"NASA is being asked to do more than it can with the resources provided." That is a conclusion of a new position statement issued by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) on the future of Earth and space science at NASA. The statement cautions that Earth and space science may be declining in priority at NASA and are being "threatened by new financial demands placed on NASA by the return to human space flight using the space shuttle, finishing the space station, and launching the Moon-Mars initiatives." AGU calls for "the U.S. Administration, Congress, and NASA to continue their commitment to innovative Earth and space science programs."
The AGU, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics, held a press conference on June 7 to release the statement, "NASA: Earth and Space Sciences at Risk." The chair of the AGU panel that developed the statement, Eric Barron of the Pennsylvania State University, stated that planned reductions to NASA's Earth and space science programs could hinder future scientific advances and the societal benefits that flow from them, harming U.S. leadership and the "tremendous investment" the nation has put into these fields. He cited numerous benefits from Earth and space science research, from the "immediately practical," such as improved weather forecasting and long-term climate predictions, to the investigation of "compelling" questions about the evolution of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets. "NASA has a great deal on its plate," he explained, and "our concern is that the Earth and space sciences are becoming a lower priority."
In its FY 2006 budget request, the Bush Administration combined NASA's Earth and space science programs into a single Science Mission directorate, and requested for it $5.5 billion, a reduction of $51 million, or 1.0 percent, from the FY 2005 funding level for science. The FY 2006 budget documents show that NASA proposes to spend slightly more than $30 billion over the years FY 2006 to FY 2010 for the Science Missions directorate. According to Barron, this is a reduction of more than $1 billion compared to previous projections for the same time period.
Barron expressed particular concern over reductions to the small, "proposal-driven" Earth System Pathfinder and Explorer missions. What is being lost, he warned, is "the innovative aspects" of science. AGU's view, Barron said, is that the government needs to protect and support "the ability to innovate." He added, "if you want to add something more to NASA's plate, let's find the money for it," and not shift funding from "something that's every day proving its value to society." AGU President John Orcutt of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reiterated the concern that NASA's budget does not contain sufficient funding to adequately support its Earth and space science programs and, at the same time, the Moon-Mars initiative. He acknowledged, however, that cuts to NASA priorities such as space station assembly and the Moon-Mars initiative would probably not result in funding being shifted back to Earth and space sciences.
Asked whether the situation would be equally dire if the funding cuts and delays were only temporary, Barron and Orcutt both warned that lack of opportunities in the near-term could deter students from pursuing careers in the Earth and space sciences. Barron also expressed concern about the small number of missions in the planning stages and the amount of time needed to develop new missions once funding was restored.
The full text of the statement follows, and can also be found at the following URL: http://www.agu.org/sci_pol/policy/positions/earthspace_risk.shtml
"NASA: Earth and Space Sciences at Risk
"AGU calls for the U.S. Administration, Congress, and NASA to continue their commitment to innovative Earth and space science programs. This commitment has placed the U.S. in an international leadership position. It enables environmental stewardship, promotes economic vitality, engages the next generation of scientists and engineers, protects life and property, and fosters exploration. It is, however, threatened by new financial demands placed on NASA by the return to human space flight using the space shuttle, finishing the space station, and launching the Moon-Mars initiative.
"For over a quarter century, NASA and its international partners have pioneered extraordinary scientific advances in understanding the Earth, the solar system, and the universe. NASA's science programs and observations from space have greatly expanded our knowledge of the chemistry, biology, and physics of the ocean, the land, and the atmosphere. Scientific exploration by NASA has transformed our understanding of the universe.
"There are indications that Earth and space sciences have become a lower priority at NASA. NASA's proposed 2006 budget reduces science research by $1.2 billion over the next five years, a dramatic change. These cuts are almost equally distributed between the Earth and space sciences. They will decimate effective programs designed to promote innovation, research and development, and frequent, flexible access to space. For example, several inexpensive Earth System Pathfinder missions and Explorer class satellites for the space sciences have been eliminated or subjected to prolonged delays. These losses will degrade our weather forecasting, search and rescue, and life and property protection capabilities. They affect our ability to understand natural hazards, map changes in Earth's surface, forecast space weather, understand Earth-Sun connections, and explore the solar system.
"NASA is being asked to do more than it can with the resources provided. Shifting financial resources from science threatens vital investments and capabilities that have taken decades and tens of billions of tax dollars to build. AGU believes that the nation must capitalize on the extraordinary scientific advances of the last few decades and asks the U.S. Administration, Congress, and NASA to renew their commitment to Earth and space science research.
"Adopted by Council May 2005"