Climate Change News

Earth Science Budget Woes Cast a Shadow on Planetary Scientists

NASA's record-high proposed planetary science budget didn't quell the fears scientists have about cuts to Earth sciences.

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When President Trump’s budget proposal went live on 16 March, scientists across the United States expressed alarm at its harsh cuts. Of particular concern was NASA’s budget.

President Trump proposed $19.1 billion for NASA overall in fiscal year 2018, down 0.8% from the current $19.2 billion. But within this overall budget were winners and losers: Earth science took a significant hit, with multiple climate-related missions threatened with cancellation. However, planetary science’s proposed budget would be a windfall, up by more than 16% in the proposal compared to this year’s budget.

In a town hall meeting on Monday at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division director Jim Green and other NASA officials discussed the administration’s planetary sciences budget, along with other business. Here are four main takeaways from NASA’s presentations and the discussion that followed.

1. Excitement over Planetary Science’s Historic Win

Ever since Green became the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division 11 years ago, he’s “been waiting to talk about the planetary budget in a tremendously positive way.”

This year, Green got his wish. President Trump requested $1.9 billion from Congress for NASA’s planetary science budget for fiscal year 2018, which is a 20% increase from Obama’s request for 2017 and a 16.5% increase from the current $1.63 billion.

“This is historic,” Green told the packed crowd. “We never had a proposed budget this high.”

Jim Green
NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division director Jim Green speaks to attendees at a NASA town hall meeting at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. Credit: LPI

The proposed bump to the budget for planetary sciences is also the highest increase of any line item at NASA this year, he said. The proposed budget allows continued work on NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion capsule (which was allotted $3.7 billion in the overall budget), the Mars 2020 rover mission, and the Europa Clipper mission, which aims to launch in the 2020s to study Jupiter’s icy ocean moon.

Gone from the proposed budget, however, is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which would have collected a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and repositioned it in Earth’s orbit for future study. The proposed budget will go to Congress, where the fate of ARM will ultimately be decided, explained Ben Bussey, chief exploration scientist for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA. “We won’t really know exactly what is happening until we see [Congress’s] appropriations bill.”

2. Alarm over Earth Science’s Funding Losses

Although planetary science fared well in Trump’s proposed budget, several scientists questioned Green about their concern over the fate of NASA’s Earth science programs. Clifford Carley, an unaffiliated attendee, praised NASA for being a leader in promoting science for “the [planet] we’re standing on” and asked how NASA plans to address the rising concern among scientists and the public regarding human-driven climate change.

Green acknowledged the proposed cuts and added that “Earth science is following the Earth science decadal [survey] and will continue to do so.”

Trump’s proposed Earth science budget for NASA is $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2018, a $102 million cut from last year’s $1.9 billion. To accommodate this, several not yet launched missions are slated to be canceled. These missions include the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem satellite, which would study aerosols and clouds in the atmosphere over the oceans; the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, which would be mounted to the International Space Station and measure Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide from space; and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory, which would help scientists improve climate models.

Also on the chopping block are certain funds for the Deep Space Climate Observatory. This satellite is already in orbit around Earth and studies solar wind, so the budget cut would affect only its Earth-viewing instruments.

Although the proposed cuts in missions focus on those that monitor climate change, there’s only so much that the planetary-focused NASA officials present at the town hall can do about this, noted Robert Nelson, a researcher at the Planetary Sciences Institute in Tucson, Ariz. Advocating for Earth science, he commented to Green, is “not your legally defined job.” Advocacy, he continued, is the job of everyone in the room.

Nelson encouraged his fellow scientists to do more outreach to help the public understand the importance of the threatened missions. He urged members of the audience to contact their senators and representatives to “let them know from the science perspective the appalling prospect that the [proposed] budget means for environmental science.”

3. Uncertainty About Education

Among items proposed to be slashed from the NASA budget in the 2018 fiscal year is the Office of Education, a line item costing $115 million. This office provides education opportunities such as the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, also known as Space Grant, which has operated since 1989. These grants help fund education opportunities at universities, science centers, museums, and state and local agencies across the United States.

“I would not be here in this career track, let alone in this conference room, if it weren’t for NASA Space Grant,” said John Christoph, a graduate assistant in planetary sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe. “We in the scientific community are going to have to do more outreach and education efforts to ensure all the students out there continue to have the same education opportunities they have, whether it’s pre-kindergarten or post-grad.”

Christoph then asked, “What is NASA headquarters prepared to do to support that?”

Green explained that although the Office of Education had been cut, the Science Mission Directorate was dedicated to finding new educational and outreach opportunities.

4. Caution About Planetary Science in the Future

Elise Harrington, a graduate student in geology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, wondered whether some planetary science funds could be shifted to stem the pending damage to Earth science from the proposed cuts, perhaps through studying Earth analogues. Green pointed out that planetary scientists already engage in Earth-focused research, like studying extreme environments on Earth to better understand what life might exist elsewhere in the solar system.

However, Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., encouraged the crowd not to let its enthusiasm for a large planetary science budget cloud real concerns about Earth and environmental sciences.

“I personally feel that it’s very short-sighted to be excited about the planetary budget, because planetary science does not live in isolation from the rest of the science community in this country. So I would temper your enthusiasm a little bit,” she said, speaking directly to Green and his colleagues. “We cannot just be supporting planetary science. This will be a short-term gain potentially but a long-term loss if the scientific community in the United States is not strong everywhere, all around.”

Now is the time to fight for all sciences, stressed several attendees. “This is not the time to let someone else do it,” Nelson said. “If you want to do this kind of work, you have to take the responsibility to fight for it.”

—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: In response to President Trump’s budget proposal, the American Geophysical Union’s Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee issued a statement on 16 March expressing that the international organization of Earth and space scientists is “disheartened and significantly concerned by the president’s budget proposal, which clearly devalues science and research.”

Citation: Wendel, J. (2017), Earth science budget woes cast a shadow on planetary scientists, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO070353. Published on 22 March 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Unbeliever

    These so called scientists are truly amazing. They know what temperature the earth is supposed to be. They know how every force of nature effects the climate and they can predict the future. And don’t dare question their authority. Is this what science has become?

  • michael smith

    the atmosphere is 79% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and .0034% Carbon Dioxide. By what mechanism does the latter’s practically undetectable trace quantity trap heat and raise world-wide temperatures, melt glaciers, increase monsoons, raise sea levels? Seriously, please someone explain.

    • Mitch_Ocean

      The greenhouse effect works by atmospheric gases absorbing earth’s back radiation in the infrared band. Neither oxygen nor nitrogen molecules absorb there, so their concentration is irrelevant. Incidentally, the current CO2 concentration is 0.04% by volume, not 0.0034%.

      • michael smith

        but there is still almost none of it, to have any effect. The sun heats the earth, not “infrared-band reflected solar radiation”.

        • Drew Laskowski

          The sun, in conjunction with residual heat from the Earth’s interior and heat produced by radioactive decay of unstable isotopes, heats Earth’s atmosphere. CO2 doesn’t heat anything. Rather, even small concentrations of CO2 can act like a jacket that traps heat from escaping. If heat in > heat lost to space by infrared radiation, then the atmosphere warms. Even though CO2 makes up a comparatively small percentage of Earth’s atmosphere, it plays a very important role (as highlighted by the previous commenter). The absolute concentration is irrelevant, its potency is more important. I’m quite sure you wouldn’t want to eat a dinner with 0.04% cyanide in it, despite the fact that 0.04% is a small quantity.

  • Donald Burrows

    What have we gained if we know a lot more about Mars or Jupiter, but can’t keep track of what’s happening on our own planet. I cannot understand the reasoning .