A U.S. Earth Information Strategy?

These Authors of the ‘Decadal Survey’ Seek to Form
National Earth-Information Initiative

William B. Gail is Director of
Strategic Development within Virtual Earth at Microsoft Corporation.

Neal F. Lane is Malcolm Gillis
University Professor and Senior
Fellow of the James A. Baker III
Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, and was previously
Presidential Science Advisor and Director of the National Science Foundation.

Molly K. Macauley is Senior Fellow and Director of Academic Programs at Resources for the Future.

For both developed and developing nations, the high ground for national security and economic progress is increasingly built on effective use of information. Earth information plays a particularly important role in this mix. For the readers of Imaging Notes, this point probably needs little elaboration.

When it comes to defense and intelligence, the U.S. gets the point. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) was formed from previously independent agencies and offices in 1996 and renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in 2003—all to address the strategic importance of coordinated Earth information.

On the civil side, however, there is no such strategic planning or coordination. If you want to know what's happening with weather, you go to NOAA. If the weather is pushing around polluted air, you ask EPA. For information about the land surface, check with USGS—unless it concerns agricultural soils, in which case you work with USDA. However, if your land surface interests address the global ecosystem, then go to NASA.

When asked where NOAA's observing responsibility for biological systems starts and ends, NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher once quipped, “If it crawls out of the ocean onto the beach, it's probably still ours.”

In 2004, NASA, NOAA, and USGS began to address this strategic gap. They asked the National Research Council (NRC) to recommend a 10-year plan for U.S. Earth science and applications. That “decadal survey,” in which all three of us participated, was released in January of this year.

In establishing its recommended program of 17 new missions over the next ten years, the survey noted that decisive action is needed or a third of the nation's civil Earth observing system will be non-operational by 2010.

Following the release of the decadal survey, we wrote an op-ed in Space News (April 2) suggesting that the scientific recommendations of the survey need to be complemented by “an equally aggressive political and community vision if the observing program is to succeed.”

The need for this vision is grounded in the lack of a national civil Earth information strategy. As our op-ed noted, responsibilities of our institutions “are in many cases mismatched with their authority and resources, mandates are inconsistent with their charters, and shared responsibilities are poorly supported by mechanisms for cooperation.”

Evidence for these inconsistencies comes from the ongoing delays in establishing a real governmental home for Landsat, the failure of NASA to develop a viable Earth Observing System (EOS) follow-on, the loss of critical climate measurements from NPOESS, recent funding woes for both NPOESS and GOES, and more.

We proposed that the nation commit to a National Earth-Information Initiative to re-evaluate the national process of collecting and using civil Earth information, including the effectiveness of governmental organizations, the relationship between government functions and private sector activities, and the ability to effectively connect scientific developments to societal uses.

The initiative itself is simple in concept. A blue-ribbon panel, including both government and non-government leaders, will be appointed to recommend how the U.S. should restructure its end-to-end approach to Earth information—starting with scientific research and ending with the societal uses of Earth information. The panel will complete its work by 2010.

A subsequent letter to the editor of Space News from NOAA Administrator Lautenbacher (April 30) concurred with the value of the initiative but suggested that the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) fulfills this role.

GEOSS arose from the 2003 Earth Observation Summit where 34 nations agreed to develop a “comprehensive, coordinated, and sustained” international Earth observation system. Today, this effort has evolved into the 66-nation Group on Earth Observation (GEO), headquartered in Geneva, which leads the GEOSS effort. The U.S. contribution falls under the auspices of a 15-agency U.S. Group on Earth Observations (USGEO) reporting to the White House.

Number of U.S. space-based Earth observations missions and instruments in the current decade. Emphasis on climate and weather is evident as is the decline in number of instruments near the end of the decade. SOURCE: Information from NASA and NOAA websites for mission durations. For the period from 2007 to 2010, missions were generally assumed to operate for four years past their nominal lifetimes. Most of the missions were deemed to contribute at least slightly to human health issues and so health is not presented as a separate category.

We believe that GEOSS and the USGEO activities fall short of the objectives of the National Earth-Information Initiative for several reasons.

First, GEOSS is an international framework with formal obligations. The primary purpose of the USGEO is to ensure that the nation's Earth observing system meets GEOSS obligations. It is not to enhance or improve the U.S. system, except as required to satisfy these obligations.

Second, our op-ed noted deep problems with the overarching U.S. approach to Earth information. In contrast, GEOSS presumes that the U.S. system is structurally and fundamentally sound—that what is needed is simply to “connect the scientific dots” (language from the USGEO). GEOSS is thus grounded in a different set of assumptions from those of the initiative.

Third, GEOSS is predicated on doing more with existing resources. While an admirable goal, this certainly constrains what can be proposed or accomplished, and does not allow any recourse for the dramatic decline in NASA's Earth observing budget over the last five to seven years.

Fourth, whereas the USGEO strategic plan does envision much of what an initiative would accomplish, the actual implementation appears to be much more constrained. USGEO has limited influence on the direction of NASA's Earth science program and has not been able to ensure a robust U.S. climate observation program. The natural workings of U.S. government agencies make GEOSS an afterthought—an effort to shoehorn previously established agency plans into the GEOSS structure.

The decadal survey made a critical point that both our op-ed and Administrator Lautenbacher's letter echoed: “the aggressive pursuit of understanding the Earth as a system—and the effective application of that knowledge for society's benefit—will increasingly distinguish those nations that achieve and sustain prosperity from those that do not.” Other nations have developed national strategies. The U.S. must do the same.

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