Earth sciences, exploration, and budgets

Earlier this week the National Academy of Sciences released a report on the state of Earth sciences from space. The report warned that the existing fleet of Earth science spacecraft could degrade significantly in the next decade because of decreased funding for such programs, especially at NASA. Without a new generation of Earth science missions, the report warns, studies of climate change and other key Earth science topics will be adversely affected.

A key item in the report, picked up in most of the media accounts of it, is that funding for NASA’s Earth sciences program has dropped by nearly a third between 2000 and 2006 when adjusted for inflation, from about $2 billion in 2000 to under $1.5 billion in 2006. Naturally, many people have turned their attention to the Vision for Space Exploration as a major reason for the cuts. An editorial yesterday in the Washington Post puts the blame for the cuts squarely at the feet of President Bush and his support for the exploration initiative:

But Mr. Bush, without significantly increasing NASA’s budget, has insisted that it push ahead with plans to establish a human presence on the moon and assume the enormous job of preparing for a manned mission to Mars. These ambitions, coming as the ailing shuttle program also has demanded more money, have forced NASA to cut deeply into earth science and other research programs.

The editorial concludes: “If the president must go to the moon or Mars, he should find the money for it responsibly, not by chopping away at other, more vital programs.”

Likewise, the St. Petersburg Times, in an editorial today, argues, “This information [from Earth sciences missions] is useful in making everyday decisions about where to live, what to build and how to use our natural resources – much more so than what President Bush has envisioned in his call for manned missions to the moon and Mars. The president’s NASA priorities are misplaced.”

The problem with pinning the blame for Earth sciences cuts directly on The Vision is that the budget data doesn’t bear that out. Page 34 of the report shows a chart of the NASA Earth sciences budget, adjusted for inflation. The budget is fairly steady at about $2 billion a year through 2001, at which point it starts to steadily drop to the 2006 level of around $1.4 billion. There’s no inflection point after 2004, when the exploration program kicked in; the slope is fairly constant from 2003 through 2006, after which it levels off (although exactly what will happen in FY07 and beyond remains to be seen, depending on what Congress does for the long-delayed 2007 budget.) But the cuts started well before the Vision was announced, when NASA was dealing with shuttle and station issues alone.

There’s no doubt that NASA’s Earth sciences program has suffered serious cuts, and that these cuts may well be short-sighted in the long run. However, to blame them solely or primarily on the Vision for Space Exploration is inaccurate.

9 comments to Earth sciences, exploration, and budgets

  • kert

    The editorial concludes: “If the president must go to the moon or Mars, he should find the money for it responsibly, not by chopping away at other, more vital programs.”
    The solution is obvious. Chop the ailing ones.

  • Oh, great. The gutting of the program isn’t due to Bush’s fixation on the moon so much as the fact that he just doesn’t give a crap about this area. This despite his claims that he wanted a vigorous scientific research program to better understand global change before doing anything about it.

    That makes me feel a lot better.

  • anonymous

    I beg to differ somewhat with Jeff’s assessment. Griffin cancelled or permanently deferred a number of missions in the Science Directorate, including Earth observation missions, when promised funding for Ares I/CEV did not materialize in 2005-6. This was also the same timeframe that saw cuts to research and analysis funding, including Earth science disciplines, in the Science Directorate.

    Although the Bush budget for Earth science at NASA was on the slide before the VSE, the costly and inflexible budget created by the implementation plan arising from ESAS, in combination with failed budget expectations, did force additional mission deferments/cancellations and research reductions. The Vision as originally laid out is not to blame, but ESAS budget planning and NASA implementation since then are to blame for significant and substantial Earth science cutbacks.

    The situation is projected to get even worse in 2007 and 2008.

  • Anonymous is right. Without VSE and its growing costs, the Earth sciences budget might have stabilized at a much higher level.

    The irony is that Bush may be finally coming around to the idea that global warming is a real threat (the State of the Union may include some new initiatives). Whether this is a nod to realities in the tundra or those in Congress is difficult to say. Maybe a little of both.

    But, whatever we do, it will be expensive. And we’ll have to do it with an environmental monitoring system that NAS says is both essential and is being run into the ground. This will require some real tough budget choices in a government and agency that are already strained by war, a lunar program, and other priorities.

  • It looks like Bush is going to stay the course on something else. Better living through technology:

    Bush set against carbon emission limits

    The White House said yesterday that President Bush has ruled out Kyoto-style caps on carbon emissions as the solution to global warming, rejecting the proposal favored by Democrats and most European leaders.

    Spokesman Tony Snow said Mr. Bush will lay out his new climate-change policy in his State of the Union address next week, but sources familiar with the drafting of the speech said the president will argue that global warming can be better addressed through technology and greater use of renewable energy sources than through caps imposed on businesses and industries.

    If you read the whole story, you’ll find that they don’t read NAS reports at The Washington Times. The writer doesn’t quote from it. He just accepts John Snow’s claims about funding levels without question.

  • Jeff Foust

    D. Messier: “Without VSE and its growing costs, the Earth sciences budget might have stabilized at a much higher level”.

    Perhaps. Or, the administration might have still cut Earth sciences funding to support other NASA programs, or to lower the overall agency budget. I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion either way about that hypothetical. What does seem clear is that while the implementation of the Vision may be a contributor to Earth science program cuts, it’s not the only or even primary program to blame.

  • That’s probably true, Jeff, but that doesn’t mean it will be seen that way by the scientific community or by Congress. Mr. Bush’s huge waste of money (not to speak of lives) in Iraq, and his refusal to address climate issues earlier, not to speak of the rest of his unprecidented level of credit card financing, have resulted in both financial and (more importantly) political pressures that will make the VSE increasingly hard to fund. It’s unfair, but the VSE will be seen as optional and in competition with perceived higher priorities.

    — Donald

  • I don’t blame programs so much as people. Bush in particular. Look at the last six years:

    Yes, we’ll have mandatory carbon caps. No we won’t. Global warming is important. But not important enough to do much about. Let’s study the problem. But we’ll cut NASA’s budget for it. Yes, we’re dedicated to science. No, that won’t stop me from having political hacks rewrite scientific reports and try to muzzle researchers from speaking out.

  • DCH

    Perhaps it is time for our universities and research institutions to start collaborating with the new generation of space entrepreneurs to work on some of these science issues. Focusing more purely on science and avoiding the overhead of government oversight a university and private sector effort could help both sectors advance their agenda’s at a fraction of the cost. There has been no lowering of the cost of putting objects in space since the 1960’s. That is starting to change with the private sector entering the race. Its time for the science establishment to look to new paths. Government can help propel and frame issues, but if we want the science to progress in a broader context it must operate in a broader and more adaptive environment.

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