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FYI Number 79: May 27, 2005

NASA's Plans for Earth Science Challenged at Hearing

"The Earth science program doesn't exist as some secondary adjunct of the exploration program." - House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

Members of the science community and leaders of the House Science Committee warned NASA at an April 28 hearing that efforts to cut Earth science funding and missions at the space agency would not be taken lightly. The panel of witnesses included the president-elect and two past presidents of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), an AIP Member Society. They testified to the scientific value and societal benefits of Earth science research, and to NASA's critical role in the nation's Earth science program. "For the foreseeable future, Earth is our only home, and we owe it to our children and theirs to understand how to live here to the betterment of all," said Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a former AGU president.

A just-released interim report by a National Research Council (NRC) committee states that the vitality of NASA's Earth science and application programs "has been placed at substantial risk by a rapidly shrinking budget that no longer supports already-approved missions and programs of high scientific and societal relevance." The NRC Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space was asked by NASA, along with NOAA and the USGS, to develop the first "decadal survey" of opportunities and priorities in the field, as the Administration considers a new national strategy for Earth science research and applications. While the committee's final report is expected in late 2006, explained committee co-chair Berrien Moore of the University of New Hampshire, this interim document "provides an early examination of urgent issues that require attention prior to publication of the committee's final report."

According to the interim report, "the current U.S. civilian Earth observing system, operated by NASA, NOAA, and the USGS, is at risk of collapse.... NASA has no plan to replace its Earth Observing System (EOS) platforms after their nominal six-year lifetimes end...and it has cancelled, scaled back, or delayed at least six planned missions." The report continues, "These decisions appear to be driven by a major shift in priorities at a time when NASA is moving to implement a new vision for space exploration. This change in priorities jeopardizes NASA's ability to fulfill its obligations in other important presidential initiatives" such as the Climate Change Science Program and the U.S. role in the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. It also indicates that NASA is considering transferring capabilities from some cancelled missions to the joint NOAA-DOD National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). "The bottom line appears to be that NASA's Earth Science program faces the prospect of being marginalized in the coming years as the agency puts its focus on the President's exploration initiative," commented Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN).

The first witness, NASA Associate Administrator for Science Alphonso Diaz, testified that NASA maintains "a continuing commitment" to Earth science, as it works with NOAA to "transition to a strategy that better leverages our respective strengths." Diaz described the Earth science program in terms of its relevance to the exploration initiative: By "first understanding how to study Earth as a planet," he said, "we can better prepare for sending humans to the Moon and Mars and beyond." Valuing Earth science research only to the extent that it informs the understanding and exploration of other planets "is precisely backwards," declared Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). "The planet that has to matter most to us is the one we live on."

AGU President-elect Timothy Killeen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research argued that major changes to the Earth science program require "careful, thorough, and deliberative assessment.... The current pace of budgetary and program change in NASA is inconsistent with such an approach and could result in irrevocable damage to programs and scientific teams." Marcia McNutt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, also a former AGU President, cautioned against NASA's transferring "wholesale areas of NASA research...to another civilian agency" like NOAA. "NASA is simply the only civilian agency in the federal government that has the capacity, tradition, and track record to undertake the technical development to fuel tomorrow's discoveries," she said. Asked by Gordon whether NOAA would receive sufficient funds to take over certain responsibilities from NASA, Diaz replied that he did not "have the particulars with respect to the NOAA budget." "Having NASA claim that NOAA will take over activities when there is no indication of that in NOAA's plans or budget strains credulity," Boehlert said.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Ken Calvert (R-CA) defended the Administration's approach as "a better way of managing resources" and an attempt to help, rather than hurt, Earth sciences. In answer to a question by Calvert, Diaz stated that he did not think NASA had any intention of "abandoning Earth science."

"It sounds like the real problem," Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) remarked, "is that NASA is low on money because it's been given new missions and wasn't given the money to do them, so it's cutting and scraping...to get rid of what it can." He warned Diaz that "we regard this as a very big change" that should not be undertaken without the involvement of the research community and the consent of Congress.

The prepublication copy of the NRC report, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation," is currently available for on-line reading at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11281.html.

On a related topic, on April 18 a federal Interagency Working Group on Earth Observations released a Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System (IEOS). IEOS is the U.S. contribution to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, which is intended to foster the sharing and use of worldwide weather and environmental data from satellites, ocean buoys, weather stations and other Earth observing instruments.

According to the Strategic Plan, "our current system of observations is fragmented and incomplete." The 166-page plan "discusses the process for determining which observations should be integrated." The planning process, it says, will address technology and capability gaps; new capabilities on the horizon; and the development of infrastructure, information products, tools and web-based services for current and future applications. The "Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observing System" can be found at http://iwgeo.ssc.nasa.gov.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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