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Experts: Severe Budget Cuts Threaten Vitality of NASA Earth Science Programs

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2005

Cuts Undermine Forecasting, Storm Warning, Agriculture & Natural Resource Management Capabilities

WASHINGTON - A panel of expert witnesses, including the chairman of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee that is recommending Earth science priorities for the next decade, today warned Congress that repeated budget cuts threaten the vitality of Earth science programs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as many Earth science missions have been downsized, delayed, or outright cancelled. 

The witnesses testified before the House Science Committee at a hearing examining Earth science programs at NASA and the potential impact on those programs by of the Agency's fiscal year 2006 (FY06) budget request, which would cut Earth science funding by 8 percent below the FY05 appropriation and 12 percent below the FY04 request. 

The witnesses were: Mr. Alphonso Diaz, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate; Dr. Berrien Moore, Co-Chairman of the NAS Decadal Survey, "Earth Observations from Space: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future," and Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire; Dr. Tim Killeen, Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado; Dr. Marcia McNutt, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California; Dr. Sean Solomon, Director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington; and Dr. Ray Williamson, Research Professor in the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.

"I'm very pleased that NASA's new Administrator, Mike Griffin, has very clearly and unequivocally reinforced NASA's commitment to Earth science," Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said in convening today's hearing.  "The NAS report has to be a red flag for all of us.  We need to stop, examine what's happening, and make sure that the fiscal 2006 budget for NASA - whatever its top-level number - include adequate funding to keep Earth science moving forward for the foreseeable future.  We need a vision for Earth science, and priorities for Earth science, just as much as we do for exploration and aeronautics."

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) said, "The insights and observations we heard today were helpful for the Committee to give appropriate oversight for NASA's long term strategic vision for conducting Earth sciences.  It is vital that Congress closely examine the limited budget resources within the agency to ensure NASA can focus on their core mission."

NASA Associate Administrator Diaz said in his testimony that the Agency's Earth science missions have been refocused to support the President's Vision for Space Exploration.  "NASA is committed to making the necessary transformation to ensure our success in achieving the Vision for an affordable and sustainable space exploration program."  Explaining NASA's emphasis on Earth science programs that support the exploration Vision, Mr. Diaz told the Committee, "The technological tools and scientific skills that NASA continues to develop through studying Earth...are critical in the exploration and search for life on other planets in our own solar system and beyond."

In response to a request from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a decadal survey, "Earth Observations from Space: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future," in which members of the Earth science community are outlining programmatic and budgetary priorities related to Earth observation for the next decade.  The final report is due in late 2006, but the NRC committee released an interim report yesterday.

Citing several examples of the impact of budget cuts to NASA's Earth science missions, Dr. Moore, Co-Chair of the NRC committee, testified that the Nation's Earth observation system is "at risk of collapse."  He explained, "NASA has no plan to replace its Earth Observing System platforms after their nominal six year lifetimes end - beginning with the end of the Terra satellite mission in 2005 - and it has cancelled, scaled back, or delayed at least six planned missions, including a Landsat continuity mission."  Dr. Moore added, "These decisions at NASA appear to be driven by a major shift in priorities as the agency moves to implement a new vision for space exploration."

Chairman Boehlert's opening statement follows:

"It's a pleasure to welcome everyone here this morning for our hearing on one of NASA's primary mission areas - the Earth sciences.  I'm very pleased that NASA's new Administrator, Mike Griffin, has very clearly and unequivocally reinforced NASA's commitment to Earth Science. 

"For example, he told Senator Allen during the confirmation process, "[T]here are activities, including Earth Sciences...research, which have little in common with needs of Exploration, and with which NASA had had a long-term involvement.  Thus, NASA has certain responsibilities in these areas which cannot and should not be set aside."  And Dr. Griffin told Senator Dorgan, "Earth science continues to be vitally important and I am committed to continuing exploration of the Earth's environment at NASA."

"Unfortunately, NASA's prepared testimony for today's hearing is more problematic.  The testimony describes Earth science research as being significant to the extent that it informs our knowledge of, and our capability to explore other planets.  This is precisely backwards.  The planet that has to matter most to us is the one we live on.  You'd think that would go without saying.  And we are woefully ignorant of the way this planet works - of the functioning of the land, oceans and atmosphere and how they interact. It's great if Earth science can contribute to exploration, and greater still if exploration of other planets could teach us more about the Earth. 

"But the Earth science program doesn't exist as some secondary adjunct of the exploration program.  It exists to help us understand the planet we depend on.  And there's no reason that NASA can't robustly carry out the President's Vision for Space Exploration while conducting vital Earth science research.  In fact, that's what NASA has to do.

"That's why the National Academy of Sciences report that was released yesterday is so alarming.  The report indicates that NASA may be allowing its Earth science program to erode, perhaps irretrievably, just as we are beginning to understand more about the Earth's processes, just as our technology offers unprecedented opportunities, just as the Administration has announced new international commitments to Earth observation.

"This report has to be a red flag for all of us.  We need to stop, examine what's happening, and make sure that the fiscal 2006 budget for NASA - whatever its top-level number - include adequate funding to keep Earth science moving forward for the foreseeable future.  We need a vision for Earth science, and priorities for Earth science, just as much as we do for exploration and aeronautics.

"Yesterday, I heard for the first time a rationale from Mr. Diaz for the proposed cuts in Earth science.  And I have to say I found it more troubling than convincing.  He argued that some NASA projects could be launched on NOAA satellites and that some other aspects of Earth science could migrate to NOAA.

"Now we all want NASA and NOAA to work together even better.  In fact, we plan to hold a hearing in the next couple of months bringing the two agencies together to look in more detail at their relationship.  But having NASA claim that NOAA will take over activities when there is no indication of that in NOAA's plans or budget strains credulity.  It's the sound of one hand clapping, and it won't get any applause from us.

"NASA has long been the lead agency for space-based Earth science research.  NOAA has operational responsibilities.  The two agencies have complementary missions, and the more they can cooperate the better.  But one agency cannot substitute for the other, and no agency can build, launch or use data from satellites without money.

"Mr. Diaz told us yesterday he had "no visibility" into NOAA's budget.  You'd think a window into a partner agency's budget would be a prerequisite for transferring responsibilities.  If NASA has plans to rely more on NOAA, those plans ought to be shared and reviewed with us and with the scientific community.

"Just citing the notion of relying on NOAA as an after-the-fact budget rationalization is playing with fire.

We have before us today the experts with whom we can begin a thoughtful, detailed and realistic discussion about what NASA needs to do to ensure that we have a healthy, national Earth science program.  I can't think of anything more vital to our survival." 

  An archived webcast of today's hearing, as well as all hearing materials, including the hearing charter, Chairman Boehlert's opening statement, the witnesses' prepared testimony, and the interim report of the NAS Decadal Survey are available at http://www.house.gov/science/hearings/full05/apr28/index.htm.  

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