Just before Thanksgiving this year, a coalition of meteorologists, climatologists, biologists, ecologists, and other researchers took up a new ritual of thankfulness: tweeting the small and large ways NASA data has helped them understand planet Earth, and attaching the hashtag #ThanksNASA.
For the most part, the scientists avoided mentioning politics or political figures. But context is everything. Bob Walker, a senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, had just told The Guardian that the incoming administration planned to strip NASA’s earth science programs of funding.
“We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told The Guardian’s Oliver Milman. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.”
In the past, the Guardian story notes, Walker has described earth science as “politically correct environmental monitoring.”
In reality, earth science goes far beyond direct climate change research — and includes everything from the health of oceans to the threat of devastating solar storms in the upper atmosphere.
Dozens of scientists, including the 13 researchers who spoke to Business Insider for this story and many more who reached out on Twitter and by email, said they were rattled and dismayed by the news.
Several said that cutting earth science would represent a radical change from the mission NASA has carried out for nearly six decades.
“If you go to the Space Act that founded NASA in 1958 and then was amended under President Reagan in 1985, the very first responsibility ascribed to NASA is to understand the Earth and the atmosphere,” said Waleed Abdalati, who directs the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and served as chief scientist at NASA from 2011-12.
“It shows up before putting people in space.”
Indeed, it does. The beginning of Section 102(c) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 begins to lay out the role of NASA:
“(c) The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:
“(1) The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
“(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
“(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space.”
So far, NASA has carried out that mission with gusto under six Republican administrations and five Democratic ones. The agency’s trove of satellite data and analysis is the largest in the world and, critically, available freely on the internet for any scientist or interested person to access.
Some researchers said they didn’t recognize how much NASA data they used until it was threatened they could lose it all.
“I started going back and trying to think about what I use in my day-to-day work,” said Peter Gleick, a hydrologist who looks at the movement of water all over the world to understand and predict droughts and flooding. “The truth is, I didn’t fully comprehend the incredible diversity of products that I use that originated with a NASA satellite or an observing platform or a data archive.”