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NASA revamp plan, NOAA budget cut jeopardize US climate research

So the axe has fallen. As was expected, the Trump White House is planning to slash the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by 17%. This, combined with the NASA Transition Act passed by Senate last month to scrap the space agency’s climate activities, means a virtual death knell to Climate Change research in America.

The proposal seeks to end funding for programs such as coastal management and reduce research funding by $126 million, or 26% of its roughly $500-million research budget. NOAA’s satellite division — the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) — will see the biggest budget cut — $513 million, or 22% of its current funding. Interestingly, it is the NESDIS researchers who published a study that suggested there had been no slowdown in the rate of Climate Change — a research that drew the ire of Republicans in Congress.

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NASA Transition Act

The twin moves highlight the Trump administration’s continued effort to undermine environmental research funding and regulations. The US Senate passed the NASA Transition Act of 2017 on February 17, which seeks to scrap the space agency’s funding for research on global warming and focuses on deep space exploration priorities. Even before Donald Trump took over as the President, there were widespread apprehensions that under the new administration NASA’s Climate Change activities hang in balance.

What is extremely interesting is that while Republicans had largely been unclear about what exactly a NASA restructuring would entail, they had largely indicated that the agency’s climate research activities could be centered in NOAA.

Rep Jim Bridenstine is widely said to the next NASA administrator.
Rep Jim Bridenstine is widely tipped to be the next NASA administrator. Image courtesy SpaceNews

Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who is widely said to be considered for the post of NASA administrator, while maintaining that he was generally supportive of earth science research, had said he was open to moving part of the earth science study out of NASA and into NOAA, or even swapping a few programs between the two agencies.

Earlier last year, Robert Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee, who wrote Trump’s proposed space policy, had also indicated the same. In an interview with Scientific American, Walker had proposed that NOAA should take over all of NASA’s satellite missions that are used for earth and climate-related works. The goal, he had explained, was to free up funds for more NASA human exploration missions into deep space.

This time too Walker was quoted by The Guardian saying that there was no need for NASA to do what he previously described to be “politically correct environmental monitoring.” Instead, “We see NASA in an exploration role in deep space research . . . Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.”

The proposal was shocking enough given that NOAA’s current budget of $5.6 was less than one-third of NASA’s $18.5 billion; and the bulk of its funds go into weather forecasting and environmental monitoring. NOAA also uses NASA’s earth observation satellites and even for its own satellites relies on the space agency for manufacturing and launches. Now, the proposal for such a drastic cut in NOAA’s funding jeopardizes the entire climate and weather research in America, if Congress passes the NASA Transition Act.

Focus away from climate activities

It is still unclear exactly how lawmakers plan to transform NASA’s mission — and whether its work on Climate Change would go to another agency, with or without funding, or possibly get scrapped. But overall, Republicans have been clamoring for “rebalancing” of NASA’s missions, because they say Obama administration cut space exploration funds while increasing funding for earth science.

Under the Obama administration, NASA had a renewed focus on earth observation as a major mission. In fact, in NASA’s 2017 budget demands, earth science had figured right on top. In an interview with Geospatial World earlier last year, then NASA chief Charles Bolden had admitted that the space agency had really gone down in funding for earth science over the last decade or so, but it is “now trying to get the level of funding for earth science back to its historic level.”

Maintaining that the Obama administration had helped it to propose more funding for earth science “so that we restore the balance that we once had in that particular area,” Bolden said “Earth is the most important planet. We can’t do anything in terms of exploration if we don’t have Earth as our dominant platform from which to leave.”

NASA’s Earth Science Division goes beyond Climate Change research and provides weather information relied upon by governments and businesses across the globe. The very idea that NASA is only all about deep space is a flawed one and earth science has been an essential part of the agency since its inception. It was always supposed to look close to our planet as well in deep space. In fact, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 specifies the NASA agenda as focus on “phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

[READ: Why NASA is vital for battling Climate Change]

NASA is the only federal agency in the world capable of studying the impacts of global warming and weather activities from orbit. It has 17 space missions (more are planned in the coming years) collecting climate data, analyzing and distributing to government agencies, universities and the general public, as well as contributing to reports on everything from the state of the atmosphere to rising sea levels. Its scientists offer some of the government’s most cited analyses of the extent of Climate Change.