Posted inOpinion

OpEd: A National Earth-Information Initiative

T he National Research Council recently released the first-ever Earth science decadal survey to guide the nation’s Earth observing satellite program for the next 10 years . As members of the committee that wrote this plan, we believe it sets the nation on a new and visionary scientific course.

But it is only a start — the plan must be complemented by an equally aggressive political and community vision. We propose that the nation commit to a National Earth-Information Initiative, to be completed within this decade, to radically transform how society pursues and uses Earth information.

The initiative we propose is the next step to carry out the survey’s overarching recommendation — that “the U.S. government, working in concert with the private sector, academe, the public, and our international partners, should renew its investment in Earth observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications.”

The strategic importance of this information was noted in our committee’s 2005 interim report, which stated that “the aggressive pursuit of understanding the Earth as a system — and the effective application of that knowledge for society’s benefit — will increasingly distinguish those nations that achieve and sustain prosperity from those that do not.”

Pursuit of this vision is not a luxury. It is the hallmark of a society that values investment in societal progress. The European Union has grasped this, initiating the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program to accelerate the benefits of Earth information for their citizens. Nations as small as Vietnam are making substantial investments in Earth information systems. In an increasingly interconnected world, societies that have the foresight and commitment to develop and apply Earth knowledge will outpace those that do not.

The nation is at risk for failing to grasp the significance of these trends. As emphasized repeatedly in the survey, U.S. governmental civil space institutions, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey, are poorly prepared to meet society’s advancing Earth information needs.

The checkered U.S. history of attempts by agencies to sustain space-derived observations for land, climate and other resources further substantiates the concern. Responsibilities of these institutions are in many cases mismatched with their authority and resources, mandates are inconsistent with their charters, and shared responsibilities are poorly supported by mechanisms for cooperation.

Such failures should not be ascribed only to the agencies involved. The majority of the fault lies in how the United States as a nation manages its overall Earth observation program.

The academic and private sectors suffer from similar issues. They are fractured by a plethora of discipline-oriented organizations, many excellent in their own right, but few with the overall “Earth as a system” perspective.

Last, but not least, Earth information is inextricably linked with political agendas, creating decision-making and budget-authority roadblocks that current institutions do not have the mechanisms to bypass.

The National Earth-Information Initiative we propose addresses these governmental issues and related community shortcomings as elements of a unified program. The initiative is not an ongoing program or organization. It is a one-time activity chartered with defining the roles, responsibilities and processes by which the efforts of multiple agencies and non government organizations can be coordinated and led more effectively during the coming decade and beyond. It is, in short, an effort to step back and take a methodical look at how the nation’s Earth information needs can be better met.

The initiative would be started immediately and would produce by 2010 a clear plan for moving forward. After its release, implementation of the plan by participating agencies and organizations would begin.

The initiative would encompass well-defined and measurable outcomes. It would:

   examine the entire flow of Earth information from collection through use and offer means for improving the structures and processes associated with this flow;

   propose modifications to governmental structure, ideally identifying a single organization or entity responsible for coordinating multiple civil Earth information agencies and activities;

   d efine the scope of this leadership role and the evolved roles of the affected agencies;

   establish processes for performing the contributing functions, a reporting scheme for reviewing them and advisory processes for more effectively integrating the knowledge of the academic and private-sector communities;

   identify breakthrough opportunities for deriving scientific and societal benefits from observations, based on emerging technologies that facilitate more rapid decision-making and widespread sharing of information, and propose means for integrating these into Earth information processes.

How might we structure the initiative? The survey urges that such a plan should be developed by the government working in partnership with the private sector, academe, the public and international partners. We envision two alternative and potentially complementary approaches to carrying this out.

One model is a fully government-funded and managed approach. Similar approaches have been proposed recently and implemented across a number of areas of government. The National Nanotechnology Initiative under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. Ocean Action Plan under the Council on Environmental Quality, are two examples of multi agency frameworks to coordinate and advance U.S. national interests. With this approach, it is desirable that the initiative be established through a formal commitment from both the executive and legislative branches that includes the authority and resources required to carry it out.

An alternate approach calls on the unique blend of vision and get-it-done ability of the nation’s philanthropic foundation community, chartered in partnership with the government. An excellent precedent is the National Commission on Energy Policy , a bipartisan group of leading energy experts funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to develop and advance cross-cutting national energy policy and strategies. The National Commission on Energy Policy functions as an effective and focused means of transcending narrow agency mandates to better inform decision-making and serve the public. We also could envision a joint philanthropic partnership of companies involved in Earth information and associated technology, in conjunction with foundations.

Whether we choose one of these approaches or a combination of the two, the goal is clear: an Earth Information System that is resilient and effective in the service of society. The initiative does not itself achieve the goal, but it sets the right course for achieving it. Important events or new situations have often elicited institutional changes within the government — from the shock of Sputnik that led to the 1958 founding of NASA to the environmental awakening that led to the 1970 founding of NOAA. The steps we are proposing are markedly more modest than the formation of either NASA or NOAA, but the rationale is equally compelling.

Through the initiative, by 2010 we will have the start of an Earth observing program that will enable the efficiency benefits that come from coordination of redundant or similar systems. It will effectively link research through operations and on to applications. And perhaps most important, it will institutionalize a means for listening to society’s needs and ensuring that research and Earth information programs reflect them.

William B. Gail is director of strategic development within Virtual Earth,
Microsoft Corp
. Molly K. Macauley is a senior fellow at Resources for the Future. Neal F. Lane is Malcolm Gillis University Professor and senior fellow of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, and was previously presidential science advisor and director of the National Science Foundation.