Earth observations, science, and services for the 21st century

Got that flash of déjà vu? That feeling you’ve seen the headline before, maybe even on this blog?

That’s because you have. Here are the links. The posts were written on the occasion of an AMS workshop held last November, by this title. Just yesterday, the AMS released its workshop report.

The workshop’s general premise? That humanity’s biggest 21st century challenge is Living on the Real World…sustainably. Globally and locally, we’re in the business of balancing our extraction of food, water, energy and more while at the same time protecting the environment and building resilience to hazards. That to succeed, we will need Earth observations, science, and services.

The workshop’s major finding? Earth observations, science, and services, though critical to our future, may not be there when we need them. The nation is failing to invest in this infrastructure at the levels and with the continuity required. In part this is because these capabilities are nearly invisible and/or taken for granted by the general public and even top national leaders. In part this is because our country lacks a national policy or strategy that commits to extending, using, and maintaining such know-how. In part, this is because the ways we harness our knowledge and skills to serve society are rudimentary, and because we lack an analytical framework that would allow us to assign a value to such work. [What do Earth observations, science, and services contribute to GDP? To public health and safety? To economic development? To national security? What is the monetizable and nonmonetizable benefit of such services? We don’t know the answers to these and other important questions to any accuracy.]

The workshop’s overarching recommendations? We need a new, comprehensive policy framework. It must articulate an overarching purpose and strategy for Earth observations, science, and services, and commit and sustain the resources necessary. But it must do more. It has to transform the web of public-private partnerships that support this work from the current principle-agent model into something more strategic, more capable, and more broadly collaborative. It must call for as much discipline with respect to the social science, service provision, and end use of this work as is applied to the underlying natural science and related engineering. Speaking of that natural science and engineering…we urgently need to build our knowledge and technology base. Lastly, we need to grow more nimble and adaptive. Otherwise we’ll fail to meet growing future requirements, as these evolve in response to global population increase, economic development, and social change.

A little time has elapsed between the workshop itself and this report. In that six or seven months, both independent analysis and events have underscored the importance and urgency of the workshop’s conclusions and recommendations. Case in point: The NAS/NRC just released its report entitled Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey. The report spotlights a disturbing decline in NASA’s Earth science missions in recent years; these missions are leading indicators for the future of Earth observations from space and augur poorly for future operational capabilities. Case in point: The Senate’s CJS appropriations subcommittee has recommended transferring NOAA’s satellite acquisitions to NASA. Case in point: The administration has signaled a desire to transfer NOAA from the Department of Commerce to Interior. All these stem from a view that looks on Earth observations, science, and services merely as a cost to be contained instead of the necessary means to a vital national purpose.

That’s why here at the Policy Program, and in our larger community, we’re queuing up the workshop follow-on. Thanks to all of you who participated in and contributed to the workshop and the report. Thanks to all of you who are going to roll up your sleeves and help with the continuing conversation.

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