Martian Logic

Thursday, January 18, 2007

AYEAR and a half ago, the National Academy of Sciences reported that the country's climate-monitoring systems were "at risk of collapse." This week, in a 400-page-plus knockout of a study, the academy concluded that those systems are even worse off now. This is a stunning indictment of an administration that has parried complaints about inaction on climate change with claims of at least having generously funded research.

The chief problem is President Bush's misplaced funding priorities at NASA, the space agency that doesn't just launch rockets but, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also maintains a series of satellites and other sensors to monitor global climate and weather patterns. The network is essential to detecting and responding to the effects of global warming and other climate phenomena. But Mr. Bush, without significantly increasing NASA's budget, has insisted that it push ahead with plans to establish a human presence on the moon and assume the enormous job of preparing for a manned mission to Mars. These ambitions, coming as the ailing shuttle program also has demanded more money, have forced NASA to cut deeply into earth science and other research programs.

Those earth science programs now have an annual budget that is about $500 million less (in 2006 dollars) than they had at the end of the Clinton administration, says Berrien Moore III, one of the co-chairmen of the committee that drafted the report. The budget for research and analysis for NASA's science missions, the money that pays for experts to make sense of data collected, declined by 30 percent in the past six years. The result is a raft of delayed or canceled projects, many of which are needed to replace antique hardware, and a scientific community increasingly wary of dealing with NASA. This week, to deflect the report's criticisms, the White House is touting funding increases at NOAA, but those aren't enough to pick up the slack, especially after NOAA has had to pare down its own climate-monitoring goals because of huge cost overruns.

Mr. Moore and his co-chairman, Richard A. Anthes, say that Mr. Bush need only restore earth science research funding at NASA to the levels of late in the Clinton administration and spend reasonably on a discrete set of projects to repair the system, a goal that should be reachable if he reconsiders how to pay for his ambitious space missions. If the president must go to the moon or Mars, he should find the money for it responsibly, not by chopping away at other, more vital programs.

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