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
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
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
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
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
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.