Satellite with the Earth in the background

NASA and the political climate

The Trump administration has revealed plans to axe NASA’s Earth Sciences programs. This news was revealed in this article in the Guardian, which is short and worth reading for 3 reasons:

  1. The actual statement of Trump advisor Bob Walker’s views;
  2. The rhetoric and actions associated with those views;
  3. The completely ineffective response by senior scientists quoted in the article.

Here are some reasons – both glaring and subtle – why these cuts are a bad idea, and some proposals for what to do about it.


First, before engaging in any leftist hysteria, let’s look at what was actually said.

“‘We see Nasa in an exploration role, in deep space research,’ Walker told the Guardian. ‘Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.’

‘My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing Nasa programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies. I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.’”

Reorganizing programs so that the space agency deals with space and earth agencies deal with Earth seems like a pretty reasonable position. And deep space research, going back to the glory days of crewed missions to the moon and beyond, would be a crowning jewel in Making America Great Again. It’s certainly better than sending multi-billion-dollar satellites up just so they can look back down on liberal climate navel-gazing. That’s all that Obama was doing, while he paid lip service to the idea of going to Mars and simultaneously cutting funding from deep space missions. Why are those whiny leftists so upset about common-sense reorganization like this?


Well, this warrants some explanation. I hope to provide arguments that lay out the substance of my criticism, rather than skipping to indignation. So here are my concerns:

  1. This is a misunderstanding of how earth research works: out of 12 or so key climate indicators (temperatures, cloud cover, vegetation cover, ocean algae levels, atmospheric composition, …) 50% of them are either best monitored from space or can only be monitored from space.
  2. Spaced-based Earth monitoring data also leads to cool & interesting research in other fields besides just climate change – mysterious & previously unknown total glacier collapse, or economic trends associated with land use.
  3. There is no sincere plan to move this research to other agencies.
    • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is the most likely contender, has been under Republican attack for years based on similar arguments
    • The Environmental Protection Agency is headed by a climate skeptic
    • In any case, would these “other agencies” have the budget/capacity/mandate to hire satellite engineers & rocket scientists & launch coordinators? Really?
  4. Capacity building for deep space missions will be severely compromised. Getting things to space & communicating with them is very hard, but it’s also kind of all the same. Earth monitoring missions produce lots of opportunities to practice. Both the personnel and the technology are very similar to what’s required for deep space missions.
  5. Pure deep space missions are often boring. At great expense, you can go to some faraway rock and measure how extremely unlikely it is to support life. That’s not to say there aren’t still interesting and worthwhile missions – but life is already happening down here. There’s a whole lot to see, and it directly affects us in a way that Mars and Titan do not.
  6. This threatens to effectively destroy the evidence base on climate change, protecting the Trump administration from future criticism over how much damage their actions do to the climate.
    • This is analogous to the Canadian example of Harper removing the mandatory long-form census, which erased any ability to measure his government’s performance on social or economic issues
    • Corporate interests will stand to benefit very quickly from the reduced scrutiny and accountability
  7. Finally, I want to draw attention to a pattern of Trump and his staff’s engagement with the media (pointed out on Twitter; lost the link), which is to give moderate statements in interviews followed by much more radical ones to their supporters; their actions tend to match the more radical ones, and I suspect that’s the case here. This may be contentious in general, but I think the lack of plan or support to place Earth-based science at other agencies shows it is the case here.

Ok. So those are the problems behind Walker’s seemingly reasonable statements: they betray deep ignorance of the practicalities & role of space research, and his conciliatory words are patently insincere. (There are also factual errors that should stand corrected.)


Now what do we do about it? As I said at the top, I think that indignation and loud yelling about the importance of this work are poor strategies. Clear communication is important both in science and in politics, and I’m disappointed in the responses I’ve seen thus far.

Here’s what we can do instead:

  1. Clearly and patiently explain what Earth science is done at NASA, how it fits into NASA’s expertise, and its benefits, using arguments that are more meaningful and more politically engaging than “monitoring climate change.”
  2. Fight by political means. Little more to say about this here, except: fight hard and fight smart (e.g. by appealing to your audience’s values and not just your own), and nonetheless be prepared for it to fail. This sucks, but it’s normal. Changing political regimes mean changing priorities. And we’re not done yet.
  3. Be prepared to find additional funding sources. Private companies – certainly insurance companies have substantial capital, and are paying very close attention to climate change. Consider crowdsourcing for funding; this could be quite successful given NASA’s excellent public relations. However, there’s a lot of factors to manage here, such as concrete mission objectives and avoiding political smears as “liberals’ pet project.” The Breakthrough Institute, among others, would be natural partners.
  4. Work with private space companies. SpaceX is of course a prime contender, but they’re hardly alone. All of these would be good avenues for ensuring continuity of expertise. As private companies, they could much more freely continue with “politicized” work.
  5. Don’t be afraid to go to other countries. It is highly unfortunate that so much earth monitoring capacity is subject to the whim of presidential elections. But internationally, there’s huge value in the research being done.
  6. Really, go to other countries. If the EU or China has the scientific expertise & output that America just gutted, and the international recognition formerly due to NASA, this will send a strong signal about how misguided this plan is.

As with so many other articles, the moral is: explain yourself clearly, before getting angry. And when you are angry, don’t despair: organize.

 


Addendum: some thoughts on “politicized science”

 

Note that one of Walker’s points I did not try to refute is “this is politicized science”. After a certain point, when huge swaths of the population have bitterly entrenched ideological positions either for or against an issue, it’s counterproductive to loudly yell “this is not a political issue!” as so many American scientists have done. No matter who started it.

 

But then again, all research is informed by values that are to some extent political. The important thing is to make sure your research appeals to various political perspectives. This is not to say that all research must justify itself to everyone. Basic research will always be niche, but have an appeal to curiosity and love of knowledge that can strike across the political spectrum. Applied research, especially large-scale projects dependent on societal support, should have wide-ranging interest. (Note that I didn’t say “benefit”, since that’s often very hard to define and cheapens research; nor did I say “majority support”, because that would be ridiculous and capricious.) For example, the long-form census data is useful for almost any social issue in Canada, whether you’re concerned about the decline in church attendance or about institutional barriers to LGBT people. Data is data, so it’s easy to believe this should not be political. But in earth monitoring, data is still data, only it’s very expensive data and it’s used to support a policy position that (at least in the US!) is predominantly left-wing. It’s not entirely unreasonable for this to be questioned. But I think when it is, we should have answers ready.

4 thoughts on “NASA and the political climate”

  1. Thanks for starting this blog Robert. I appreciate what you’ve done here to clearly lay out why what is about to occur is bad and what we can potentially do about it.

    I do have a question, which is, sadly, political, but at least not in the provincial domestic sense. Is it wise to side with countries that may be leading on science despite being major laggards if not oppressors of many important civil liberties? I suppose if the future of humanity is threatened then the future of minority and oppressed groups are also threatened, so it can be important to work with those who do bad things in order to afford the ability to fix them in the future? It’s just hard to stomach having scientists leave for China when the political climate there, while not science-denying in the same way, also has major issues. And this of course also fails to mention the political climate in Europe.

    I guess there isn’t a choice for which all three of the following hold {is good on human rights, has enough power to actually set up proper observation, has a political climate that isn’t going to shit}.

    1. Lol at starting the blog, when I’m so impressively inconsistent at updating it 🙂 And thanks for commenting!

      You’ve hit on a tough question. The trade-off, to the extent there is one, of science vs civil liberties is not to be taken lightly. I say “to the extent there is one” because many people, especially those in oppressed groups, simply cannot do science under those conditions. So maybe I’m a bit blasé with the suggestion. Though scientists tend to be fairly mobile, well-regarded, and privileged by view of their profession, so while individuals certainly face issues I think you’re right to ask the question at a societal level.

      More questions come to mind, too. How much would scientists’ relocation be used to legitimize violations of civil liberties? How much could it contribute in other ways, such as by increasing the technical abilities of these governments? On the other hand, can we see utility from the work that outweighs this disutility? What benefit is there to the scientists’ work, especially as it concerns setting up expectations for a freer and more equal society?

      If the US loses its stable political climate & (relative) respect for human rights, this is a huge tragedy. On the other hand, if everywhere is equally bad, then (while there’s a lot of political advocacy to do, always), you may as well pick somewhere, settle down, and do as much science as you can.

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