— Former heads of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey are proposing merging the two agencies into an independent Earth Systems Science Agency to improve the study of the Earth’s changing environment.

NASA’s Earth science division, with its nearly $1.4 billion annual budget, would not be folded into the proposed $5 billion environmental science agency. But NASA would be expected to work closely with the Earth Systems Science Agency much as it already does with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), coordinating its research and building satellites on those agencies’ behalf.

The proposal, published in the July 4 edition of the journal Science, was put forward by a group of former high- ranking U.S. government officials. The group includes D. James Baker, NOAA administrator from 1993 to 2001; Charles Groat, USGS director from 1998 to 2005; Donald Kennedy, Food and Drug Administration commissioner from 1977 to 1979; Charles Kennel, a former NASA associate administrator for Earth science and the current chairman of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board; John Gibbons, White House science advisor 1993 to 1998; Mark Schaefer, a former acting director of the USGS; and David Rejeski, who formerly served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Baker said in a July 8 interview that some of NASA’s analysis and applications programs could be folded into the Earth Systems Science Agency (ESSA), but that most of NASA’s Earth Sciences research and observation program – which represents the bulk of what the United States spends on environmental satellites – should remain in place in order for the program to continue to reap the benefits that go along with being part of a nearly $18 billion space technology agency.

Another reason Baker and the other officials think it makes sense to leave NASA’s Earth Sciences division largely intact is political.

“It works pretty well where it is and to try to pull out a big chunk of NASA’s budget is probably something that’s politically not feasible,” Baker said. “When you consider the issue of congressional committee jurisdictions and so on, it’s just a lot easier to merge USGS and NOAA rather than trying to pull in NASA at the same time.”

Ray Williamson, a space policy expert and executive director of the Secure World Foundation, said a NOAA- USGS merger would not be without its political hurdles, either.

“I haven’t read the Science proposal, but on the whole, it could be a good thing if it were properly funded,” Williamson said. “The problems are the funding, the issue of jurisdiction in Congress – subcommittee oversight would have to be rearranged and that is generally very difficult – and the institutional inertia within the agencies. Per usual, the devil is really in the details.”

NOAA, which has a budget of roughly $4 billion and 12,000 employees working at research facilities in the region, , and along both coasts, is part of the Commerce Department. Its budget is decided each year by the House and Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittees, which also have jurisdiction over NASA budgetary matters.

The USGS, which has a budget of just under $1 billion and 8,500 employees spread among its , headquarters and research and administrative facilities throughout the United States, is part of the Department of Interior. Its budget is decided by the House and Senate Appropriations interior and environment subcommittees.

Baker said that while ESSA would be big enough to be a standalone agency like NASA, he believes ESSA would fair better politically as part of a department “so you can have a cabinet secretary that can argue for you.”

Whether Commerce or Interior would provide the better home for ESSA is something that would have to be worked out, Baker said.

Richard Anthes, president of the Boulder-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and a recent past president of the American Meteorological Society, told Space News he liked the proposal put forward by Baker, Groat and the others. “I think it is a very interesting proposal, one with a lot of merit, and that it deserves serious consideration,” Anthes said.

A aerospace industry official who has worked with NOAA, NASA and the USGS, said the proposed merger would be a step in the right direction provided people realize that neither agency has everything it needs for a truly robust Earth Systems Science Agency.

“On the one hand, coordinating Earth science monitoring for operational purposes and to support decision making makes a lot of sense,” said the industry official, who asked not to be named since he was not speaking for his employer. “On the other hand, there’s a substantial amount of information technology infrastructure that would be appropriate to support such an agency that neither agency has at this time.”

Baker acknowledged that merging NOAA and USGS into a single agency is not intended as a cure-all for what ails U.S. environmental research, but said it would be a solid first step toward restructuring federal environmental research, development and monitoring activities to respond to pressing environmental challenges, among them climate change, sea-level rise, new weather patterns, declines in fresh water availability, and shrinking biodiversity.

Baker said the group simply could have called for better interagency coordination, or a strengthened presidential science advisor, or other such piecemeal reforms. “But an agency merger is one that gets a lot more attention,” he said.