Proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) budget for the upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2018 could cause significant damage to the agency and the broad services it provides, scientists and policy experts told Eos this week. However, they stressed that the proposed cuts reported by the Washington Post last weekend come in the early stages of the federal budgeting process and that there is still time for the agency, Congress, and others to convince the White House about the value of NOAA programs.
According to the 3 March Washington Post article, NOAA could face a 17% budget reduction in FY 2018, which begins on 1 October. That figure comes from a leaked “passback” document from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to NOAA. Agencies typically receive such preview documents about possible funding levels during the annual budget negotiating process.
The federal government relies largely on NOAA, an agency within the Department of Commerce, to monitor and research the climate, weather, oceans, and coasts and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. NOAA includes bureaus such as the National Weather Service (NWS), the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). NOAA’s current budget is $5.77 billion.
Because the White House is planning to increase military spending by $54 billion in FY 2018, it will seek an equivalent reduction in nondefense spending, according to OMB director Mick Mulvaney. The passback document suggests that OMB is including NOAA among nondefense government agencies from which it will seek funding offsets to pay for the military increase.
NOAA’s satellite division, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, would get the sharpest cut, 22%, according to the Post. OAR would lose 26% of its funding, and the money for some programs, including external research, coastal management, and estuary reserves, would drop to zero, according to the report. NMFS and NWS would fare better, with 5% cuts.
“This is part of the normal budget deliberations that are ongoing,” he said, noting that it will be months before there is a final budget for FY 2018. “I can tell you, and this is true for FY 17, FY 18, and beyond, I do not get any sense that NOAA is being targeted in any way. These are questions for the entire government. It seems all agencies are facing kind of the same issues.”
Suggested Cuts Could Cause “Significant Damage”
If enacted, the proposed cuts “would do significant damage” to NOAA, said Conrad Lautenbacher, who served as NOAA administrator from 2001 to 2008 under President George W. Bush.
Lautenbacher, now CEO of GeoOptics, a Pasadena, Calif., company developing a constellation of small satellites to collect climate and environment data, told Eos that NOAA’s resources “are critical to public health, public safety, the economy, the military, and to the basic confidence and ability to serve government and the economy.” Reducing funding for research in particular “is shortsighted given the need to understand more about the environment, not less,” he added.
“This Is Not Just a Budget Exercise”
“It looks like the White House is using its defense proposal as a pretext for carrying on an effort to really impoverish a wide range of federal operations, and NOAA certainly is part of that,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment group based in New York. “This is not just a budget exercise. This is part of their effort to make it harder for the federal government to operate on behalf of the American people. Whether NOAA has been targeted the way [the Environmental Protection Agency] has been targeted, it’s hard to know. This administration has many people who have not looked kindly on Earth science and climate science, but the rumored cuts go far beyond that.”
Goldston said the cuts would be “quite substantial” and would hurt the agency across the board. He said, for instance, that NOAA’s work is central to understanding what’s happening to Earth’s climate. “Whether [NOAA] is targeted for that reason or not, the impact [of cuts] will be to understand less about our planet and its climate,” he told Eos. “Understanding oceans and the weather and the atmosphere can’t be done for free.”
Leaving Americans “Less Informed and Less Safe”
Sara Jordan, legislative representative with the League of Conservation Voters, a Washington, D. C.–based environment group, called the proposed cuts “alarming” and said they would be felt across every sector of the nation’s economy. Such reductions at NOAA would “leave Americans less informed and less safe,” she said.
Nancy Colleton, president of the Arlington, Va.–based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, said the cuts “would put us all at risk.” She stressed that NOAA collects environmental information, including from satellites, that is needed for weather forecasts and to identify environmental trends such as drought and storm intensity.
A Wake-Up Call About NOAA’s Budget
“The sky’s not falling, but let’s face it, there’s certainly a little bit of thunder out there; it’s looking a little dark,” said Jon White, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a Washington, D.C.–based alliance of organizations that works to shape the future of ocean science and technology.
White told Eos that the reported budget proposal is a wake-up call to the oceanic and atmospheric science communities to better explain to the administration the value of NOAA programs and what the cuts would mean to research, weather, coastal resilience, and America’s security and prosperity.
Looking at the expanse of NOAA’s mission, which stretches from space to the bottom of the oceans, White said that “there is no other organization in the world that does what they do as well as they do at the relatively low cost that they do it. So, it’s actually a very good deal for the U.S. taxpayer.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer