Concerns Expressed Over Earth Science Funding, Data Continuity

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Publication date: 
17 August 2007

“We will enter the next decade with an [Earth] observing system that is substantially less capable than we had at the start of the 21st century,” testified Eric Barron, Dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas, Austin, during a June 28 hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

An earlier February hearing highlighted the fact that NASA’s Earth Science and Applications budget has dropped approximately 30 percent in constant dollars since 2000, and that the number and capability of Earth observing missions and instruments is slated to continue declining throughout the decade (see The June hearing explored whether NASA’s FY 2008 budget request of $1.497 billion for Earth science and applications programs would enable the space agency to implement the recommendations of the January National Academies’ “decadal survey” - the first such survey for this field.

Subcommittee chair Mark Udall (D-CO) used phrases like “worrisome,” “in disarray,” and “at risk of collapse” in describing the Earth observing system, but Ranking Minority Member Tom Feeney (R-FL) defended the program. Are NASA’s plans and current budget constraints an indication of “reduced commitment” to a robust science program? “Emphatically no,” Feeney declared. He said the accomplishments might not happen “fast enough to satisfy” everyone, but that NASA was striving to fulfill the most important priorities.

Michael Freilich testified that his primary objective as Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division was to expand NASA’s leading role in Earth system science by reinvigorating the flight mission portfolio; hastening the transition to operational satellite systems; and expanding research and analysis, technology development, and education. The National Academies’ decadal survey, he said, would be NASA’s primary guide in developing the FY 2009 budget request and for the program over the next 10-15 years. Based on the survey, NASA would be issuing an update to its Earth Science Plan later this year.

Non-NASA witnesses asserted that the proposed budget was inadequate to accomplish the recommendations of the decadal survey. Richard Anthes, President of the Universities Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said that the program was adequately balanced across elements, and that NASA was “doing a good job with what they have, but they just don’t have enough.” Barron said the “modest increase” requested for FY 2008 might be an indication of a reversal in the “steady erosion of capability,” but would still result in significant gaps in long-term observations.

Continuity of measurements was a key topic during the question-and-answer period. Frielich explained that some instruments would require on-orbit overlap with their replacements for calibration purposes, while other measurements “could survive with a [data] gap or degradation.” He acknowledged that essential continuity “is number one on our list” because it is “essential for us to redeem the nation’s previous investment” in Earth science measurements.

Another major topic was the National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS); a recent restructuring of the NASA-NOAA joint project had reduced its focus to weather forecasting and deleted or reduced much of the climate science capability. Freilich reported that NASA and NOAA are working with OSTP and the National Academies to understand the implications of this restructuring, determine which climate measurements are most critical, and develop plans for mitigating the impacts and restoring the highest priority capabilities in some way. NASA and NOAA have already agreed to share costs to restore a suite of ozone mapping instruments. The witnesses noted that the decadal survey was almost complete before the implications of the NPOESS restructuring were fully understood. The survey committee had assumed that a basic set of climate observations would be performed by NPOESS; the survey’s recommendations were built on that foundation. Freilich concurred that many of the recommended missions rely on measurements that initially were planned for NPOESS.

In light of the limited funds available, the decadal survey emphasized the importance of international collaborations to share the burden and leverage resources. Freilich said that NASA has begun to pursue many types of potential collaborations and agreements. Asked about the impact of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), he said they posed a challenge but it could be surmounted. Anthes countered that ITAR issues at times could actually prevent international collaborations.

Barron expressed frustration that for the last 20 years, there have been discussions about how to make the Earth observing system more robust, but it continues to face repeated crises. “Each time...your worst nightmare arrives one more time,” he complained. “It strikes me,” he continued, that the nation “is in worse shape, not better,” in terms of designing an effective observing system without gaps in data continuity.

“I keep hearing” comments that NASA “will make the best efforts possible given the resources available,” Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) said; “I think that’s a huge cop-out.” He added, “this country can afford to do this,” but it cannot afford not to. If the nation spends many billions of dollars in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he asked, how will it know if the effort is effective without adequate monitoring capabilities? The cost of not implementing a robust Earth observing system is huge, while “the cost of getting on with very, very small,” he declared. “We’ve just got to do it.”

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