NASA’s Aqua satellite file photo taken on Sept. 13, 2010, shows Arctic sea ice.
An adviser to Donald Trump says NASA should no longer conduct climate research, a proposal that has been swiftly condemned by leaders in the Earth science and climate communities.
Bob Walker, who advised the Trump campaign on space policy, told the Guardian that NASA should focus on space and leave the investigation of Earth to other parts of the government.
"We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research," Walker said. "Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission."
Climate research has been "heavily politicized" and NASA doesn’t need to conduct "politically correct environmental reporting," Walker told the Guardian.
Walker is not alone in his point of view.
In 2015, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, introduced a spending bill that would have slashed NASA’s Earth science program by more than $300 million.
At a hearing on NASA’s budget that same year, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said "a disproportionate amount of federal funds" had been allocated to the Earth science program.
But just as NASA’s Earth science program has its critics, it also has allies on both sides of the political spectrum.
Last fall, after efforts to cut NASA’s Earth science budget had failed, 15 former military leaders wrote a letter to congressional leaders, urging them to protect funding for NASA Earth science as well as geoscience programs at the National Science Foundation.
Notably, the letter was signed by retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, a Republican and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under President George W. Bush.
"These programs are essential parts of a broader whole of government and whole of society effort to provide essential data about and better scientific understanding of global, regional and local Earth processes," the letter said. "That essential data and better understanding of the underlying science are critical to many strategic planning, strategy, and investment decisions in both the private and public sectors, very much including national security."
In the wake of news Tuesday that the Trump administration may move to scrap NASA’s climate research, leaders in the Earth science community immediately voiced objection.
"Not so fast," said Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, a think tank that leads efforts in Earth and space science education. "The Trump Administration won’t want to put the American people and certainly not American business at risk. That’s what NASA science does – it helps us manage risk. It’s a security issue on many levels – national, economic, water, and food."
Marshall Shepherd, a former NASA atmospheric scientist, stressed NASA’s Earth science work was built into its mission when the agency was established through the 1958 Space Act.
"This notion that NASA should just be outwardly focused in space is not consistent with NASA’s mission," said Shepherd, now a professor at the University of Georgia.
Shepherd, also past president of the American Meteorological Society, wrote an impassioned op-ed on the significance of NASA’s Earth science last year, when the program’s budget was threatened: Cutting NASA’s earth science budget is shortsighted and a threat.
The Guardian quoted several climate scientists who blasted Walker’s proposal, including Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth said eliminating Earth science at NASA would be "a major setback if not devastating."
Still, a story in Scientific American suggested that Walker’s proposal will not necessarily become Trump policy.
"Because he is not a member of the transition team now laying the groundwork for a Trump administration, Walker says he cannot speculate about what near-term space policy decisions the president-elect will soon make," wrote Lee Billings, author of the Scientific American story.
Brian Kahn, a journalist at Climate Central, suggested advocates for NASA Earth science resist the urge to overreact. "Freaking out about NASA’s climate budget right now is unproductive," he tweeted. "We don’t know what Trump will do."