The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massive cuts proposed to NASA earth science budget draw protest

Update/clarification at 9:50 a.m. Friday: The Planetary Society, which the House Science Committee press release suggests supports the bill (and we reported as such at the bottom of this post), has submitted clarifying information that it actually does not.

“The Society supported language related to Planetary Science funding contained in the bill, not the full bill itself,” said Casey Dreier, director of advocacy for the Planetary Society, in an email. “This was a subtlety expressed in the press release that we want to reiterate. The Earth Science cuts prevent us from supporting the full bill.” (For more information, see: Good Planetary Support in A Flawed NASA Bill)

Original post from 4 p.m. Thursday

On Tuesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), introduced a new spending bill that would slash NASA’s earth science programs by more than $300 million. Advocates for earth science monitoring and research have voiced strong objections to this proposal.

“[W]e are extremely concerned that the reauthorization significantly cuts funding for NASA’s Earth Science Division – with cuts ranging from 18 percent, if budget caps are lifted, to 32 percent, if the caps are kept in place,” wrote Christine W. McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, in a letter to the Committee.

The committee’s press release said the bill represents an effort to “restore balance to NASA’s budget” by placing greater emphasis on space exploration – at the expense of earth science activities. The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger explains further in his reporting:

Hearings earlier this year in the Senate have likewise seen Republicans such as Ted Cruz saying NASA needs to refocus on its “core mission,” exploration.
“Since the end of the last administration, we have seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds that have been allocated to the Earth science program, at the expense of, and in comparison to, exploration and space operations, planetary science, heliophysics, and astrophysics,” Cruz said.

But Rep. Eddie Johnson (D-Tex.), the House committee’s ranking member, published an op-ed in the Hill distancing herself from the bill – which she said Republicans introduced without bipartisan negotiation. She suggested the bill is an attack on NASA’s climate science activities and fails to appreciate other critical aspects of NASA’s earth science mission, which includes supporting weather prediction, monitoring ice in the Arctic and tracking wildfires. An excerpt:

In addition to other problems in the bill, it cuts earth science funding by more than $320 million. Earth science, of course, includes climate science. Despite the fact that in January NASA announced 2014 was likely the warmest year since 1880, it should come as no surprise that the majority wants to cut funding for climate science. Embarrassingly, just last week, every single Republican member of this committee present voted against the notion that climate change might be caused by people.
Of course, NASA’s earth science program is much, much more than just climate science. The research is used by the Department of Defense to help keep our troops safe. It is used to improve electric and gas utility load forecasts and to document the variability of water available for agricultural use. It helps us understand the implications of thinning ice cover in the Arctic. It helps us predict floods, droughts and hurricanes. And it helps us track wildfires and volcanic ash. Basically, NASA’s earth science program provides critical measurements and research on planet Earth as a system and how it is changing over time.

AGU’s McEntee added:

The research performed and supported by the [NASA] division helps us understand the world we live in and provide a basis for knowledge and understanding of natural hazards, weather forecasting, air quality, and water availability, among other concerns. The applicability of these missions cannot be overstated given their impact on your constituents.

Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomer blog at Slate, penned a tirade on the committee’s move:

“[T]he evisceration of Earth sciences means this bill is seriously, critically flawed. I have written about this again and again: Republicans in the House and Senate don’t want NASA studying Earth, because they think (or say) that global warming isn’t real, or isn’t a problem, or whatever talking point they’ve been told to use this week.
. . .
If you think I’m mad, I am.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who represents Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, where many NASA earth scientists work, said she will fight the bill. Reported SpacePolicyOnline:

[T]he bill that puts at risk the 10,000 jobs at Goddard and would have “huge, deep, lasting” impacts on jobs in her [Edwards’] district and at a place where she once worked: “I will not stand by quietly and enable that to happen.”

The committee’s press release lists several outside organizations that have expressed support for the bill, including the Planetary Society and Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Additional reading:

House budget authorization mark-up slashes $500 million from NASA’s Earth science programs (Houston Chronicle – Eric Berger)

A history primer: NASA’s robust Earth Science program now under attack originated in the Reagan and Bush administrations (Houston Chronicle – Eric Berger)