by Judith Curry
Defending NASA’s Earth Science Division, in terms that the Trump administration can relate to.
There is much angst in the earth science community (particularly the climate science community) about statements made by President-elect Trump and his advisors. A good summary is provided by an article in the Scientific American, excerpts:
Trump himself has been relatively mum about his plans for NASA. But in an op–ed published weeks before the election, two Trump space policy advisors—the former congressman Robert Walker and the economist Peter Navarro—wrote that the agency is too focused on “politically correct environmental monitoring” of climate change. Under a Trump administration, they wrote, NASA would prioritize “deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In recent years Republican lawmakers have sought budget cuts to climate change–related Earth science programs at all three agencies. Now set to hold majorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans appear likely to support forthcoming Trump administration proposals to pare back NASA’s Earth science budget, which grew by some 50 percent under the Obama administration.
“Earth science’s preferred growth under Obama—the fact that it has grown over all of NASA’s other science—has created a big political target on its back and validated, in a sense, Republican interpretations of its partisan nature,” says Casey Dreier, director of space policy for The Planetary Society. “And this is taking place in a new political dynamic of strong, near-universal condemnation and skepticism of climate change by the Republican Party, without a Democratic president and key members of Congress that used to push back. That’s a bad double whammy for Earth science.”
“This is not ideological,” Walker says. “When we talk about ‘deep-space activities,’ we’re talking about planetary science and space-based telescopes and all those kinds of things. There have been concerns among some of us that those sorts of NASA programs were robbed in order to concentrate on Earth science, and we want to reestablish the emphasis of NASA itself on the things that go beyond Earth orbit and Earth-observation activities.”
Response from climate scientists (and others)
There is a new twitter hashtag, #ThanksNASA, on why people (mostly scientists) appreciate NASA [link to BusinessInsider article]. A few good points; others that are not particularly helpful in persuading the Trump administration.
Marshall Shepherd in the WaPo: Cutting NASA’s earth science budget is short-sighted and a threat. He made one point that might score with the Trump administration:
The engineering, ground systems, science, and support work of NASA earth science missions is supported by some of the most vibrant private aerospace and science-technology companies in the world. And they are U.S. companies.
Phil Plait in Slate: Trump’s plan to eliminate NASA climate research is ill-informed and dangerous. I don’t think this argument will play well:
If this slashing of NASA Earth science comes to pass, it will be a disaster for humanity. This is no exaggeration: NASA is the leading agency in studying the effects of global warming on the planet, in measuring the changes in our atmosphere, our oceans, the weather, and yes, the climate as temperatures increase. . . . climate scientists like Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, and Katharine Hayhoe are speaking out.
An article in the Conversation:Five reasons why cutting NASA’s climate research would be a colossal mistake:
- NASA’s satellites are our eyes on the world
- Climate science is a key part of NASA’s mission
- NASA attracts the best of the best scientists
- NASA has transformed climate change communication
- Climate science can be NASA’s next great legacy
Point #1 is important; points #2, #4, #5 are not helpful in persuading a Trump administration.
NASA Science Mission Directorate
This is NASA’s science vision: using the vantage point of space to achieve with the science community and our partners a deep scientific understanding of our planet, other planets and solar system bodies, the interplanetary environment, the Sun and its effects on the solar system, and the universe beyond. In so doing, we lay the intellectual foundation for the robotic and human expeditions of the future while meeting today’s needs for scientific information to address national concerns, such as climate change and space weather. At every step we share the journey of scientific exploration with the public and partner with others to substantially improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education nationwide.
SMD organizes its work into four broad scientific pursuits: Earth Science, Planetary Science, Heliophysics and Astrophysics.
There is an old statement of the NASA mission (circa 2002), that I think was particularly good:
- To understand and protect the home planet
- To explore the universe
- To inspire the next generation of explorers
. . . as only NASA can.
Looking specifically at what goes on now in the NASA Earth Science Division:
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.
NASA’s ability to observe global change on regional scales and conduct research on the causes and consequences of change position it to address the Agency strategic objective for Earth science, which is to advance knowledge of Earth as a system to meet the challenges of environmental change, and to improve life on our planet.
Details about Earth Science research:
Earth Science Focus Areas
- Atmospheric Composition
- Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems
- Water & Energy Cycle
- Climate Variability & Change
Research and Analysis Disciplines:
- Physical Oceanography
- Terrestrial Hydrology
- Cryospheric Science
- Space Geodesy
- Modeling and Analysis
The Research Program Structure is as follows:
- Research and Analysis – mainly individual investigator competed activities, organized predominantly around scientific disciplines
- Mission Science Teams – support for investigators affiliated with individual satellite missions or groups of closely related missions
- EOS Science – includes calibration/validation for EOS (satellites) and interdisciplinary science, as well as EOS project science office
- Airborne Science – includes operation of aircraft platforms and investments to support bringing new capability into NASA airborne science programs
- High End Computing – includes investment in supercomputing capability to support community and infrastructure needed for its use
Here is where the tension lies:
- Republican administrations typically enhance funding for ‘space’ (the other three Divisions), whereas Democratic administration typically enhance funding for ‘earth’, with Obama’s administration massively increasing funding for climate-related research (the neglect of the other Divisions, even within Earth)
- ‘Discovery’ science — the gee whiz and exhilaration of fundamental new discoveries about our universe — versus the more mundane collection of Earth observations
- The framing and selling of too much of Earth Science in terms of human-caused climate change
- Using ‘as only NASA can‘ as a filter, there are clearly some elements here that other federal agencies do, and in some instances do better than NASA.
- Politicization of NASA climate science by some NASA scientists in administrative positions.
Politicized science at NASA
A recent article in Business Insider: A NASA scientist told us why Trump — his new boss — won’t stop him from studying climate change. The NASA scientist is Gavin Schmidt, who is now Chief of Lab at NASA GISS.
The concerns about politicized climate science are focused directly on NASA GISS; Gavin’s predecessor as Chief of Lab was Jim Hansen. Jim Hansen is an activist and policy advocate, specifically related to eliminating coal and overall regarding the urgency of eliminating CO2 emissions. He was arrested in 2009 and 2010 in demonstrations, while he was still Chief of NASA GISS. As the Chief of GISS, he had oversight over the GISS climate model, as well as the NASA surface temperature data set used to evaluate the GISS climate model. There were some obvious concerns about objectivity; not just Jim Hansen personally, but his impact on objectivity of the entire institution of NASA GISS.
With regards to Gavin Schmidt, he is not an activist in the mold of Jim Hansen, and does not advocate for specific solutions to human caused climate change, although he has spoken of the need for zero emissions while acknowledging the practical issues of this and the need for adaptation. The key concern about his objectivity relates to the blog RealClimate, which he founded and apparently still plays a major role, which has served as an outlet for a major activist/advocate: Michael Mann. From amazon forum: Is realclimate real? Follow the money. Lots of details about concerns about RealClimate objectivity.
Yahoo poses the following question: Is real climate.org biased? Realclimate.org is funded by Environmental Media Services, founded in 1994 by Arlie Schardt, a former journalist, former communications director for Al Gore’s 2000 Presidential campaign. EMS is closely allied with Fenton Communications. Fenton Communications are most known for their work with liberal causes such as MoveOn.org and Greenpeace. Doesn’t that cast some doubt on realclimate.org? Yahoo’s answer: The correct answer is “NO”, not at all. The climate scientists writing for realclimate.org do so on their own time with NO compensation. The generosity of EMS to pay for hosting a web-site (something probably costing around $50/month – whoopee!!!) so the truth of climate change can be presented in a manner non-climate scientists can understand has no influence on the content.
You be the judge. I don’t think ‘follow the money’ is relevant here, but all this clearly reflects the policy biases (and poor judgement) of the RC crowd in selecting or even engaging with EMS.
Gavin and I have argued many times about the ethics and efficacy of scientists advocating for policies related to their area of expertise (in particular, climate change). There is a downside to such advocacy that I did not previously discuss. Advocacy can be favorable to your scientific career and your preferred policies if the political winds are blowing in a favorable direction, but when the political winds shift directions, there can be adverse consequences. So check your motives; if they are careerist, then don’t advocate.
So, when people in or near to the Trump administration talk about politicized climate science at NASA, they are pretty much referring to NASA GISS. Take a look at what NASA GISS does:
- Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Model Intercomparison
- Astrobiology – Nexus for Exoplanet System Science
- Climate Impacts
- Education Global Climate Model
- Dynamic Global Terrestrial Ecosystem Model
- Global Aerosol Climatology Project
- Goddard Institute Surface Temperature Analysis
- Global Climate Modeling
- Glory Mission Science (a mission that failed on launch)
- International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (I’m pretty sure this one has been handed off to NOAA)
- Airborne Science – Polarimeters
- Stable Water Isotope Intercomparison Group
As only NASA can? Hmmm . . .
Making the case for NASA Earth Science to the Trump administration
There are two issues here: i) a near term issue in terms of selecting the new Administrator of NASA and setting the broad agency priorities for the Trump administration; and ii) the longer range decadal scale planning, particularly for satellite missions.
The immediate/near term case for NASA Earth Science needs to be made in a different way than we have seen for the last 10 years or so (particularly during the Obama administration). The case needs to be made as to what investments in NASA Earth Science mean for the taxpayer, for society and for science, in a context of Making America Great and promoting economic competitiveness.
Here are some ways to frame the case for NASA Earth Science in ways that could be appealing to the Trump administration:
The 21st century is the Age of Information and the Knowledge Economy. Earth information from space is critical for: national security; monitoring natural resources; identifying environmental change particularly in the Arctic where we are on the threshold of a new area of commercial development and transport; predicting the weather and seasonal climate, which has a host of economic/industry applications; mitigating the harm from natural hazards, etc. NASA plays a key role in developing the technologies for cost effective satellite systems and sensors to provide this information
American leadership in space is critical in an increasingly global competitive space domain, for both national security and commercial interests, which importantly includes Earth satellites. At present, the U.S. fleet of Earth-observing satellites remains by far the most advanced and robust in the world. A vibrant commercial space train is leaving the station; the U.S. needs to figure out how to foster innovation in the commercial space sector and redefine NASA’s role in basic research and development to support a flourishing private investment in space.
Protecting the home planet. Health, safety, and economic competitiveness depends on protecting the home planet: clean air and water, understanding our supplies of fresh water, documenting changes and health of global plant ecosystems, documenting global land use changes, monitoring wild land fires, etc. Scientific research supports new satellite missions to make new or better measurements.
A rational basis for climate change policies. We need to avoid having climate change policies be a political ping pong ball, getting undone and redone with each change in administration. What is needed is a rational policy framework that is informed by evolving state of the climate as observed by the global observing systems and climate research. Global data from satellites is critical here – the Orbiting Carbon Observatory that is providing new insights into the dynamics of the Earth’s carbon budget; Global Precipitation Measurement System that is providing the next-generation global observations of rain and snow, etc. These satellite observations provide important input for scientific research, a reality check on climate model projections, and applications that support resource management and adaptation to extreme weather events. Ted Cruz, a climate change skeptic in the U.S. Senate who is rather knowledgable, regards satellite data as a very important resources for understanding the climate.
Inspire the next generation of explorers. NASA science, outreach to K-12 education, and funding/internships for graduate students and young faculty members are critical for developing of a pipeline of technically educated scientists and engineers that can support the U.S. space program (science/NASA, defense, commercial). Scientists and engineers that have somehow been touched by NASA are undoubtedly in many diverse positions in government, defense and the private sector.
In summary, there are a lot of important things that NASA Earth Science does — that only NASA can do — that don’t need to be framed in terms of ‘climate change.’ During the Obama administration, framing everything in terms of climate change was a ticket for more $$; it looks to be exactly opposite during the Trump administration. From the Scientific American article:
Amid the acrimony over NASA’s attention to climate change, the researchers who rely on funding and data through the agency’s Earth science program argue that they study much more. They and the satellites they use also provide critical insights for a broad range of public and private activities that enjoy bipartisan support, such as weather forecasting, agricultural reporting, and disaster response and preparedness.
In terms of the longer range selling of NASA Earth Science, particularly satellite missions, there is a forthcoming Decadal Survey on Earth Science and Applications from Space. From the Scientific American article:
Along with William Gail, the chief technology officer of the Global Weather Corporation, Abdalati is leading the U.S. National Academies’ “decadal survey” on Earth science. Conducted once every 10 years, this poll of U.S. Earth scientists produces a wish list of future research priorities to guide policy makers setting the multibillion-dollar budgets for NASA and other science agencies. The survey’s final report is expected in the fall of 2017. It will likely include recommendations for new generations of satellites and instruments to monitor Earth with unprecedented clarity as well as suggestions meant to lower costs. But confronted with the possibility of a president and Congress hostile to NASA’s Earth science programs, many scientists cannot muster much confidence that many of those recommendations are likely to become reality.
The authors of the new decadal survey would be well advised to frame the rationale in terms of the changing political environment, it will be interesting to see what they come up with.
JC’s personal reflections on NASA
I have received research funding from NASA over the past two decades, and NASA has probably been single agency that has provided me with the most funding. Many of my Ph.D. graduates are in research careers that primarily depend on NASA funding.
I have served on numerous NASA advisory committees, most recently as a member of the Earth Science Subcommittee, NASA Advisory Council (2009-2013). I have also sat on roughly equivalent advisory committees for DOE BER and NOAA Climate. My impression is that NASA is better managed and overall more competent as an organization than is NOAA. Apart from its big budget (owing to the cost of satellites), I don’t see any particular reason to pick on NASA (apart from the politicization/activism/advocacy by a few individuals).
As Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, I started a space and planetary science program by hiring 5 outstanding young faculty members. A number of other faculty members get funding from the NASA Earth Science Program.
Overall, I think it would be appropriate to roll back some of the Obama era funding that went into NASA climate science, and redirect it to Heliospheric Physics and Planetary Science. In doing so, it is critical to maintain a strong capability to observe the Earth from space and provide critical Earth observations. As for the rest of NASA Earth Science research especially related to climate science, I think that the ‘as only NASA can’ is a very useful filter.
I truly understand how disruptive it is to the careers of research scientists to have their funding stop. My advice to research scientists is that you need to be flexible in terms of the problems you are capable of and willing to investigate, and not be overly dependent on the funding from a single source.
It is incumbent on the scientific research community to make the case for government funding for favored research programs. Entitlement, expectations, the health of the existing research community, curiosity driven research, etc. are not convincing arguments to make.
This is a welcome opportunity to redirect NASA Earth Science research towards other topics that are not directly related to or motivated by human caused climate change.