NASA downplaying Earth science cuts while hoping for reversal

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WASHINGTON — As Senate appropriators prepare to mark up a NASA spending bill, agency officials are both downplaying the effects of proposed cuts on its Earth science program while also hoping the Senate reverses them.

The commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up its fiscal year 2018 spending bill July 25. The full committee will then take up the bill July 27.

At a meeting July 24 of the science committee of the NASA Advisory Council, members complained about proposed cuts in the Earth science division at the agency. The administration’s 2018 request seeks $1.754 billion for the division, $167 million less than what it received in 2017. The proposal called for the termination of five operating or proposed instruments and missions.

“This is really, actually, pretty devastating,” said Susan Avery, president and director emeritus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and a member of the committee, during a discussion about the budget proposal at the meeting. “This is a devastating budget for Earth sciences.”

Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, attempted to minimize the impact of the proposed cuts, arguing that most of the agency’s Earth science programs would continue unaffected. “It is significant, but I would say that it is not existential,” he said of the cut.

He said that the agency would be judicious in how it applied the “measurable, but not huge” cut in research funding in Earth sciences, separate from the proposed cancellation of missions. “We would not take it in a ‘peanut butter spread,’” where the cuts are applied equally across all grant programs, he said. Any cuts would not affect existing research grants.

Freilich also said that NASA is not making any changes in spending in the current fiscal year to accommodate cuts in the 2018 proposal. “We are not changing anything in our plans in anticipation of a future administration budget,” he said. “Basically, we are moving through [fiscal year] ’17 at an appropriate high level of appropriation, and we are not in any way changing our plan in anticipation of the administration’s [fiscal year] ’18 budget.”

An example of that is the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, which Freilich said completed a review called Key Decision Point B earlier this month, clearing it to continue design and development work. PACE is one of the missions slated for cancellation in the budget proposal.

NASA is still without an operations plan that specifies how it will spend funds appropriated for this fiscal year, including any requested deviations from the appropriations bill. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, said at the meeting that the fiscal year 2017 plan has been submitted to Congress, but not yet formally approved. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

While minimizing the effects of the proposed cuts, some in the agency also expressed hope that the cuts will not be enacted in a final spending bill approved by Congress.

“We’re likely to see a replay of the last two or three years, where the Senate mark is similar in total but somewhat more favorable for Earth science in particular,” said Craig Tupper, director of the resources management division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), at the meeting, adding that assessment was his personal expectation. “In particular, the Senate may attempt to fund some of the Earth science projects that were proposed for termination in fiscal year 2018.”

In that case, he said, the House and Senate “horse trade” in the conference negotiations to reconcile their two bills. “My guess is that the end result of that, similar to the last couple of years, is that SMD will end up with an appropriation that is even higher than the House mark” that provides relief for Earth science, he said.

For fiscal year 2017, the Obama administration request $2.03 billion for Earth science. The House only offered $1.69 billion in its bill, but the Senate provided $1.984 billion. The final omnibus spending bill, approved in early May, provided $1.921 billion for Earth science at the agency.

“The bottom line is, here is the budget that we’re dealing with,” Zurbuchen said of the 2018 budget proposal at the meeting, after a committee member complained about the proposed Earth science cuts. “What we will do is be the best stewards we can be to respect the recognition that Earth science is a system science.”