NASA Earth science director expects short-term budget stability


WASHINGTON — The head of NASA’s Earth science division says he does not expect major changes in his programs for the remainder of the fiscal year despite a change in administrations.

In a presentation Jan. 10 to the Earth science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee at the Kennedy Space Center, Michael Freilich said despite concerns that the incoming Trump administration will seek to make major cuts or other changes to NASA’s Earth science efforts, he did not expect immediate effects to his programs.

NASA, along with most other federal government agencies, is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the government at fiscal year (FY) 2016 levels. The current CR remains in effect until late April, or more than half of the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.

Freilich said that, for Earth science, operating under a CR is a not a major problem. The division received $1.92 billion in 2016, and requested $2.03 billion for 2017. “Our funding under the continuing resolution is not bad,” he said. “We’re able to do the plan we have laid out. Nobody has told us to stop doing that plan.”

He added that he did not expect Congress to ultimately make major changes to the budget when the current CR runs out in April and it must either take up an appropriations bill or another continuing resolution, in part because of competing priorities in the new Congress and administration. “It is quite likely that, come to the end of April, Congress is going to want to put FY ’17 behind them so that the administration can focus on an FY ’18 budget,” he said. “I suspect that we’re going to get through FY ’17 at the same level we’re at right now.”

“We have a level of stability in FY ’17,” he concluded. “We have a plan, we have funding, and the best thing to do is to use the funding that we have to amass more accomplishments along the line of the plan.”

Many in the Earth science community have expressed concern about the future of the agency’s work in this area since Donald Trump won the presidential election. In policy statements made before the election, and confirmed afterwards, the Trump campaign argued for de-emphasizing Earth science work at NASA, including transferring that work to other agencies.

Freilich noted that NASA’s Earth science work has been attracted congressional criticism in recent years, with some Republican members suggesting that the Obama administration was putting too much money into Earth science at the expense of human spaceflight.

However, the appropriations bills ultimately approved by Congress funded Earth science at about the level the administration originally requested. “Given all the sturm und drang that we have every year, especially recently, on Earth science in NASA, it has been that Congress has basically appropriated whatever it is, when all was said and done, that the administration requested,” he said.

NASA’s Earth science program currently accounts for about 10 percent of the agency’s overall budget, a fraction that Freilich said closely matches the long-term historical average. That fraction dipped during the administration of President George W. Bush, but has increased under President Obama back to that average level, in part after scientists expressed concern about a lack of investments in new satellites and other research capabilities.

The Trump transition landing team at NASA was taken by surprise by those figures, he suggested in his remarks to the committee. “They didn’t know that ten percent of the agency [budget] for Earth science was about the amount that we had usually had,” he said, saying that team members thought Earth science had historically received a smaller fraction of the budget. “They didn’t know that the increase over the last eight years was leading to a level that was close to historical” rather than much higher than the historical average.

The increase in Earth science’s share of the NASA budget over the Obama administration, he noted, has been from about 8 percent of the budget early in the administration to 10 percent today. “The question is, does this represent a tremendous refocusing of the agency on Earth science and climate to the detriment of human spaceflight and planetary exploration and all of that sort of stuff? The answer is no.”