Earth science misses cut for White House priorities memo

Climate and environment are not in science policy office's document to guide agencies' fiscal 2020 budget requests.

A list of budget priorities released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Tuesday makes no mention of Earth science, climate or the environment, and yet on Wednesday NOAA released a dire report about climate change, and NASA held an annual outreach event that sought to highlight the importance of Earth-observing satellites for solving those and other human challenges.

The closest the “Budget Priorities” memo came to mentioning Earth science was a reference to weather prediction in a section about the office’s top priority: the “security of the American people.”

“Agencies should enhance decision-making before, during, and after natural disasters by investing in geospatial decision support tools and innovative approaches to improve weather prediction,” the memo said.

On Wednesday at NASA headquarters, speakers struck a different tone at the agency’s annual Earth Science Applications Showcase, where program managers discussed how they encourage groups to promote policy-making with satellite data.

“We need to understand what is going on globally, it changes regularly due to climate change but also due to demand,” one of the managers, water-resource expert Brad Doorn told me during the event. He said Earth science satellites are key to monitoring water availability for U.S. agriculture, number eight on OSTP’s list of the top eight priorities.

In a brief interview after the event, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that Earth science data from satellites contributes directly and indirectly to the eight research priorities outlined by the White House on Tuesday, including manufacturing and agriculture.

When I asked Zurbuchen whether he is concerned that Earth science did not make the OSTP list of priorities, he said “the government is working like it always does. It’s a discussion with many different stakeholders.”
“The livability in a given environment determines how people come to work, where manufacturing clusters can grow,” Zurbuchen said. “Especially in the Midwest. The availability of the Great Lakes, of a large water resource is directly affected by Earth science.”

The Trump administration attempted to cancel five NASA Earth science missions in budget proposals for fiscal 2018 and 2019. Congress continued funding all of the them except the Radiation Budget Instrument, a scanning radiometer that would have ridden on NOAA’s planned Joint Polar Satellite System-2 weather satellite to measure factors that impact weather and climate.

Also, NOAA and the American Meteorological Society in their annual “State of the Climate” report released Wednesday said that 2017 was the third warmest year for the continental U.S. since temperature records began in the 1800s and that the world’s sea levels have risen 3 inches since 1993. The report included contributions from 500 climate scientists from around the world and cited data from NASA Earth science satellites including the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, which documented the changing mass of features including ice sheets and groundwater. The GRACE satellite mission ended in 2017 and the pair of satellites deorbited shortly after. Two satellites launched in May will extend that data gathering as the GRACE Follow-On mission.

The Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 took this image in 2016 of South Georgia Island, where several glaciers are in retreat. NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Earth science misses cut for White House priorities memo