at the University of Colorado, Boulder).
A similar priority shift at NASA was pursued under the administration of President George W. Bush a decade ago, when appointees at the space agency eliminated this line from
the NASA mission statement: “To understand and protect our home planet.”
It’s important to note that this line had only been added in 2002, but Earth-centric work has been part of the agency’s core mission under
Republican and Democratic administrations for decades, as Eric Berger laid out nicely in the Houston Chronicle last year during probes by Republicans in Congress.
Indeed, setting aside the 2006 mission-statement adjustment, during the Bush administration the agency’s leaders acknowledged and even emphasized the importance of space-based Earth science. Here’s
an excerpt from the 2006 NASA Strategic Plan under administrator Michael W. Griffin:
Earth is changing on all spatial and temporal scales. The purpose of NASA’s Earth science program is to develop a scientific understanding of Earth’s system and its response to natural or human-induced
changes and to improve prediction of climate, weather, and natural hazards.
Earth science is science in the national interest. While scientific discovery from space is inherent in the Agency’s mission, NASA’s programs in Earth science also are central to three important Presidential
initiatives: the Climate Change Research Initiative, Global Earth Observation, and the Oceans Action Plan. NASA pioneers new global environmental observations and research, and works with other federal agencies
to improve the operational services they provide to the Nation. These services include: weather forecasting; climate prediction; natural hazard assessment, prediction, and response; and environmental management,
including air quality forecasting and land use assessment.
As for NASA’s $19-billion annual budget, most of the money is still spent on space-focused projects, both basic science and technology and existing systems.
About $1.5 billion is for (non Earth) planetary science, including spending on Mars missions and development of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The $2 billion for Earth science includes vital projects like sustaining the 43-year Landsat record of global land-imaging measurements. Science clarifying human-driven climate change and its impacts of human
communities and ecosystems is a subset of this broader suite of research projects.
It seems nearly impossible to break out a budget for NASA (or other agency) research that specifically focuses on climate change driven by greenhouse gases (the main focus of Trump’s advisors). I tried a decade
ago and tried again this morning, with no success. (There has to be a grad student who wants to dig in on this?)
You can sift the NASA budget request for 2017 and the $2.68-billion Global Change Research Program budget for 2017 ($1.54
billion of NASA’s Earth science research is including, constituting 58 percent of that total).
In his victory speech on Nov. 9, Trump pledged to listen to people with differing views:
For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.
Before the Trump administration coalesces and locks in views on how to prioritize NASA’s work and budget, not to mention the wider sweep of federal and federally-funded research on planet-scale environmental
change and risks, I hope some of the views below are considered.
To start, here’s the query I sent late last week to Navarro (with a request to forward the note to Walker, as well), copying James Carafano, a Trump advisor on foreign policy who has proposed in his work at the
Heritage Foundation eliminating the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy):
I appreciate many of the points you (Peter N) and Bob Walker have made in recent output (SpaceNews.com) related to NASA’s future and global-change research.
For several years during the George W. Bush administration, for instance, I tried to get a consolidated budget across 13 agencies for climate change research and always came up short. It is a bit of a morass.
But I find it worrying that the call to shift scientific research on Earth systems and change out of NASA isn’t paired with a call to raise the profile of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, created
under President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
I see a compelling argument that, wherever it happens, “Earth-centric” science (as per Walker/Navarro)
needs to be given emphasis, particularly as humanity goes through a period of peak population (~9 billion) and resource appetites in the next generation or so.
Why disrupt existing centers of excellence when invigorated cross-agency coordination could assure the goals and efforts in this arena reflect national priorities and are carried out efficiently?
Also, given that Earth is a planet, it’s not clear to me why planet-scale risks (not just greenhouse-driven climate change) would be better studied at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or
the like. The fine-grain focus of those agencies can miss big-picture change. Should the U.S. Geological Survey — which does a great job with earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. — be charged with assessing
what a mega-eruption like Tambora 201 years ago would do
to climate, crops, etc. now? That’s clearly a multi-agency question requiring lots of NASA input.
At the international scale, there’s a similar gap in clarifying, and planning, for rare but catastrophic geo-hazards with global scope, as a European Science Foundation paper concluded
Would love to discuss….
I’ll post an update when I hear from them or the transition team (I forwarded the note there, as well).
Here’s some of the input I got over the holiday weekend.
The first reply came from Bill Gail, the chief technology officer of Global Weather Corporation, a past president
of the American Meteorological Society and co-chairman of the National Academies’ 2017 Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space:
Neal Lane, Molly Macauley, and I wrote about the need for a strategic approach to Earth information in a 2007 Houston Chronicle op-ed motivated by recommendations from the 2007 National Academy of Sciences Decadal Survey. This
addresses your comment about [agency] integration, but also the critical linkages between science and business.
Yes, Walker makes some good points. As we noted in the op-ed, U.S. agencies are not optimally structured for the Earth information mission. If Walker were to focus on achieving this optimization, his points
might deserve serious attention. But he gives away his bias with comments such as “politically correct environmental monitoring.”
Whatever your perspectives on climate, environmental science/monitoring is foundational to any society. He seems to suggest it has little inherent value. What if we applied his logic to other information
domains? Should we complain that economics is so judgmental, and thus subject to being “political correct,” that the U.S. government should refrain from its use in planning future budgets? As
with economics, we need Earth information to plan our future: infrastructure, effective agriculture, efficient supply chains, disaster prevention. If politics is intertwined, we should unravel it to the
extent possible – but not throw out the entire field along the way….
If the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or National Science Foundation were really better homes for Earth science, it would make sense to adjust agency roles. But NOAA’s culture
and processes are not consistent with exploratory Earth science, and the N.S.F. has no expertise in space. Moving NASA science to them would involve big commitments to their restructuring and budgets. Given
this…, it seems NASA is currently the right place. That, I believe, is the un-politicized answer.
Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut who has devoted recent years to improving humans’ capacity to identify and possibly deflect asteroids or other near-Earth objects offered this trenchant thought:
When it comes to understanding the home planet, as a whole, as an integrated system that supports life, it seems to me NASA is best positioned to provide this service to humanity.
I think Bill said it extremely well. The only thing I would add is when it comes to building satellites there is an efficiency/benefit that comes from having the spacecraft development infrastructure for Earth
observations in the same organization that builds spacecraft for other purposes – planetary and astrophysics. There are procedures and practices that have evolved over decades in this pursuit that would
have to be reconstituted…. Building spacecraft that work is hard, and it is in the interests of the nation, I believe, to have those engineering capabilities for Earth science in an organization that
regularly does this for space exploration as a whole….
What is really needed is a thoughtful well-integrated Earth observation strategy that goes well beyond figuring out what goes to what agency. At least when the responsibility lies essentially with NASA, strategic
planning can occur within the Agency. If it distributed among multiple agencies, or in the hands of an agency that has a mission that is much more focused than the broader understanding of the Earth, we are
at great risk.
Abdalati also noted that the emphasis on NASA’s role studying Earth dates from the Reagan administration, during which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 1958 was amended in 1985 to
add as an objective “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth” along with “phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”
I agree we need better coordination among the science agencies (although the U.S. Global Change Research Program should be doing much of this, in theory) and the operational
agencies. In my experience the real challenge has been getting the science into actionable format for the policy makers and then to the operators. We also need the policy makers to better frame the questions
that they need the scientists help on. As my swan song in the Obama Administration, I led the development of the President’s Memorandum on Climate Change and National Security.
That was our initial attempt at defining the issues and questions at least on national security. The document sets up a task force chaired by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security
Council and requires an action plan by the end of the Obama administration.
Of course, it’s not clear what happens to that work on January 20. But, based on the dozens of interagency meetings held to get to this document (which as with most presidential orders reflects agency
consensus), I believe there is deep support among career employees to continue this work. And after decades of government employment, it’s my observation that career employees can often accomplish a lot
even in the face of unsupportive leadership. Of course, the urgency with which we must address the climate challenge makes this a very worrisome approach.
To answer your question, as with other crosscutting risks such as cyber security and biological threats, no federal agency or entity is well positioned to integrate the risk management challenge. In the federal
government, in my experience, agencies often act like humans — except in a crisis, they prefer to avoid having to follow another agency’s direction.
Amy Luers, who is wrapping up a year spent working on climate resilience and information at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy,
sent these insights:
There seem to be two distinct but related issues here: (1) Maintaining and strengthening data collection, (2) Coordinating and integrating science for managing systemic risks.
My experience is that agency collaboration ranges from poor to failure when it is around program development — and there is competition. But if all agencies come to the table as equals around solving
problems then collaboration improves. This is why my focus while at O.S.T.P. has been public-private collaborations, and working through the Global Change Research Program to address problems. A couple
of examples that I developed include: the Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness
In both of these, multiple agencies come together to help communities solve problems, draw on their programs and look for synergies and opportunities to leverage non-government efforts. When people in agencies
are looking to solve problems – interagency collaboration can really work.
I think Alice’s approach to national security was similar — get agencies around the table to address a problem — not simply coordinate programs.
On integrating science on systemic risks, the structure for that integration does not exist. I also believe that we may need to approach this through public-private collaborations. But of course the U.S. government
would need to play a pivotal role in this.
“NASA emphasizes importance of Earth science given concerns about budget cuts,”
by Jeff Foust, published in Space News on Nov. 11.
“Under Trump, NASA May Turn a Blind Eye to Climate Change,” by Lee Billings, published
by Scientific American on Nov. 23.
“Advocate for Eliminating OSTP Appointed to Trump Transition Team,” Mitch Ambrose, American Institute
of Physics Science Policy News, Nov. 23.
Postscript | * Updated at asterisks. Related Twitter items:
A collection of scientific societies and education organizations, led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have sent President-elect Trump a letter urging him to name a cabinet-level science advisor.
This may be hard to square with the views of Trump’s foreign policy advisor James Carafano (see links in the post and here):
Science .orgs urge Trump to name cabinet-level science advisor. https://t.co/w9ZS2NPsuA Hard to square with @JJCarafano advisory role?
Here’s the second detailed critique of Robert Walker’s assertions on NASA climate science from the blogging astronomer Phil Plait:
Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) redoubles criticism of Trump advisor’s disastrous plan to gut NASA Earth science. https://t.co/kIUbvyGuGa @Slate
David Titley, a retired Navy rear admiral and former Oceanographer of the Navy, has written perhaps the best overview of the value NASA Earth science provides to society and why more such work is needed, not less:
My thoughts on @NASAEarth funding in a #TrumpTransition https://t.co/ykkwseNclI via @ConversationUS
Coda | Dot Earth’s 2,800-plus posts will live on, but I’m moving to ProPublica on Dec. 5. Read the back story behind this blog at Times Insider,
my reflection on 30 years of climate reporting and stay connected with me on Twitter or