OpEd: NASA Earth and Space Sciences at Risk

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The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is asking the Bush administration, Congress and NASA to renew their commitment to Earth and space science research, so that we can continue to capitalize on the extraordinary scientific advances of recent decades.

Why is this an issue?

Because NASA is being asked to do more than it can with the resources it has been provided:

– Returning the space shuttle fleet to flight status;

– Finishing the international space station;

– Developing the next generation of space transportation vehicles; and,

– Preparing for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

In a very tight budget year, with all of these pressures, we are concerned that Earth and space sciences have become a lower priority at NASA.

Lowering the priority for Earth and space sciences could lead to a decline in basic scientific research that will impact the U.S. leadership role in environmental stewardship and protection of life and property. We also are concerned that the loss of funding will seriously limit our ability to engage the next generation of scientists and engineers.

NASA’s track record in promoting scientific innovation is laudable. Improvements in our ability to observe the atmosphere have enabled us to extend weather forecasts six months to a year in advance, informing a range of stakeholders from farmers to energy managers to those who seek to mitigate weather-related natural disasters. NASA science provides the foundation for longer-term climate model projections and has helped us completely revolutionize our understanding of the chemistry of our atmosphere.

In addition to the immediately practical and useful science, NASA programs address some of the most compelling scientific questions that humans ask — is there life elsewhere in the universe, how do planets form, how is our own planet changing?

Why is AGU concerned? If one compares NASA’s 2005 budget and its five-year projections with the proposed budget in 2006 and beyond, funding for science at NASA shrinks by more than $1 billion dollars. Take a close look at what was lost, and there is added reason for concern. Cost-effective programs like the Earth System Science Pathfinder Missions and the Explorer class missions that allow innovative, flexible and frequent access to space have been delayed indefinitely or cancel ed. Proposal-driven research funding has declined. The number of projects in the queue for launch is the smallest in our near-term memory.

As a nation, we have made a tremendous investment in science that is truly serving society. AGU believes that we cannot afford to shift financial resources away from this science, and thereby threaten vital investments and capabilities that have taken decades and tens of billions of dollars to build.

Eric J. Barron is dean of Earth and Mineral Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Geoscience, Pennsylvania State University, and chair of the American Geophysical Union’s Panel on the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration.